Kotter's 8-Step Change Model

John Kotter, leadership and change management professor at Harvard Business School, introduced his ground-breaking 8-Step Change Model in his 1995 book, “Leading Change”. Built on the work of Kurt Lewin, the model sets out the 8 key steps of the changes process, arguing that neglecting any of the steps can be enough for the whole initiative to fail.[1] John Kotter looked at what people did to transform their organisations. Kotter introduced an 8-step change model for helping managers deal with transformational change. This is summarised in Kotter’s 8-step change model.

The 8-Step Process for Leading Change was cultivated from over four decades of Dr. Kotter’s observations of countless leaders and organizations as they were trying to transform or execute their strategies. He identified and extracted the success factors and combined them into a methodology, the award-winning 8-Step Process for Leading Change.

Since the introduction of the 8 Steps, Dr. Kotter switched his focus from research to impact with the founding of Kotter. Together with the firm, he expanded the scope of the 8-Step Process from its original version in Leading Change to the version outlined in his 2014 book, Accelerate. Download the eBook below to learn more about the 8-Step Process for Leading Change.[2]

John Kotter's 8 Step Change Model
source: DanielLock

The Eight Steps[3]
John Kotter’s 8-step change model comprises eight overlapping steps. The first three are all about creating a climate for change. The next on engaging and enabling the organisation. And the last, implementing and sustaining change. From experience we learn that successful change occurs when there is commitment, a sense of urgency or momentum, stakeholder engagement, openness, clear vision, good and clear communication, strong leadership, and a well executed plan. Kotter’s 8-step change model recognises each of these characteristics.

  • STEP 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency: Most companies ignore this step —close to 50% of the companies that fail to make change make mistakes at the very beginning. Leaders may underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones, or overestimate how successfully they have already done so, or simply lack the patience necessary to develop appropriate urgency. Leaders who know what they are doing will "aim for the heart." They connect to the deepest values of their people and make the business case come alive with human experience; engage the senses; and create simple, imaginative messages that inspire people to greatness.
  • STEP 2: Create a Guiding Coalition: Putting together the right coalition to lead change is critical. That coalition must have the right composition, a significant level of trust, and a shared objective. In putting together the coalition, the team as a whole should reflect:
    • Position Power: Enough key players should be on board so that those left out cannot block progress.
    • Expertise: All relevant points of view should be represented so that informed, intelligent decisions can be made.
    • Credibility: The group should be seen and respected so that the group’s pronouncements will be taken seriously.
    • Leadership: The group should have enough proven leaders to be able to drive the change process.
  • STEP 3: Develop a Change Vision: The change visions clarifies how the future will be different from the past. It serves three important purposes:
    • It simplifies hundreds or thousands of more detailed decisions.
    • It motivates people to take action in the right direction even if the first steps are painful.
    • It helps to coordinate the actions of different people in a remarkably fast and efficient way.
  • STEP 4: Communicate the Vision for Buy-in: Gaining an understanding and commitment to a new direction is never an easy task, especially in complex organizations. Most companies under communicate their visions by at least a factor of 10. A single memo announcing the transformation or even a series of speeches are never enough. To be effective, the vision must be communicated in hour-by-hour activities. The vision will be referenced in emails, in meetings, in presentations – it will be communicated anywhere and everywhere.
  • STEP 5: Empower Broad-Based Action: This step involves removing obstacles to change; changing systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision; and encouraging risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions. This may involve changing the organizational structure or management information systems to that reporting relationships and information support needed actions. Another barrier to effective change can be troublesome supervisors with management styles that inhibit change. Easy solutions to this problem don’t exist. Typically, the best solution is honest dialogue.
  • STEP 6: Generate Short-term Wins: This step involves creating visible, unambiguous success as soon as possible. The Guiding Coalition becomes a critical force in identifying significant improvements that can happen between six and 18 months. Getting these wins helps ensure the overall change initiative’s success. Research shows companies that experience significant short-term wins by fourteen and twenty-six months after the change initiative begins are much more likely to complete the transformation. Wins provide evidence the sacrifices people are making are paying off. This increases the sense of urgency and the optimism of those making the change.
  • STEP 7: Never Let Up!: Resistance is always waiting in the wings to re-assert itself. Even if you are successful in the early stages, you may just drive resistors underground where they wait for an opportunity to emerge when you least expect it. The consequences of letting up can be very dangerous. Whenever you let up before the job is done, critical momentum can be lost and regression may soon follow. Instead of declaring victory and moving on, these transformational leaders will launch more and more projects to drive the change deeper into the organization.
  • STEP 8: Incorporate Changes into the Culture: New practices must grow deep roots in order to remain firmly planted in the culture. Culture is composed of norms of behavior and shared values. These social forces are incredibly strong. Every individual that joins an organization is indoctrinated into its culture, generally without even realizing it. We keep change in place by creating a new, supportive and sufficiently strong organizational culture. The Guiding Coalition alone cannot root change in place no matter how strong they are. It takes the majority of the organization truly embracing the new culture for there to be any chance of success in the long term.

The main reason that Kotter outlines these steps is to emphasise that change is not a simple and quick process. Many steps of planning are required and even when the change has been implemented there is still a lot to do to ensure it is successful. Kotter argues that 70% of change initiatives fail, and attributes this to the fact that most organisations do not put in the necessary preparation or see the project through correctly. Following these steps ensure your change initiative is more likely to be a long-term success.

Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model is observable in virtually every arena of organizational psychology, from business to politics to education and even sports. Knowing these steps will help you at every level in your organization, whether leading the charge for a big company change or supporting the execution of someone else’s vision.

When all steps of Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model have been followed, John Kotter recommends taking the new vision as a starting point when recruiting and hiring new staff. This also applies to the training of (current) staff. The new vision and the changes must be given a solid place in the organization. Employees who have actively contributed to the change must receive public recognition. Their support is enormous and therefore they will be asked again for their support and help when another change needs to be brought about.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Kotter’s Model[4]

  • Advantages of Kotter’s Model
    • It is an easy step by step model which provides a clear description and guidance on the entire process of change and is relatively easy for being implemented.
    • Emphasis is on the involvement and acceptability of the employees for the success in the overall process.
    • Major emphasis is on preparing and building acceptability for change instead of the actual change process.
  • Disadvantages of Kotter’s Model
    • Since it is a step by step model, skipping even a single step might result in serious problems.
    • The process is quite time consuming (Rose 2002).
    • The model is essentially top-down and discourages any scope for participation or co-creation.
    • Can build frustration and dissatisfaction among the employees if the individual requirements are given due attention.

Limitations of the Kotter Model[5]
Kotter's Eight-Step Leading Change Model is a good blueprint for effecting change in organizations. It — like every other model on any leadership topic — is not perfect, however. There are some limitations to the Kotter model. Some scholars have pointed out that change is a more fluid process that does not necessarily follow a linear, step-progression path. Additionally, the heavy focus on leadership in the Kotter model does not fully account for the financial, political, and external forces that impact the success of a change effort. While there is some validity to these criticisms, these concerns about the Kotter Change Model can be addressed by incorporating tools such as Lewin's Force Field Analysis throughout the eight-step change process. The use of this tool can help to identify the supportive and resisting forces that oppose a change effort and to develop appropriate organizational responses to promote or lessen these forces. When assessing the limitation of any leadership model, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Kotter's Leading Change Model has withstood the test of time for a simple reason — it's practical and it works.

See Also


  1. Definition - What is Kotter's 8-Step Change Model? Accipio
  2. Eight Step Process Kotter Inc.
  3. The Eight Step Prcess for Leading Change Nancy Sullivan
  4. Advantages and Disadvantages of Kotter’s Model MSG
  5. Limitations of the Kotter Model Robert Tanner

Further Reading