Kotter's Change Model

From the beginning of our history, life has been driven by survival. Once the first unicellular cell evolved into a multicellular organism to survive and thrive, it started a reaction, a race of changes that never stopped, and this race is called evolution. In life, an organism has only two choices: whether to stay the same or to adapt to its environment and have better chances of survival. Our society is the same, and this situation also applies to our business environment, where organizations and companies need to adapt and change to stay relevant and survive. 

Kotter's Change Model Kotter's Change Model

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Table of contents

    Making changes in large organizations is notoriously difficult and often fails. However, various change management models can help leaders and organizations implement those changes. This explanation will dig deeper into Kotter's change model: we will explain all the steps of Kotter's method, provide a practical example, and discuss its advantages and disadvantages.

    Kotter's Change Model Theory

    Let's start this explanation by stating why, especially now, companies need to change and adapt:

    We are currently in a complicated macroeconomic environment with high inflation and tough competition. As a result, companies face pressure from everywhere; they must be more productive, bring more sales, be more environmentally and socially responsible, etc. Furthermore, some companies face even more challenges and structural changes with downsizing or mergers and acquisitions (M&A).

    In other words, companies are pressured to improve and change. But changing a company is not easy, and people often resist those changes. It's why organizations use change management models and techniques to help them.

    Change management is a process that helps an organization adapt to change and evolution.

    John P. Kotter developed an effective 8-step model to help companies and leaders implement organizational changes. He first published this model in 1995 in a book called "Leading Change." Since then, Kotter has been considered a leader in organizational change management.2

    Application of Kotter's Change Model

    Transformation is a process, not an event.1

    John P. Kotter

    As John P. Kotter put it, leading change is a transformation that takes time, it is not an event that happens overnight. It takes a lot of planning and preparation before the transformation itself.

    According to Kotter, companies fail to change for various reasons: they need a clear vision and a team to lead the change, but people get too complacent and don't see the urgency to change. That's why he created a model to help those companies operate changes.

    Kotter is one of many leaders in change management; Kurt Lewin created another famous model in 1940. It's a straightforward three steps model: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing.

    • Unfreezing: the first step is about unfreezing the status quos. Determines what needs to be changed and communicates to the employee the importance of bringing changes to people's work. The idea of this step is to prepare the organization to change.
    • Changing: once people are ready for the changes, it's time to operate the organizational changes the company needs. The company must keep up with the momentum of changes and ensure everyone actively does it.
    • Refreezing: once the changes have been implemented, people mustn't return to their habits. This stage is about solidifying those changes and ensuring the new ones stay in the organization.

    Check out our explanation of Lewin's Change Model for more information.

    Kotter's 8-Step Change Model

    As mentioned earlier, Kotter's model of change management has eight steps2:

    1. Establishing a sense of urgency - The first step is critical, giving the "kick in the can" and setting the changing process in motion. Everyone must understand why the company needs to change and why it is urgent. People are generally reluctant to change, but if you explain why the organization needs to change and the urgency of the situation, they might be more willing to participate.

    2. Creating the guiding coalition - At the center of every change, a team must guide it. Even the best CEO can't make a change of such magnitude alone. That's why they need to gather a group of people that will help guide the change the company will go through. This team should be influential people with power within the organization, expertise, credibility, and leadership positions.

    3. Developing a vision and strategy - A vision is essential to the company as it shows where the organization is heading and can motivate people to reach that goal. Nobody knows where the organization is heading without a clear vision, which is demotivating. This vision has to be something that everyone within the organization must work toward and want to achieve.

    4. Communicating the change vision - If the company has an excellent vision for the future, everyone must know it and understand that whatever they do is part of that bigger picture. This communication will help them reach that goal. As a result, it's crucial that the management effectively communicate this vision with everyone.

    5. Empowering employees for broad-based action - This step is about making the changes within the company to empower people to act and let them participate in the change. The organization needs to train their employee and make the structural changes necessary to allow changes to happen.

    6. Generating short-term wins - Sometimes, a great vision might seem far away, like an unreachable goal. It can be demotivating to see that reaching a goal will only be possible in years. That's why it's important to create short-term goals that the organization can reach. Those short-term wins are a sign of progress that the company is moving in the right direction.

    7. Consolidating gains and producing more change - Once you start the change process, you should always continue the work towards the final goal. You must ensure that you make progress every day and that people notice it. Otherwise, people might get complacent and stop moving towards that goal.

    8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture - Once changes are made, it's essential to ensure that the company doesn't return to its old ways; otherwise, all the work done so far would be wasted. The organization must anchor those changes to the company's culture.

    Kotter's 8-Step Change Model Example

    Let's take a hypothetical example of a company that creates chemical products. It's a hazardous job, and accidents occur from time to time. A new CEO came into that company when an employee, unfortunately, passed away due to an accident in the factory. The new management decided to implement a zero-accident policy to ensure that this accident will never happen again.

    1. Establishing a sense of urgency - The new CEO organized an emergency meeting with all the company's leaders to analyze the incident. They quickly realized that the worker didn't follow the safety procedure; if they had done so, the incident wouldn't have happened. Some might argue that it's the worker's fault, but the CEO stated that this accident is a shared responsibility, that it is in everyone's hands, and that they need to change the company to ensure it doesn't happen again.

    2. Creating the guiding coalition - After this meeting, the CEO starts to gather a special team from every department and level of the organization. Those are all influential and respected people within the company. Most importantly, they are all motivated and want to reduce the number of accidents within the company.

    3. Developing a vision and strategy - The CEO's goal is simple; they want the company to have no major accidents within three years. To reach this goal, the CEO believes that it's not only the worker's responsibility but the company culture that must change at every level. Their goal is that everyone within the company becomes obsessed with safety.

    4. Communicating the change vision - The CEO organized a big meeting with everyone in the company and shared the vision in a way that could not be challenged (who would argue against working in safer conditions?). The CEO also adds that all the new safety processes that will be implemented and seem more time-consuming will be safer and save the organization time and money in the long run, as they will help avoid future accidents.

    5. Empowering employees for broad-based action - The CEO hires new people to redesign all their safety procedures, welcomes feedback, and even rewards employees who find new ways to improve safety. The company also gives more safety training to all the employees, installs new, safer materials, and even changes the company's structure.

    6. Generating short-term wins - Thankfully, not all accidents are mortal; some are quite small but still do count as an incident. The company decided to rate incidents in minor, moderate, and serious categories. The company used to have one serious incident, 20 moderate incidents, and 100 minor incidents per month. The CEO then set challenging monthly goals to reduce the number of monthly incidents - e.g., 0 serious incidents, 10 moderate incidents, and 50 small incidents. The CEO will lower the bar for those incidents until they reach their objective of 0.

    7. Consolidating gains and producing more change - The company sees significant improvement and a considerable reduction in incidents. Whenever a new incident occurs, it's an opportunity to create a new procedure, make further changes, and ensure everyone follows those new rules. The company mustn't allow people to get complacent.

    8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture - Once the company finally reach its target of 0 incident, it must continue its work and promote safety.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Kotter's Change Model

    As with every change management, there are advantages but also disadvantages in Kotter's change model that you must be aware of before trying to implement it within your organization:

    • Easy-to-follow process.

    • The model is well-known and has proven successful for many years.

    • The model focuses a lot on the employee, which is generally one aspect that fails in change management.

    • The model doesn't take into consideration long-term implications after the changes.

    • The steps of the model are not so easily discernible when they are applied, and companies work on several steps simultaneously.

    • Although the model might seem simple, it takes months or even years to plan and implement.

    Table 1. Advantages and Disadvantages of Kotter's Change Model

    Changes are a natural part of evolution; we shouldn't necessarily fear or resist them but try to make the most out of them. Some management theories, like Lewin's or Kotter's eight steps model, can help organizations make changes and evolve.

    Kotter's Change Model - Key takeaways

    • Change management is a process that helps an organization adapt to changes and evolution.
    • Lewin's change management model is a straightforward three steps process: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing.
    • There are eight steps in Kotter's change model:
      1. Establishing a sense of urgency.

      2. Creating the guiding coalition.

      3. Developing a vision and strategy.

      4. Communicating the change vision.

      5. Empowering employees for broad-based action.

      6. Generating short-term wins.

      7. Consolidating gains and producing more change.

      8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture.


    1. Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/26977.John_P_Kotter
    2. John P. Kotter. Leading change. 2012
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kotter's Change Model

    What are the steps in Kotter's change model? 

    The steps in Kotter's change model are as follows:

    1. Establishing a sense of urgency.
    2. Creating the guiding coalition.
    3. Developing a vision and strategy.
    4. Communicating the change vision.
    5. Empowering employees for broad-based action.
    6. Generating short-term wins.
    7. Consolidating gains and producing more change.
    8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture.

    What are the main advantages of Kotter's 8-step process? 

    The advantages of Kotter's 8-step process are:

    • Easy-to-follow process. 
    • The model is well-known and has proven successful for many years.
    • The model focuses a lot on the employee, which is generally one aspect that fails in change management.

    When was Kotter's change model developed? 

    Kotter's model was first published in a book called "leading change" in 1995.

    How do you use Kotter's 8-step change model? 

    Kotter's 8-step model is used to help organizations plan for and operates significant changes within an organization. 

    Why use Kotter's change model? 

    Changes in organizations are notoriously difficult as people are resistant to changes. Significant changes take time, and it is preferable to be well-prepared. Kotter's model can help the company prepare and visualize the steps necessary to operate changes successfully.  

    What is Kotter's 8-step change model? 

    It's a management model developed by John P. Kotter to help implement organizational changes in an organization. 

    What is the difference between Kotter's and Lewin's models? 

    Lewin's change model is a three-step model taking into consideration the preparation, the change, and the state after the change. Kotter's is an eight steps model that focuses more on the people and the impact of the changes within the organization. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Is communicating the change vision one of Kotter's steps in the change model?

    Is erasing habits one of the steps of Kotter's change model?

    Is generating short-term wins a step of Kotter's change model?

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