Skip to main content
  1. Learn center
  2. Project management
  3. Posts
  4. Kotter’s change model explained

Kotter’s change model explained

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 15, 2024

Change in the business world is as certain as rain after clouds. And navigating it smoothly requires more than just willpower — it demands a solid plan. 

Enter Kotter’s 8-step change model, the brainchild of Harvard Professor Dr. John P. Kotter. Far from being just another theoretical framework, this model is a pragmatic guide designed for leaders who are serious about implementing and sustaining change within their organizations. So if that sounds like something you could use, read on.

What is Kotter’s 8-step change model?

Change is never easy. Thankfully, there are various methodologies to help guide you through the process — and Kotter’s 8-step change model is one such example. 

It breaks down the process into eight actionable stages, each designed to help you do the following throughout the change process: 

  • Avoid pitfalls
  • Take advantage of any opportunities that arise during the change process 
  • Embed new ways of working into your organization’s DNA
  • Move from A to B in an efficient, methodical manner 
  • Mobilize teams through change 
  • Create a clear plan of action
  • Motivate teams and stakeholders to move forward

It’s particularly useful in scenarios involving major changes, like new tech rollouts, shifts in organizational culture, or adjustments to new market conditions. 

By providing a clear framework, Kotter’s model demystifies change. It equips leaders with tried-and-tested steps designed to overcome resistance, and embed new, positive behaviors within an organization.

A word on John P. Kotter

So who is the man who invented this? And why should we use his model?

John P. Kotter is recognized as a leading voice in the fields of leadership and change management. His career, largely spent at Harvard Business School, has been dedicated to understanding how change happens and, more importantly, how to make it happen effectively. 

So he knows his stuff. 

Kotter’s work goes beyond academic theory, though, offering practical strategies that have been used by leaders and organizations around the globe. 

After observing countless leaders and organizations struggle with change, Kotter identified a pattern of common pitfalls that led to failure. In response, he developed his 8-step change model as a solution. 

His approach is rooted in the belief that change is most successful when it’s approached systematically, involving both the hearts and minds of those who are part of the organization.

Kotter’s enduring influence

Kotter’s influence extends beyond his change model. He has written extensively on leadership and change, contributing seminal books and articles that have shaped the way modern organizations approach transformation. His book Leading Change, published in 1996, is particularly noteworthy, laying out the principles that would later be encapsulated in his 8-step change model. 

What sets Kotter apart is his ability to translate complex concepts into actionable steps that leaders can apply within their own teams and organizations. His emphasis on urgency, coalition-building, and vision offers a blueprint for navigating the change process. 

In the context of Kotter’s model, understanding the person behind the principles adds depth to the methodology itself. It’s a reminder that at the heart of any successful change effort are leaders who are willing to commit, to learn, and to lead by example.

How to get started with Kotter’s change model

Here’s how to navigate each stage, with best practice tips at the end of each step. 

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency

Change begins with a spark — a compelling sense of urgency that acts as a catalyst for driving people to step out of their comfort zones.

  • Highlight the need for change: Start by conducting an honest and transparent assessment of your organization’s current situation. Look for potential threats and opportunities in the market that could impact your organization (a SWOT diagram will help you here). Use data, customer feedback, and competitive landscape analysis to build a strong case for why change is necessary.
  • Communicate: Communication at this stage should be clear, compelling, and frequent. It’s not enough to send an email or hold a single meeting. The message needs to be woven into the fabric of everyday conversations and interactions within the organization. Use stories, anecdotes, visuals, and masterfully crafted presentations to make the need for change relatable and urgent.
  • Engage emotions: People are motivated by emotion, not just facts. To truly create a sense of urgency, you need to connect on an emotional level. Make it personal, showing how the change relates to everyone’s roles, aspirations, and well-being.
  • Lead by example: Don’t just talk the talk! Walk the walk by demonstrating your commitment through actions. This might mean reallocating resources, changing how meetings are run, or personally getting involved in change initiatives. When leaders act, it sends a powerful message that the urgency is real.

Tips for success

  • Keep the message simple but compelling. Overcomplication can dilute the sense of urgency.
  • Regularly update the organization on developments that affect the need for change, reinforcing the urgency.
  • Acknowledge and address concerns and skepticism openly. This shows that urgency is based on a thoughtful analysis of the situation, not just a top-down directive.

Step 2: Form a coalition

Next stop: build a coalition strong enough to support and lead the change effort. This coalition is the driving force behind the initiative, capable of motivating and influencing the broader organization. 

  • Identify the right people: Look for individuals across the organization who possess a mix of skills, expertise, and influence. This group should include leaders who command respect, individuals with in-depth knowledge of the company, and those with the energy and enthusiasm to drive change. Diversity in this coalition is a strength, bringing different perspectives and problem-solving skills.
  • Build trust and teamwork: A coalition will only be effective if its members trust each other and can work together toward a common goal. Invest time in team-building activities and create opportunities for members to share their thoughts. 
  • Establish a shared vision: The coalition needs a clear understanding of the vision and objectives. Work together to refine your plan.
  • Empower and support: Each member of the coalition should feel empowered to act and make decisions within the scope of the change initiative. Give them the resources, authority, and support they need to lead effectively.
  • Develop leadership skills: Not all coalition members may have extensive leadership experience. Offering development opportunities can enhance their ability to guide others and manage resistance.

Tips for success

  • Have regular check-ins and updates. These help you stay aligned.
  • Use the coalition to communicate with and gather feedback from the broader organization
  • Lead by example. The actions and attitudes of coalition members will set the tone for the rest of the organization. 

Step 3: Create a vision for change

With a solid coalition in place, the next step focuses on crafting a compelling organizational change-focused vision. It answers the ‘why’ behind the change and lays down a path for the actions and decisions to come. 

  • Simplify and clarify: The vision should be easy to understand. Aim to create a statement or a series of statements that succinctly communicate your goals. Avoid complex jargon or lengthy documents. A clear, simple vision is more likely to be remembered and embraced.
  • Make it inspiring: Your vision should do more than just outline a change; it should inspire people to action. Think about how the change will benefit individuals within it.
  • Align with core values: Make sure your vision lines up with the organization’s core values and culture. This alignment helps people see the change as a natural evolution of the organization, rather than something imposed from the outside.
  • Involve the coalition: Use the coalition you’ve formed to help develop the vision. They’ll be able to offer a range of perspectives and ensure the vision resonates across various parts of the organization. Plus, involving them in the creation process increases their commitment to making this a reality.
  • Communicate ‘why’ before ‘how’: When introducing the vision, focus on why the change is necessary before diving into how you’ll do it. People need to connect before they’re inspired to act. 

Tips for success

  • Make the vision a frequent topic of conversation. The more it’s discussed, the more it’ll be internalized by everyone.
  • Find ways to integrate the vision into daily activities. This could mean aligning meetings, projects, and performance metrics with the vision.
  • Continue to lead by example.

Step 4: Communicate the vision

Once you’ve created a vision that’s inspiring and aligned with your organization’s values, the next step is to communicate it. This isn’t a one-time announcement but an ongoing effort to embed it into the organization’s consciousness. 

  • Use every channel available: Don’t limit yourself to email blasts or formal meetings. use every channel at your disposal, from internal newsletters and social media platforms to informal gatherings and one-on-one conversations.
  • Tailor your message: Different groups within your organization may respond better to different messaging. Tailor your communication to match. 
  • Encourage conversation: Effective communication is a two-way street. Encourage feedback and questions. Listening helps strengthen both your vision, and team buy-in. 
  • Make the vision a part of performance and strategy: Integrate the vision into all aspects of organizational strategy, performance metrics, and evaluation processes. When the vision is tied to concrete objectives, it becomes more tangible. 

Tips for success

  • Share success stories and examples of how the vision is being realized within the organization. 
  • Use visual symbols and reminders that keep the vision top of mind. This could be as simple as posters around the office or as integrated as themed updates in internal communications.
  • Offer training and development opportunities that support the skills and mindsets needed to achieve the vision. 

Step 5: Remove obstacles

Once you’ve shared the vision and it’s gaining traction, it’s time to identify and remove obstacles. This involves tackling both structural barriers and influencing the organizational culture to support the change. 

  • Identify barriers: First, identify potential barriers. These could be outdated processes, organizational structures that hinder communication or collaboration, or even specific individuals who are resistant (though be careful not to target them or make them feel singled out). 
  • Empower employees: Encourage and empower employees to communicate their challenges and suggest solutions. This empowerment should bring good ideas to the surface while having the added benefit of helping employees feel involved in the process. 
  • Address resistance directly: Resistance to change is natural but can be a significant barrier if not addressed. Engage with resistors to understand their concerns and work together to find solutions. Sometimes resistance comes from a lack of understanding, which can be alleviated through more targeted communication about the benefits of the change.
  • Adjust structures and systems: If organizational structures or systems are hindering your change plan, take decisive action to adjust them. This might involve redefining roles or altering reporting lines to better align with the new vision.
  • Provide support and training: Sometimes, obstacles crop up from a lack of skills or knowledge. Providing training can equip employees with the necessary tools to embrace this new normal. 
  • Celebrate momentum: Overcoming obstacles requires hard work and dedication, so celebrate accordingly. 

Tips for success

  • Focus on your communication. Offer a range of channels, because everyone will have their favorites. 
  • Foster a culture of agility and flexibility. Encouraging a mindset that is open to change makes it easier to adapt to it.
  • Continue to lead by example.

Step 6: Generate short-term wins

Early successes show everyone that their efforts are paying off. This boosts confidence and enthusiasm among all stakeholders. 

  • Set achievable goals: Identify specific, achievable goals that you can tick off your to-do list relatively quickly. That doesn’t mean general busywork: they should be aligned with the broader vision, but broken down into smaller, manageable tasks. 
  • Select visible projects: Choose projects or initiatives that have high visibility within the organization. Success in these areas helps to showcase the benefits of the change to a wider audience.
  • Involve key players: Engage individuals or teams who have shown a strong commitment to the change process or who have the skills necessary to secure success. 
  • Communicate successes: Shout successes from the rooftops! Or more traditionally, via newsletters and meetings. The more noise you make, the more people will see (and buy into) the success. 
  • Link wins to the change effort: Make sure to explicitly connect the short-term wins to the change initiative. This reinforces the project’s value while showing how specific actions lead to positive outcomes.
  • Build on the momentum: Use the energy and enthusiasm generated by short-term wins to fuel further initiatives. Analyze what worked well and how you can apply these strategies to upcoming challenges. 

Tips for success

  • Celebrate achievements! Recognition can take many forms, from public acknowledgments to small celebrations or tokens of appreciation.
  • Reflect on both the successes and the lessons learned. 
  • Keep the focus on the vision. While celebrating short-term wins, it’s important to remind everyone that these are steps towards a larger goal. 
  • Setting goals with clear metrics helps you measure progress and identify when a win has been achieved.

Step 7: Consolidate gains and producing more change

Don’t rest on your laurels after celebrating a few wins. The seventh step emphasizes the need to consolidate those gains and use them as a springboard to initiate further changes. The goal now is to deeply embed the change into the organization’s culture.

  • Assess and analyze successes: Take a close look at the short-term wins to understand why they were successful. This analysis can help you spot successful approaches to replicate or scale in future initiatives. 
  • Identify what’s next: Based on the successes and the overall vision for change, identify the next set of objectives to tackle. These should build on the momentum already established and push you closer to the finish line.
  • Keep up the urgency: It’s easy for complacency to set in after initial successes. To combat this, leaders must continue to emphasize the importance of moving forward and not settling for the status quo. Maintain that sense of urgency established in the first step. 
  • Promote from within: Recognize and promote individuals who have demonstrated leadership and success in earlier phases of the change process. This rewards their contributions while reinforcing change throughout the organization.
  • Continue to support and train: Continue to provide the support and training necessary for employees to adapt and thrive. 
  • Continue to make change part of the culture: This can include updating policies and procedures to reflect new ways of working and incorporating change-related goals into performance reviews. 

Tips for success

  • Celebrate ongoing efforts and achievements, not just the initial wins. Continuous recognition is a must.
  • Involve new people in the change initiatives. Bringing fresh perspectives and energy can help maintain momentum and creativity.
  • Keep communicating. Regular updates about progress, challenges, and the impact of the changes help keep the organization focused on the goals ahead.
  • Continue to lead by example.

Step 8: Embed change for good

The final step is about making sure the changes become a permanent part of the organization’s culture. 

  • Link new behaviors to organizational success: Demonstrate how the changes have contributed to improvement, whether that’s profits, customer satisfaction, wellbeing, or anything else. Making this link clear helps solidify the importance of new behaviors and processes as essential components of the organization’s success.
  • Incorporate changes into the identity of the organization: The new ways of working should be reflected in the organization’s mission, values, and narratives shared. This can include stories of how the change has positively impacted the organization, its employees, and its customers.
  • Reinforce the new norms through leadership: Leaders at all levels should model the new behaviors consistently. This reinforcement from the top down helps embed the changes. Leaders should also be vocal advocates for the new approaches, explaining why they matter and how they contribute to the organization’s future success.
  • Align recognition and reward systems: Ensure the organization’s systems for recognition and rewards are aligned with the new behaviors. This includes performance appraisals, promotions, and informal recognition practices. 
  • Hire and develop for the new culture: Future hiring and development practices should screen for and cultivate the behaviors and mindsets that support the new culture. This ensures new members of the organization are well-aligned with its direction and can contribute to reinforcing the change.
  • Monitor and adjust: Keep an eye on how well the new approaches are being integrated into the culture and be ready to make adjustments where needed. This can involve regular surveys, feedback sessions, and other mechanisms for gauging the cultural integration of the changes.

Tips for success

  • Acknowledge the effort and progress made in adopting the new approaches. Celebrating milestones in the change process helps to reinforce the value of the transformation.
  • Continue to share success stories and case studies that highlight the positive outcomes of the change. 
  • Cultural change is a long-term effort. Provide ongoing support and resources to help employees adapt to and embrace the new way of doing things.

Bonus tips and best practice 

Now you know the 8 steps, let’s take a look at some more general tips. These will help you make the leap from theory to practice. 

Understand your organization’s unique context

Every organization has its unique culture, history, and set of challenges. Begin by deeply understanding these aspects to tailor the change model effectively. This might involve conducting surveys, interviews, or workshops to gather insights from various stakeholders within the organization.

Prepare for resistance

Resistance is a natural part of the change process. It will happen to some degree or other, so make sure you’re prepared to manage it in a productive way. Booking one-on-one time with particularly resistant people, providing additional support and information, and creating opportunities for feedback, are all good approaches. 

Adapt and be flexible

Change is rarely linear. Or straightforward, for that matter. As you implement Kotter’s model, be prepared to flex your strategies based on what is or isn’t working. Agility might involve revisiting earlier steps in the model, adjusting timelines, pausing, or modifying your approach based on new insights that arise.

Start small 

We touched on this earlier on, but just to reiterate: start small. Pilot the change in a small part of the organization to test and refine your approach before rolling it out more broadly.

Focus on the human element

The success of any change initiative largely depends on the people involved. Recognizing and addressing the human emotions, concerns, and motivations at play can massively impact the outcome. Chat with employees at all levels to understand their feelings about the change. Your job is to respond empathetically and sympathetically, offering support and clarification where needed. 

Stay patient and persistent

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a sustained effort and unwavering commitment. Set realistic expectations for the timeline and be prepared for setbacks. It’s important to remain patient and positive, even when progress has a snail’s pace. Remember, enduring change is a marathon, not a sprint.

Project management tools were made for change

Change is a project like anything else, and as such, you’ll need to manage it carefully. 

Project management tools like Backlog are invaluable when it comes to planning and collaboration. It offers one simple hub for assigning tasks, setting deadlines, tracking progress, and facilitating communication — not to mention creating workflows and managing resources. 

Essentially, it’s a one-stop shop for all your change model needs. By equipping yourself with project management software, you can guarantee a more organized and efficient approach to implementing Kotter’s 8 steps, ultimately increasing the likelihood of success. Ready to take it for a spin? Try it for free today. 



Subscribe to our newsletter

Learn with Nulab to bring your best ideas to life