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Applying Kotter’s Change Management Principles to Project Management

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Keeping change initiatives moving forward can be challenging for project managers. The tendency is for staff and team members to slide back to the way things were or find a comfortable middle ground that accomplishes some of the goals without requiring dramatic change. Here are the 8 steps to change that John Kotter put forth in his best-selling book, Leading Change, and made more accessible in Our Iceberg Is Melting. Kotter’s steps are straightforward. Despite their obviousness, they require a great deal of patience and exceptional communication skills to implement. They are worth every ounce of effort.

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency
  • Examine market and competitive realities
  • Identify and discuss crises, potential crises, or major opportunities

At ICLE, establishing a sense of urgency (or defining the reason a change is important) is often completed at the strategic planning stage. Even though you may not be the person who established the sense of urgency, you should be able to convey it to your team members, stakeholders, and others you will need to work with to obtain resources and funding throughout the project.

  1. Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition
  • Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort
  • Encourage the group to work as a team

We often talk about the importance of having the right people on our teams. This is especially true when you are embarking on a large or strategically important change project. Build your guiding coalition from people who can see the reason for the change as well as the people who can communicate the change and obtain buy-in across the organization. Start the initiative with the people who will make decisions based on the strategic goal. Pull in the people who are best at implementing the details once some of the unknowns are solved.

  1. Create a Vision
  • Create a vision to help direct the change effort
  • Develop strategies for achieving that vision

The vision is critical to completing any project successfully. The vision is what guides decision-making throughout a project to ensure the project result achieves its strategic objectives. Without the vision, you have no direction. Do not start any change project without one.

  1. Communicate the Vision
  • Use every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies
  • Teach new behaviors by the example of the guiding coalition

Communicating the vision is perhaps one of the most overlooked tasks of the project manager. Although we begin a project with thorough discussions about the vision, we don’t often refer back to it during project work. In addition, we don’t review it with new team members, stakeholders, or with those who we are negotiating with for time and resources. If the vision shows the change we are trying to make and the priority or urgency the change has for the organization, it can be one of our most persuasive tools. Remember to use it.

  1. Empower Others to Act on the Vision
  • Get rid of obstacles to change
  • Change systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision
  • Encourage risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions

Change initiatives often directly affect staff and their processes. It is difficult to put a change in place if remnants of old processes are standing in the way. Don’t forget to search for obstacles to your change implementation and get rid of them. Separate true obstacles from processes we are keeping because it is how we’ve always done it? This is often a time of trial and error and of lost productivity. Expect it and reward creative thinking and the courage to try new approaches even if they fail.

  1. Plan for and Create Short-Term Wins
  • Plan for visible performance improvements
  • Create those improvements
  • Recognize and reward employees involved in the improvements

Recognize and celebrate each milestone you meet in your project plan. Change initiatives can be trying and tiring. A celebration for making a small improvement or completing a milestone can be just the lift the team needs to keep them moving through difficult times. Also, consider releasing work in versions. A small-scale change can be celebrated, tested, and built upon rather quickly. Implementing several small changes is an excellent way to keep a change initiative moving and growing.

  1. Consolidate Improvements and Produce Still More Change
  • Use increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision
  • Hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision
  • Reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents

Once it is proven that the change initiative can be successful, build on it by continuing to get rid of obstacles that prevent the next round of changes and move on to implementing the next stage of changes. Again, this is where a versioning approach might be helpful.

  1. Institutionalize New Approaches
  • Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success
  • Develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession

As project managers, it is often tempting to wrap up a change project and never look back. Unfortunately, it takes time before a change becomes part of an organization’s daily routine. People are hesitant to let go of the old way and accept the new. Make sure you have something in place to monitor that the change is in place and is achieving its specific goals. This type of monitoring often falls outside of the project manager’s responsibility. It often rests with the subject matter expert or the head of a particular unit. Even though it is not the project manager’s responsibility to monitor progress going forward, it is the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that process is in place before the project is closed.

Managing the adoption of change is one more responsibility the project manager has when managing projects. Kotter’s 8 steps are the most acknowledged process for managing successful change. Take the time to build these steps into your project plans. Have the patience to work through each stage with your team, stakeholders, and others in the organization. Use what you learn during one change initiative to improve future luck.

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