Thinking about Kotter’s change model

Jo-Louise Huq (Ph.D., MBA) & Kathryn York (MBA, B. Comm)

June 2019

Kotter’s eight step Leading Change model emerged around 1995. The original model was revised in 2012 to reflect an increased pace of change in organizations and to address the original model’s top-down approach to change.[1] Kotter’s eight steps are as follows.

  1. Create sense of urgency – recognize a big opportunity and spark excitement among employees.
  2. Build a guiding coalition – an internal team that will manage, guide, coordinate and communicate change and change activities.
  3. Form strategic initiative – align change with the organization’s strategic vision.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army – inspire broad employee support of the change, provide volunteers meaningful opportunities and activities to contribute to success.
  5. Enable action – remove barriers like inefficient processes and hierarchies so that the coalition and volunteers can work to effect change.
  6. Generate short term wins – pay attention to and recognize daily, weekly or monthly short-term wins, focus on incremental goals and celebrate small and large achievements.
  7. Sustain acceleration – adapt quickly and often and balance change management (planning, budgeting and organizing) and change leadership (establishing direction, motivating and aligning employees).
  8. Institute change – continually and transparently communicate the connection between employees’ new, changed behaviors and the organization’s success. Show employees why change is valuable and keep them on track.

Kotter’s model highlights the importance of recruiting and involving people outside of an organization’s leadership and management team in change initiatives. Broad involvement is critically important for change.

As we are always interested in whether change models have been empirically assesses we looked to the change management literature for insights. We did not find much. However, in 2012, Appelbaum, Habashy, Malo, & Shafiq (2012) published a paper that reviewed literature on change management for each of the eight steps defined in Kotter’s model. Their goal was to identify support for each step of Kotter’s model by reviewing 15 years of empirical studies of change management.

  • First, Applebaum et al. (2012) remind us that Kotter’s model was built from one man’s experience with change. While there has been support for the model no research has covered the entire model.
  • Second, they suggest that Kotter’s model presents a useful “how-to” overview of change and may be useful for change/ implementation planning.
  • Third, they recommend the use of complementary tools during implementation to ensure and support adaptation to local contextual factors and obstacles.

To us this last point is critically important because Kotter’s model does not address the challenges of encouraging and implementing change in established and professionalized organizations.[2][3] More on this in future blog posts.


[1] Kotter, J.P (1995). Leading Change: Why change fails. Harvard business review. Available here: http://www.lighthouseconsultants.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Kotter-Leading-Change-Why-transformation-efforts-fail.pdf

Kotter, J. P. (2008). Leading change. Harvard business press.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard business press.

[2] Huq, J. L., & Woiceshyn, J. (2019). Disrupting activities in quality improvement initiatives: a qualitative case study of the QuICR Door-To-Needle initiative. BMJ quality & safety, bmjqs-2018.

[3] Woiceshyn, J., Huq, J. L., Blades, K., & Pendharkar, S. R. (2019). Microdynamics of Implementing Planned Change on Organizations’ Front Line. Journal of Change Management, 1-22.


Published by CCIG | Collaborating, Changing, Innovating, EnGaging

I am a 'pracademic,' a practitioner of collaborative change and innovation who also conducts and publishes research on collaboration, change, and innovation. This is my personal blog, and I use it to communicate about my and other's research, publications, and ideas related to change, innovation, and collaboration.

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