Saturday, 8 July 2017

The school research lead and management gurus: John Kotter - what's the evidence for his eight steps in leading change

A few weeks ago I wrote about the need for school leaders to be appropriately critical of the work of educational and management 'gurus'.   One such guru is John Kotter, whose name is often found in lists of world's leading management thinkers.  Indeed,  Kotter's influence not limited to business - with the  leading educationalist @Andy_Buck - author of the popular book - Leadership Matters  recently tweeting 'when it comes to change, you can't beat  Kotter'.   

So with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to see whether there's any empirical evidence to support Kotter's most well-known model - the eight step process for leading change.  In doing so, we will draw upon the work of (Appelbaum, Habashy, Malo, & Shafiq, 2012) who looked at fifteen years of literature of change management in order to see whether there is evidence to support Kotter's claims.

First published in 1995 in the Harvard Business Review and subsequently in 1996 as a book - Leading Change - Kotter outlines an eight stage process for leading change
  1. Establish a sense of urgency about the need to achieve change 
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower broad-based actions
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the corporate culture
However, as Applebaum et al note - Leading Change - is based on Kotter's own personal research and business experience, with there being no supporting footnotes, references or bibliography.  That said, Applebaum et al review of the change management literature found support for most of the steps, although no research studies were found covering all eight steps included in model. As such Applebaum et al note that  Kotter’s change management model appears gain its popularity from its' apparent practicality rather than a robust evidence base confirming success in the use of the model.

Nevertheless,  Applebaum et al go onto argue that Kotter's model might not be appropriate for all types of change and they go onto identify a number of situations where the model might not be applicable, without modifications

A rigid approach - Kotter argues that the eight steps should be followed in sequence. However, such a prescriptive  approach might not be consistent with an organisation's culture, contributing to the failure of the change efforts

Some steps are not relevant in some contexts - certain change initiatives may not require all of the steps - with come changes being irreversible so may not require stages 7 and 8 

Dealing with difficulties during change management - the model is insufficiently detailed to provide actionable advice in all situations.  So if there is high levels of resistance to change or the change does not generate initial short-term wins - then additional actions may be necessary to overcome such difficulties

Difficulties of studying change management projects - very few, if any studies, particularly in schools, formally tried to capture how the full eight stage process has been implemented

The implication for you as a school-leader

That said, Applebaum et al argue that  Kotter's eight steps provide a useful checklist for leaders and managers who wish to bring about change.  As such school leaders and MAT CEOs who wish to bring about change in their schools and/or academy chains might find Kotter's eight steps a 'good-bet'.  However, that's all it is - a good-bet - which increases the chance of, but does not guarantee successful change.  Indeed, school leaders and MAT CEOs who wish to increase further their chances of success, should take into account the individual culture of the school/MAT so the change process is aligned with how things work in your context.


Appelbaum, S. H., Habashy, S., Malo, J.-L., & Shafiq, H. (2012). Back to the future: revisiting Kotter's 1996 change model. Journal of Management Development, 31(8), 764-782.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change: Harvard Business Press.


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