Crisis planning using Kotter’s change management processc

by | Mar 30, 2020 | Strategy

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, our organizations are being forced to change and adapt. Some organizations are more directly impacted than others. For example, the restaurant industry has been forced to adapt and only provide curbside pick up and deliveries. I have heard stories of restaurants making quick changes to keep the business running and others than have had to close temporarily or permanently.

We might be tempted to wait this situation out, but I think it would be more valuable to develop a focus for the upcoming weeks and months. This focus can help us survive this downturn and come out with a competitive advantage.

John Kotter’s book Leading Change is considered a classic book on organizational change management. For this blog, I have utilized his eight-step process for creating change to demonstrate how organizations can navigate change during these challenging times.

1. “Establishing a sense of urgency”

We begin by identifying the crisis that we are experiencing. Change is hard, and urgency can help people understand the need for change. Many of us are experiencing this urgency right now. We need to ask, “How is COVID-19 really affecting our organization?” Many organizations are adjusting to a remote workforce. Others are seeing a demand for sales decrease or sometimes increase. We also need to ask, “What opportunities does this crisis present for our organization?” This time is a great opportunity to innovate, increase productivity, better document processes, and train employees.

2. “Creating the guiding coalition”

An influential team is important to lead the change management process. We want to include those people who have the necessary skills and power to lead change throughout the entire organization. Are there certain areas within the organization that might try to resist change? If so, plan the team accordingly. We want to include those with strong credibility to ensure people will listen and accept their direction. The team should not just include the senior management. We want to make sure the team will include diverse perspectives especially frontline employees and middle managers. Once the team is selected, it is time to build trust and mutual goals. Trust can be built through time together openly discussing the organization’s challenges and opportunities and being deliberate about developing psychological safety among the members.  

3. “Developing a vision and strategy”

The guiding coalition must work to develop a vision for the organization. Kotter suggests, “If you cannot describe your vision to someone in five minutes and get their interest, you have more work to do in this phase of a transformation process” (p. 81). The vision and strategy can be a multiple page document and also a more concise statement that is shared more often. If the organization is particularly impacted by the current crisis, we might develop a vision for how the company will operate in the coming months. Perhaps we will focus on innovation, improving customer relationships, documenting processes, or training team members. The strategy might also include multiple scenarios and how the organization will respond to them. It is very important that the guiding coalition is involved with the development of the vision and strategy and have buy in.

Kotter shares an example of a clear and focused vision:

“The vision driving our department’s reengineering effort is simple. We want to reduce our costs by at least 30 percent and increase the speed with which we can respond to customers by at least 40 percent. These are stretch goals, but we know based on the pilot project in Austin that they are achievable if we all work together. When this is completed, in approximately three years, we will have leapfrogged our biggest competitors and achieved all the associated benefits: better customers, increased revenue growth, more job security, and the enormous pride that comes from great accomplishments.” (p. 81)

4. “Communicating the change vision”

During this time of uncertainty, we probably cannot overcommunicate where we are going as an organization. We need to use all available forms of communication to ensure our organization is fully aware of where we are going. The message needs to clear, concise, and free of jargon. Kotter points out the importance of addressing “seeming inconsistencies” (p. 99) by describing a company’s vision to reduce unnecessary spending but continuing to provide private jets for the executives. That inconsistency can stall change management efforts and must be addressed, or we must communicate a compelling reason for the inconsistency. In addition, the guiding coalition plays a key role in the vision’s implementation by role modeling the desired change/

5. “Empowering broad-based action”

Once the vision is communicated, employees must be empowered to implement. The guiding coalition should spend some time determining how to empower employees and remove barriers. Barriers to empower employees must be eliminated, and Kotter identifies four common barriers: (1) “ Formal structures make it difficult to act,” (2) “A lack of needed skills undermines action,” (3) Personnel and information systems make it difficult to act,” and (4) “Bosses discourage actions aimed at implementing the new vision” (p. 106). When we change the way our organization operates, we need to make sure we spend adequate time training employees for the expected change. In addition, we need to align the efforts of each organizational department, division, etc., with the new vision. Performance evaluations should be aligned with the vision.

6. “Generating short-term wins”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created anxiety within our organizations related to concerns about the illness and its financial implications. We need to make sure we have developed a vision and strategy that will allow us to celebrate short-term wins. In times of crisis, we might develop weekly, monthly, or quarterly metrics for short-term wins to keep the organization focused on where we are going. Kotter writes, “A good short-term win has at least these three characteristics: (1) “It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype,” (2) “It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call,” and (3) “It’s clearly related to the change effort” (p. 126).

7. “Consolidating gains and producing more change”

Step 7 can be one of the longest lasting steps in the change management process. Leaders need to think long term about their organization. As we generate short-terms wins, we work to take on larger scale changes that align with our vision. Shifting responsibilities, new skills, or additional staffing might be needed to more fully achieve the vision. The role of managers continues to be very important to articulate the vision and communicate the urgency for change.

Kotter emphasizes the need to eliminate “unnecessary interconnections” by sharing how many organizations have developed unnecessary barriers over time to achieve the new vision. He writes:

“Cleaning up historical artifacts does create an even longer change agenda, which an exhausted organization will not like. But the purging of unnecessary interconnections can ultimately make a transformation much easier. And in a world where change is increasingly the norm rather than the exception, cleaning house can also make all future reorganizing efforts or strategic shifts less difficult.” (pp. 149-150)

8. “Anchoring new approaches in the culture”

Throughout these challenging times, we might make changes that become competitive advantages, and we ultimately want these types of changes to be rooted in the culture of the organization. If you are focusing on improving productivity during this time of crisis, this vision if fully adopted by the culture will ultimately make your organization stronger in the long run. When our organizations see the results that come from our changes, the new way of doing business will become part of the culture.

I sincerely hope the coming weeks and months are a time for your organization to adapt and change in ways that will make you stronger in the future.

Reference: Kotter, J.P. (2012). Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press.