8 Crucial Steps in Order to Conduct Disruptive Change

John P. Kotter developed a change process, which describes eight stages of a successful organizational change. These stages are sorted by the timeline given from a complete change, beginning with the planning of the change and ending with the successful transformation. Kotter in this model often underlines the importance of leadership and communication skills. The eight stages are described as follows:


  • Establishing a Sense of Urgency

In the first stage, all stakeholders need to establish a sense of urgency. They have to feel in a way that the planned change is important and needed for the organizational success. “Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. With complacency high, transformations usually go nowhere.”[1] There are various methods to accomplish this. For example

  • using the reference to a clear danger,
  • adding (showing) value to the organization and
  • benchmarking current organizational practices.[2]

One of the preferred ways should be, to show the value the planned change will ship, and to make sure, all stakeholders will understand the idea, and determine for themselves that the planned change is really a good thing and is needed.



  • Creating the Guiding Coalition

Kotter arguments that teams and coalitions always outperform individuals when it comes to change. Individual Leaders should not work and fight for the change alone. He recommends setting up a group of people, who will actively work on the change planning and conduction and who propagate the change to others. “This group will help provide the leadership for change as well as the integrity, authority, and influence needed to successfully execute the transformation.”[3]


Due to Kotter, the guiding coalition’s members must have extraordinary potential in four specific areas for the team to succeed: position power, expertise, credibility, and leadership. Concerning these characteristics, the appropriate balance of those areas is very important. For example “a guiding coalition of good managers and poor leaders will not succeed”[4] because the managerial skills only keep the change process under control whilst the leadership capabilities drive the change[5]. The following illustration will show the delimitation of leadership and management:


Figure 1 Management Versus Leadership (due to Kotter 1996)


  • Developing a Vision and Strategy

Most individuals follow and pursuit short term wins and goals. Most organizational changes however are planned and conducted with a long-term prospective. In order to lead individuals to pursuit long-term goal, a vision can be helpful. The purpose of a vision is to motivate people, to achieve something that may not be purely in their short term interest.[6] Due to Ryan, a good vision constitutes of the following characteristics:

o   It is imaginable

o   It is desirable (there is a sense of urgency)

o   It is feasible

o   It is focused

o   It is flexible

o   It is communicable


Additionally, as the task for creating the vision is at the leader, Ryan also emphasizes that a good vision can only be developed “by spending time with people, engaging them in debate about what is possible and what is desirable.”[7] Thus, creating a vision is, like creating the guiding coalition, highly dependent on interpersonal skills like communication and team-building.


  • Communicating the Change Vision

Large changes and the corresponding visions develop over time. During the process, the guiding coalition’s members undergo various situations and challenges, where they have to stand enormous intellectual and emotional pressure since the change of course not only affects the employee’s futures, it also affects the guiding coalition’s member’s futures. It is a great threat to underestimate the magnitude of the task. Due to Kotter, the only way to circumvent this issue is to keep it simple. “The time and energy required for effective vision communication are directly related to the clarity and simplicity of the message”[8]. “Simplicity” and other communication principles will be elaborated further in chapter 3.3.


  • Empowering Employees for Broad-based Action

Empowering employees is based on a leadership principle known as path-goal theory by Beitler (2006).[9] The path-goal theory is “a direct extension of the expectancy theory of motivation, […] it suggests that the primary functions of a leader are to make valued or desired awards available in the workplace and to clarify for the subordinates the kinds of behavior that will lead to goal accomplishment and valued rewards”[10]. In order to achieve this task, barriers to empowerment described by Kotter needs to be overmastered. The following Illustration shows common barriers:


Figure 2 Model of “Barriers to Empowerment”, Kotter (1996)


  • Generating Short-Term Wins

“What use is a vision if it is not known, heard, spoken, and shared? Periodic reminders of the […] vision, including reflections upon short-term victories and their implications, are essential during all stages”[11] of a change process. The individuals who are working on conducting the change need to get an idea of their works impact and results. If these people do not get any short-term wins and benefits as a result of working hard, the overall motivation will drop quickly. Thus besides living the vision for the long-term goal, leaders must create and celebrate short-term wins of the organization. Due to Kotter, a short-term win should have these three characteristics:

o   High Visibility – the majority of the employees should experience the result as being real and not hype.

o   No ambiguity – the result should be clear.

o   A clear relation to the change effort.[12]


  • Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

There is a big temptation and risk for managers to celebrate the overall efforts and results of a change too soon. A premature victory celebration kills momentum, because people who have been resisting the transformation effort see the declaration of victory as an opportunity to stop change.[13] It is therefore better to wait longer until real and profound results have been achieved, or to plan and seek for smaller goals and milestones that can be reached faster. If the leadership team is capable to keep up momentum and to teach the organization to produce even more change, a first step toward a so-called “learning organization” has been made. The “learning organization” will be described in chapter 3.4.


  • Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

The “anchoring” phase is most likely the same as the “refreezing” phase described above. The goal is to save the new learning and achievements the organization made and to anchor it within the corporate culture. Corporate culture and psychological aspects will be discussed in chapter 3.2.2. The anchoring process makes sure that progress made during the change will “survive and flourish as the organization faces new challenges and opportunities”[14].


[1] Kotter, J.P. (1996), p.36

[2] Cp. Englund, R.L.; et. Al. (2003), p.33

[3] Gilley, J.; Gilley, A. (2003), p.84

[4] Kotter, J.P. (1996), p.58

[5] Cp. Kotter, J.P. (1996), p.57

[6] Cp. Ryan, R. (2007) p.63

[7] Ryan, R. (2007) p.64

[8] Kotter, J.P. (1996), p.89

[9] Cp. Sabri, E.H.; et. Al. (2006), p.180

[10] Griffin, W.R. (2007), p.334

[11] Saxena, A. (2008), p.197

[12] Cp. Kotter, J.P. (1996), p.122

[13] HBS School Press (2008), p.81

[14] Saxena, A. (2008), p.200

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