Interview with Dr. John Kotter – Thought Leader and Harvard Professor

Dr. John Kotter
Christina Lattimer
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Christina Lattimer
Christina Lattimer

A Brilliant Interview with Dr. John Kotter!

I have worked with students and business leaders for many years in the leadership, management and HR fields and of course the tricky problem of change is usually a predominant part of any discussion.  When thinking about this special themed issue on Guiding Change, the first thought was about how best to weave in Dr. Kotter’s substantial work on change, which has dominated this subject in the learning arena since his ground-breaking book  “Leading Change” (1996) .  I was excited and delighted when Dr. Kotter kindly accepted my request to interview him for this issue.  Speaking with Dr. Kotter was phenomenal, and his deeply researched and informed ideas on change and leadership for now and the future are ones which every leader and manager must contemplate in this fast paced world.   We will be sharing different aspects of Dr. Kotter’s work throughout the interview.  For more information about the man himself, scroll to the end of the article.   It is with great delight that I share this wonderful interview!

Our theme this month is about Leading Change and we are delighted to be featuring the world’s most influential thought leader on change,  to give your views.  From your extensive expertise on change, why do you think change is one of the biggest challenges leaders have?

First of all, I don’t think it’s really change that is the challenge.  Maybe when you poll or ask leaders what they think their challenges are, it might surface.  But when you look objectively at what’s going on, the real question is, in a changing environment, who is winning and who is losing?  Another way of approaching the research is to look at a whole category of people who are in one way or another using the same kind of vehicles and strategies and see who is winning and who is losing.   What are the winners focusing on, and how are the dots connected?

If you look at research in this way you find that, whatever the perceived problem, the single biggest thing that’s happening in the world in a macro sense is that the rate of change is increasing and has been for some time now.  This manifests itself in a zillion different ways.  For example, you can talk to one CEO, and he might see his most significant challenge as emerging markets.  That’s the way he thinks and talks about the increasing pace of change and it’s the issue he might develop a strategy around.   But if you compare this problem to those experienced by a CEO in a different country and a different industry, they might say the biggest challenge is building new Internet start-ups.  Individually, they think they have totally different challenges, but it’s precisely the same macro force:  the strategic challenges that are coming at them are coming faster. They are newer and different than the challenges they have faced in the past.  The only way the winners will win is if they see and react to this force faster, whether the problem is the Internet zipping along or emerging markets.

To put that in perspective, the work we have done has convinced me that the number one force shaping the world right now is the increasing rate of change manifesting in a multitude of ways. This is the number one challenge, not only for the people who are running things – the CEOs – but also increasingly for the people who work for them running various aspects of the business; the people who are working in different divisions, departments, across geographical regions and specialist parts of the business.  It affects not only private businesses but also public sector employees who are running myriad parts of the government.  This force affects mission-based organizations, as well, such as those that are focused on global warming or religious organizations – it’s all the same challenge of coping with faster change.  In some places it’s more obvious than others.  Some people have captured the issue of this force clearly in their heads.  What differentiates the failures from the winners, or, at the very least, the people not meeting their ambitions, from the very few who are succeeding is their ability to react effectively to this force.

I hope I got this right, but what I was taking from that; Whilst leaders can identify many different problems, as they see them  it’s the rate and the speed the problems are hitting them that’s one of the biggest problems. 

Yes, and the newness of the change.  It’s the same problem, the details are just different, and it’s all about the increasing speed of change.  The two biggest drivers of change are technological advancement and globalisation, and while there are dozens of changes, those are the macro ones.  What is also very clear is that there is zero evidence that technology is going to slow down.  We have different types of technology now hitting us, or we have globalisation and global integration, and even with war-stricken countries and nations which spring up trade barriers, integration needs to happen.  Fundamentally, this change is not going to slow down and both of these change forces create havoc, but they also create humongous opportunities for everyone.  That’s one of the beauties of change – that which creates a bigger downside also creates an equitable upside.  If you’re the little- or middle-sized guy, change is wonderful. It means there are new windows which open up and, if you’re clever enough to figure out how to jump through them, which of course can be tough, it can boost your business.

You talked about seeing the opportunities in change, which turns me to your recent book, “Accelerate”  which is fascinating, an inspired piece of work.   In Accelerate, you identify 5 principles and 8 steps, which helps leaders to move to a more agile “Dual System”.  In your experience what is the biggest problem leaders or CEO’s have experienced when attempting to move to a more agile dual system?   (Readers who haven’t read the book can find out more about Dr Kotter’s dual system by watching the video below.) 

The biggest challenge is that many don’t think they need it.  They’re human, and what humans do best is make decisions based upon the past and what has worked before.   Unless they’re really suffering and desperate, they often won’t try something new, won’t make the changes that they need to make. People who have problems with addiction often have to hit rock bottom before they actually say, “Well, maybe this isn’t working.  I have to try something new.”  It’s easy to say, “I suggest we just do a variation on what we’ve been doing, and that will take care of it. We will add a little something here, and we’ll make sure we make a stronger speech at my annual management meeting about the importance of executing well, and we will just make sure that the strategic plan is getting more focus on our meetings about pulling together next year’s operating plan, or this incremental adjustment to what’s worked in the past.”  The problem is that we come to a point where, increasingly, those incremental adjustments just aren’t working. But until you hit the wall, an individual won’t think, “This logically isn’t going to get me there. What’s got me here, isn’t going to get me there, and I’m going to look for solutions which are not incremental solutions, but a little bit bolder.”

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It’s tied to a second problem, where everybody, including company executives who are raised in a system environment, has learned that the whole solution to chaos is to control. They manage through a hierarchical system.   The real solution is a second system that you can’t entirely control in the same way.  This is where the anxiety builds inside people.  Many people back away and refuse to change, working with what they know.  Because they aren’t being killed and, in a lot of cases, they are doing okay, so they assume they are doing fine. The combination of the natural tendency to use what you know, and the anxiety that comes up because you’ve been trained again and again with a system that can be controlled, causes you to be resistant to change to a new system that can’t be controlled.   A system that can’t be controlled doesn’t mean that it’s the inmates running the asylum; quite the contrary. When it works right, the two parts of the dual operating system work hand in glove.  The person who is running the business and building a dual system which can help transform – which can lead the biggest changes of all – has enormous influence on all of this, but it’s not the same kind of control that is at the heart of the traditional management hierarchy.  You combined two natural tendencies that are built into human beings and, instead of having to figure things out or slowing people down, the dual system can help organisations to react much more quickly.

I love the concept of the dual system. Something that made me wonder about the challenges for leaders and businesses was that of being able to recruit people to operate in the dual system in the numbers suggested.  Do you think that if businesses embraced the idea of a dual system, it would change the way we attract, retain and recruit people in the future? 

I’m sure it would have an effect, although in practice we haven’t found it to be a problem. First of all, critical to the whole system is an understanding that the way you populate the network is through volunteers, not assignments.  All you need in your organisation is 5% -10% of the workforce who say, “This feels right. I love this. I want to be part of this,” and the network structure will begin to work and build momentum.  We worked in different industries and with the Government, and we haven’t yet come across a situation where less than 10% volunteer.    It would be very different if you really required 60% of the people in the organization, because of where we are right now with how people have been trained starting at university level and at a business level, and the way they are trained on the job. It would be a real challenge.

That’s great, it struck me as critical, and seems it could release a lot of the potential not utilized in companies.

There is no question in my mind, it does release potential, because we’ve seen it.  The total amount of human potential in organisations that is effectively being drawn upon is sadly low. While organisations have come up with various ideas for how you release potential, by and large, most organizations haven’t been able to tap into that human potential.  What we have seen, and was reported in “Accelerate”, was that CEOs typically can’t believe how much enthusiasm and involvement they see among lower-level management and all the way down the hierarchy. In one great case, we saw a third-shift factory worker caught up in the momentum of the process and starting to make an impact on his organization.  For those people involved, it blows their mind.   They previously couldn’t imagine how great it could be to work for their company and feel personally connected to its progress and success.  Even with the limited experience so far, this dual system described in “Accelerate” has overwhelmingly shown that the system releases potential like nothing else.

What is next for you and Kotter International?

The force which is about the speed and newness of change is the number one leadership challenge, and people are struggling with it – it’s only natural.  Here at Kotter International, we are developing a Leadership Program.  This is being designed not only to help the most senior people, but just like the characters in “Our Iceberg is Melting,” to help the people who get the whole thing started and actually help their leaders to gain insights and start picking up the phone and doing the right thing to address the challenges of the rapidly increasing pace of change.  We are also aiming to help people who are interested in using their skills to help develop other people within their organization.  I’ve been thinking about leadership development for over 30 years.  As an educator, that’s part of the job.  Over five years ago we started Kotter International, and originally it was solely consulting and large-scale engagements to help companies or departments deal with strategy and execution to get better results.  We are now in the process of developing the Kotter International Center for Leaders that we believe will be able to add additional value to our offering.  If it turns out we aren’t delivering that value for any reason, then we won’t continue the program for the sake of it – that’s just our philosophy.   There’s lots of leadership development going on, and I’m having trouble finding anyone else who has studied this stuff more deeply than I have chosen to.  We should understand leadership better than anyone else, (which may not be true!), but we are very excited about it. We’re hoping to make a real difference, especially around doing our piece to improve the world economy and life on earth.

Where can readers find out more about your up-coming leadership programme? 

The Kotter International Center for Leaders will be announced in the coming weeks, but interested readers can sign up to our newsletter to be notified as soon as updated information is released. The latest information and as a sign-up form for the newsletter are available on our website, www.kotterinternational.com.

We’ve got a lot of readers who are leaders and managers, and you’ve given us lots of advice.  Looking back on your great career and substantial experience:  if you could give readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

“The leadership challenge facing you is impossible for you to handle alone. It can’t be done.”  – John Kotter

One of the most fundamental questions people started asking me about 10 to 15 years ago was:  “What kind of leadership are we going to need for the 21st Century?”   What most people were expecting back from me were answers such as, “Leadership that is more sophisticated, more technical, more scientific, less command and control,” for example.

The best answer to what kind of leadership do we need for the 21st Century, is “more.” More leadership.  By “more leadership,” I mean a greater number of people who are actually providing leadership, not just managing,responding, or doing.

I was just speaking with a contact three or four days ago, and he was interested to learn about what can be done following graduate level education to acquire the experience necessary to help kids understand how they are going to be able to serve their company or society – not just to be in financing or marketing roles or running a factory – but to provide leadership.  We’re talking not just about the one percent who are already doing this today, but how to create these leaders in significant numbers.   As it is, many undergraduates, and even graduate students, are simply ill equipped  to lead in business.  It will be very interesting to see if this individual makes any progress.  For leaders more broadly, I would say, “The leadership challenge facing you is impossible for you to handle alone.  It can’t be done. I don’t care how smart you are or how good you are, you need a lot more people helping you.”   If you start thinking that way, not only will you start finding solutions, like “Accelerate,” but also you are, in a sense, taking an impossible burden off your shoulders, and getting help in dealing with this fast-moving and incredibly challenging world.

One final question:  A personal question, one of the things we write about is inspirational leadership.  For you what’s the single most inspiring event that you’ve encountered in your career or your life so far? 

I think like a lot of people, I start on the other side in the sense that it’s not what inspires them, it’s what appalls them.  When I see pain and suffering, for whatever reason, I’m going to try, in my own small way, at least, to do something about it, and I hope I have made a difference through my work.  Sometimes, it’s the bad stuff which helps inspire good, and when I have seen that happen, it touches very powerfully, and reinforces for me that it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could do much better.  Human suffering is so intolerable, and that has inspired me to do some small things within my capacity to help erase pain and make the world a better place for our children and our grandchildren.

 Thank you John, we’re so honoured to be able to feature your interview, the work you are doing is absolutely inspiring.  Thank you so much for sharing!

 

Dr. John Kotter is a New York Times best-selling author, award winning business and management thought leader, business entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, and Harvard Professor. His ideas and books, as well as his company, Kotter International, have helped mobilize people around the world to better lead organizations and their own lives, in an era of increasingly rapid change.

Dr John Kotter is the author of 21 books, to date.  His international bestseller Leading Change (1996), is one of the biggest single influences in the field of change management. Leading Change outlines a practical 8-step process for change management. In 2011, TIME magazine listed Leading Change as one of the “Top 25 Most Influential Business Management Books”    In 2006, Kotter co-wrote Our Iceberg is Melting with Holger Rathgeber where the 8-step programme was illustrated in a wonderful fable about penguins. In the book, a group of penguins whose iceberg is melting must change in order to survive while their iceberg home melts. Dr John Kotter’s latest book “Accelerate!” outlines a new type of business structure, which helps businesses react quickly to the challenges leaders are now facing.

Kotter International helps organizations accelerate the implementation of their most important strategies, and they are poised to launch their own leadership programme.  For more information contact: [email protected]

1 Comment

  • Thank you for so generously sharing this interview. Dr. Kotter is brilliant in that he is tapping into chaos theory to some degree. And he is right, we can’t keep doing it the same way. Our world is fast moving and highly innovative reacting to the increased demand of a burgeoning population.

    I’ve always thought of myself as an early adopter working with technology starting in the 80s (read vacuum-tube powered OS). But now that I have taken my company online I am dealing with much more than I thought.

    I’ve decided to join a mastermind group, led by Nathalie Lussier, to learn new ways and make those shifts in a supportive group. Right now, I feel I am still managing myself and my work in the old ways and that’s not working as well as I want. So new self-leadership is needed.

    Thanks for sharing again,
    Kelly Edmonds

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