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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

"Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail"

Most leaders understand that change is hard, but few think systematically about how to get their organization moving in a different direction - and how to make it stick. After spending more than a decade driving change in Montgomery County, I think the best advice for anyone trying to change how a company, agency, or group operates is in "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail," an article by John Kotter published by the Harvard Business Review in 1995. Kotter, an academic and consultant, says no one thing guarantees success - but lots of things can stop it. He says eight things are needed:

1. A sense of urgency. When a business is on the brink of bankruptcy, it's a lot easier to persuade the board, management, employees, and unions to support change. Without a crisis, people are much less willing to do anything that makes them uncomfortable, much less work together to transform an organization. Unfortunately, the best hope for averting a crisis is usually to take action before the problem becomes obvious, at which point the money (and political capital) to support a transition to new approaches may be limited.

Kotter says a leader who wants to build support for change must "facilitate a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts." Depending on the organization, this might mean declining tax revenues, profits, or donations. In a place like Montgomery County, where the federal government's spending cushions the blow of economic downturns and insulates many people from the effects of bad decisions at the state and local level, the case for change must be especially compelling to shake off a sense of complacency.

2. Build a powerful coalition. An initiative for change usually begins with one or two people, but Kotter says that the group of insiders at all levels of the organization must grow in order for change to succeed. This means that a leader must bring people into the fold, helping develop a common understanding of the organization's challenges, building trust and facilitating communication. These people may have varying levels of seniority or responsibility, but the person at the top of the organization must buy in.

In advocacy circles a great deal of attention is devoted to whether top-down (elite/insider) or bottom-up (grassroots) efforts are most effective in catalyzing change. In my experience, support for and resistance to change in government can come from the top (elected and appointed officials, such as members of the County Council or Planning Board), middle (staff members and experts within the government) or bottom (grassroots activists and advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or Action Committee for Transit). Success is most likely when an idea has support from at least two out of these three levels, so the question is not top-down versus bottom-up but rather how to build support at different levels.

3. Articulate a vision. Advocates for change must be able to paint a picture of the future that is readily communicated and appeals to the organization's constituencies, such as employees, shareholders, or residents. The vision should explain where the organization needs to go in a clear and compelling way, avoiding too much detail and complexity.

When I served as Planning Board chair, I explained how I was trying to change the Parks Department's focus as an effort to make it more active, urban, and social - meaning that parks should be designed to (1) encourage people of all ages and abilities to be more physically active (2) adapt to the needs of a rapidly urbanizing county, and (3) facilitate social interaction and human connection. These ideas were elaborated in great detail in planning documents, but they could be explained in a few sentences or even a few words.

4. (Over)communicate the vision. Leaders often think that if they simply tell the people in their organization about a proposed change in direction that action will follow. The truth is that for most employees, what they hear the CEO, president, or chair of their organization say goes in one ear and out the other - especially if they hear it only once or twice.

Kotter points out that most organizations have lots of different communication tools, from newsletters, weekly staff meetings, and e-mail updates to annual retreats. In fact, almost everything an organization does - departmental budget reviews, individual performance evaluations, awards ceremonies, you name it - represents an opportunity to communicate where the organization is trying to go and how it plans to get there. The coalition supporting change must take advantage of as many avenues of communication as possible to explain the new direction and reinforce the specific steps that will make it possible. They must do it repeatedly and relentlessly - even when they are sick of talking about it.

My view is that overcommunication is perhaps the most important factor in implementing change. In the areas where I succeeded - such as highlighting the connection between housing and economic development or prioritizing bike and pedestrian infrastructure - I tried to use every opportunity to talk and write about the issue.

5. Remove obstacles to change. Particularly in government, where personnel rules sharply limit the ability of leaders to hire and fire even high-ranking managers, longtime employees often resist change simply by slow-rolling decisions in hopes they can wait out elected or appointed leaders who are trying to implement new ideas. Leaders attempting transformational change must think hard about how to persuade or co-opt internal opponents of change or at least find ways to limit their ability to throw sand in the gears. As Elizabeth Warren says, personnel is policy, so new hires, along with promotions, represent especially important opportunities to institutionalize support for change.

In many organizations the urge is powerful to water down change in the name of compromise or balance, even after changes have been implemented successfully. Kotter describes how a company he advised implemented changes championed by the CEO, but the board of directors also insisted on promoting a top manager who opposed the changes. When the CEO retired, the opposing manager took over and promptly reversed course.

6. Notch some short-term wins. People grow impatient quickly, and even when they recognize the need for change they lose confidence in a new approach if it fails to produce results quickly. Kotter says leaders have about 18 to 24 months to show that their ideas are working, so they should make sure they can deliver something visible in that time period even if they recognize that transformation cannot be completed for many years.

I spent more than a decade pushing for more urban parks, but most of the properties the Parks Department acquired in Silver Spring, Bethesda and Wheaton during my tenure are not yet developed, a process that takes several years. That's one of the reasons I focused on natural surface trails, which can built at low cost, and on improved maintenance for athletic fields, which quickly produces noticeable improvements for park patrons. Long-term thinking is great, but leaders need to find ways to show that they are making a difference to win over skeptics and build support for broader and deeper change.

7. Avoid the temptation to declare victory. Leaders can and should celebrate wins to build morale, share credit, and highlight how change is making an organization better and more successful, but declaring victory too soon is dangerous. Changes that have not been baked into an organization's culture and broadly accepted by both internal and external constituencies are vulnerable to reversal. Kotter says:

Typically, the problems start early in the process: the urgency level is not intense enough, the guiding coalition is not powerful enough, and the vision is not clear enough. But it is the premature victory celebration that kills momentum. And then the powerful forces associated with tradition take over.

I spent a lot of time and energy working to dismantle the rules that imposed a moratorium on housing construction in areas with crowded schools, making the case that turnover of existing houses is responsible for a far larger share of public school students than construction of new apartment buildings, and banning new development denies the school system revenue that it could use to expand capacity. I am well aware, however, that opponents of these changes are likely to try to roll them back, and with several new County Council and Planning Board members the battle is far from over.

8. Institutionalize the change. Kotter says that "change sticks when it becomes 'the way we do things around here,' when it seeps into the bloodstream" of the organization. This requires constantly working to show internal and external stakeholders the connection between the change and better results.

Only time will tell whether the changes I helped to foster in land use planning and parks will be sustained, but I certainly tried to build a strong coalition, constantly communicate the vision as well as the specifics needed to implement it, and put committed supporters in positions of influence will help them endure. I hope that Kotter's advice - and my experience - will help you transform the organizations you care about in ways that will last.

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