• Michael P Callahan

Agile and the Kotter Model for Organizational Change

In 1995 John Kotter wrote the article, “Leading Change – Why Transformation Efforts Fail” for the Harvard Business Review. Since then, the eight-step process for change has become legendary and is taught, discussed, and widely accepted by the business community as a model for organizational change.

The process seems simple enough, it consists of:

1. Create Urgency

2. Form a Powerful Coalition

3. Create a Vision for Change

4. Communicate the Vision

5. Remove Obstacles

6. Create Short-Term Wins

7. Build on the Change

8. Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture

Throughout my career as an agile transformation consultant I have consistently seen Kotter quoted regularly in the efforts. Nearly each initiative goes to great lengths to create a “guiding coalition” to lead the change but from there, the anti-patterns expressed in Kotter’s book, “Leading Change” appear more to be a script to follow and not obstacles to be avoided.

It leaves me asking the question, why?

A Divided Coalition

Many years ago, while engaged with a client in a transformation effort, a civil war broke out in the guiding coalition.

On the one side, a group wanted to work through the Kotter model and invest the time and effort to be successful. They were chided by resistors to be focused on a “top-down” transformation approach and told, “it was not agile”. Those resistors were of a mindset that change needed to be done from the bottom-up and that the right way was to start creating and launching small teams with a vision that over time, agile would become part of the culture.

The battle between the “bottom-up” and “top-down” alliances raged, and the result was a convoluted mess, with no middle ground, or real business value achieved.

It did not end well.

The Framework Wars

The quest to achieve business agility requires a top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side effort. Today, brand-wars have helped to erode working together to find the right fit, not the right prescription, for each individual transformation effort.

Over the years, agile has been hijacked by “brands”. Advocates tend to take sides in the battle for market share. Battle lines are drawn between proponents of one framework or another.

This leads to a view of implementing a framework as the goal, rather than looking at the benefits of agility as the value and the frameworks are merely a means to an end. Because of this, implementation of the frameworks become more and more about changing processes and vernacular of the organization rather than building a value-focused culture.

This creates an environment where the Kotter model crumbles. There is no inspiration to be found in changing policies and procedures. Guiding coalitions become contentious debates surrounding this “brand” or that. Even the high-dollar consultants can tend to sabotage the transformation based upon their own framework biases.

There is no urgency, the coalition is divided, and the vision is largely uninspiring.

Focus on the Goals of the Business

As you embark on an agile transformation, or re-boot an attempt that has shown lackluster results, be sure to focus on the goals of the organization and the benefits of agility before any agile “brands” are brought into the equation.

If your goals are to build customer satisfaction this thinking would begin with creating a definition of your customers and what would make them happy. From there you can evaluate the frameworks from a place of the need and not from the preference of brand advocates within the organization.

This focus will allow your organization to rally around an inspiring vision and begin the transformation from a place that maximizes the chances of making true, sustainable, cultural change within your organization.

Then the implementation begins in the small. Now is the time that a bottom-up approach can start to achieve some of the short-term wins in the Kotter model and all along, the new, empowered teams can help be a part of achieving not only implementing agile, but propelling your organization towards realization of achieving your vision through the benefits of agility.

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About Michael Callahan

Michael is the Founder and Principal Consultant for Mindset180 LLC. He has been engaged in agile for both development and non-development teams, programs and at the enterprise level since 2002. He has been a transformation consultant/agile coach for the past 8 years and has worked with multiple clients, mostly in the healthcare and financial services industries.

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