There’s some debate about who first said, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” (N. Machiavelli, W. Churchill, R. Emmanuel). Whatever its origin, its meaning is clear: turbulent times lower collective resistance to change and provide a rare opportunity to challenge conventional wisdom. Unsurprisingly, this quote seems to have resurfaced frequently during these recent chaotic weeks; and its sentiment deserves some focused attention as it relates to small-scale software companies.
First things first: it’s hard to think of any crises that are actually “good.” The current COVID-19 pandemic is heartbreakingly awful in countless ways; and this post will not debate that. Neither will it focus on the specifics of the current crisis. Rather, this post is intended to support leaders looking to optimize this moment to bring both stability and positive change to their organizations…and to avoid mistakes that can make a bad situation worse. It does so by building on John Kotter’s 8 Step Process for Leading Change to help ensure that change initiatives are beneficial, successful and long-lasting.
What follows is the officially published “hook” and high-level summary for each of Kotter’s 8 steps for leading change, along with some brief situation-specific commentary from me. Please note: Any text in BOLD ITALICS is the exclusive work of John Kotter and the Kotter organization.
1. CREATE A SENSE OF URGENCY: Help others see the need for change through a bold, aspirational opportunity statement that communicates the importance of acting immediately. This is all about building and lighting a burning platform for change. This can be hard for leaders to execute without some external force that brings stark clarity to the need for change. But in March / April 2020, global events have created an undeniable and omnipresent sense of urgency which exemplifies the “opportunity” aspect of a crisis. Leaders everywhere are sharing this message with their teams: the world has changed; our business must also change — and fast.
2. BUILD A GUIDING COALITION: A volunteer army needs a coalition of effective people — born of its own ranks — to guide it, coordinate it, and communicate its activities. This is true for any change management initiative. Enlisting supporters requires a compelling platform for change; but that alone does not guarantee its success in establishing an effective coalition. Leaders need to first identify the most influential people all throughout the organization. This demands an intimate knowledge of the company’s social and psychographic map, which is far more nuanced and complex than simply tapping the top of the official org chart. In SaaS businesses, the guiding coalition may just as likely draw from strong product managers or influential client success representatives as it does from people with VP titles. Equally important, leaders must strike just the right note in order to convince these influential and respected team members to rally behind an initiative (note: even a hint of coercion inevitably backfires!).
3. FORM A STRATEGIC VISION AND INITIATIVES: Clarify how the future will be different from the past and how you can make that future a reality through initiatives linked directly to the vision. This is the scoping / vision element of the initiative. Critics point out that cynical leaders throughout history have used moments of upheaval to consolidate their power base. Less nefariously but equally misguided, leaders may simply set their sights on the wrong targets for change. Instead, leaders need to carefully think through their change agenda and set a compelling related vision. In times of stability, this can mean launching new products, entering new markets, or setting an aggressive growth agenda. In times of upheaval, however, objectives are often less exciting and sometimes quite painful. They can include cost-cutting, moth-balling non-core projects, or revising commonly accepted company norms. Though the platform may be irrefutably burning, leaders must also remember that the resulting flames can emit unbearable heat for nearby company stakeholders. In all cases, the leader’s vision must be sound, sustainable and undeniably help the organization over the long-term.
4. ENLIST A VOLUNTEER ARMY: Large-scale change can only occur when massive numbers of people rally around a common opportunity. This step is a major proving ground for change initiatives. If the first three steps have been effective, then a change agenda stands a fighting chance of catching-on, being broadly embraced by the whole company (no matter the size), and collectively implemented. If not, it will stall and likely fail. But there is some good news. Through close monitoring, attentive leaders can identify loss of momentum and take steps to address. We’ve found tools like Poll Everywhere to be a great way to consistently monitor the team’s support for change initiatives; and such feedback can play a critical role in informing a temporary retreat back to steps 1–3 in order to build a stronger foundation for the stages yet to come.
5. ENABLE ACTION BY REMOVING BARRIERS: Removing barriers such as inefficient processes and hierarchies provides the freedom necessary to work across silos and generate real impact. Senior leaders are uniquely positioned to “make the hard calls” that dissolve resistance to change within organizations. This is particularly true for crisis-related change initiatives. There are natural tensions that exist in software companies across functional departments (e.g. Sales and Client Success or Product Management and Development). Leaders must consider the greater good of the organization, even if it means introducing near-term austerity, ruffling feathers, or introducing other potentially unpopular paths forward.
6. GENERATE SHORT-TERM WINS: Wins are the molecules of results. They must be recognized, collected and communicated — early and often — to track progress and energize volunteers to persist. This step seems so obvious, but it is deceptively hard to get right. It requires a subtle balance between substance and communication. Results without communication leave the team unmotivated to persevere in their efforts. But over-celebration of results can be perceived as patronizing or insufficiently respectful of the team’s efforts. Moreover, especially when it comes to expense management, touting success too early can undermine the team’s perception of the rationale or necessity for the very changes being celebrated. Be careful not to extinguish the burning platform for change!
7. SUSTAIN ACCELERATION: Press harder after the first successes. Your increasing credibility can improve systems, structures and policies. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality. Again, this is a balancing act. Change is hard; and it can tax people both physically (e.g. taking on more / harder work with fewer resources) and emotionally (e.g. how long until the reinforcements come?). In week 7 (or is it 8?) of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, virtually everyone is feeling this. A leader keeping her / his foot on the gas is one thing. But it is quite another when leaders keep layering in more and more unexpected changes in service to the larger vision. In the latter case, team members can feel duped and show the effects of “death by 1,000 cuts.”
8. INSTITUTE CHANGE: Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success, making sure they continue until they become strong enough to replace old habits. Changing behaviors takes hard work…and time! Studies show that it takes more than 2 months on average before a new behavior becomes automatic. In other words, leading change demands consistency and commitment from leaders and from the entire organization.
Amid the current crisis, Kotter’s steps for leading change appear as timeless and universally applicable as ever. And they seem particularly valuable for small-scale software businesses, given the existential threats start-ups face and the lightening-quick rate of change in their operating environment. In the midst of the current pandemic / economic crossfire, these steps offer some structure and security for those leaders looking to implement positive change and “make the most” of a decidedly challenging crisis.