Leading Change Step 2: Form a Guiding Coalition

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leading Change" by John P. Kotter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does John Kotter mean by “guiding coalition”? Why should you avoid forming a change committee to lead organizational change?

Step 2 in John Kotter’s 8-step change model says to create a guiding coalition. This means that you must create a group of impactful change leaders rather than relying on a single person to lead the change. This will convince the rest of your employees to follow the changes.

Continue below for more on step 2 of Kotter’s change model.

Create a Guiding Coalition and Secure Buy-In

Kotter warns that even after you’ve successfully conveyed a sense of urgency and immediacy, the actual work of changing what your organization does cannot simply be the work of one visionary leader.

For transformation to be successful, impactful, and lasting, change leaders need to secure buy-in from people both inside and outside the organization—middle and junior managers, rank-and-file employees, creditors, customers, and suppliers. Ultimately, writes Kotter, it’s about far more than bringing to life the vision of a single charismatic leader. Instead, it’s about building a process and moving an entire organization. You need input and feedback from everyone

(Shortform note: While a vision alone isn’t enough to effect change, relying on the charisma of one superstar leader can hurt a company in other ways, too. In Silicon Valley, the “cult of the founder”—a sort of reverence for perceived rule-breaking, creative-minded visionaries in the mold of Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—has often led investors to pour money into enterprises with ill-conceived business models and/or incoherent paths to profitability, based on little more than the charisma or salesmanship of the founder/CEO.)

No Authority: The Problem With Committees

Kotter writes that many companies make the mistake of forming committees, task forces, or working groups to study underlying organizational problems and issue recommendations on how to address them without empowering the members of those groups to actually implement them.

To prevent this, he argues, representatives from the organization’s leadership should join the group. Without having decision-makers sitting on the change committee, the body will quickly devolve into a toothless and hollow entity that lacks legitimacy. As a result, no one will take the committee seriously, everyone will ignore its recommendations, and the entire effort will be forgotten and written off.

Ensuring That Teams Work

Other commentators have reinforced the idea that team structure is critical to success—and that if you fail to implement the right structure, your team won’t be successful, regardless of the talent and dedication of its individual members. In Leading Teams, J. Richard Hackman argues that coordination and collective action problems typically plague even the most talented and best-intentioned teams from the outset. For a team to have any chance of success, according to Hackman, it needs to be bounded and coherent. That means team leaders need to: 

1) Be clear about who is and isn’t a member, even if that means excluding people who want to contribute. 

2) Have the emotional maturity to set a direction and keep members focused. 

3) Keep membership small so that there are fewer person-to-person links to manage and maintain.

Building an Effective Change Leadership Group

According to Kotter, strong and effective change leadership groups are “guiding coalitions” that give prominent roles to people who are already in organizational leadership positions.

The committee must also be representative of the whole organization and not leave out key constituencies. After all, it’s going to be difficult to secure organization-wide buy-in if key groups like sales, marketing, or IT are left out of the decision-making process. The change group must also balance leadership vision and strategy with tactical managerial expertise—to do this, you’re going to need people with different types of knowledge and experience contributing to the change effort. This will be impossible if your coalition is dominated by just a handful of departments.

Once the group is assembled, leaders should help foster social cohesion through team-building exercises and retreats that build trust and help foster an understanding of one another’s roles.

The Pros and Cons of Cross-Departmental Teams

Cross-functional teams can offer a number of benefits. They can help to kickstart a more collaborative culture and working environment, which leads to a cross-pollination of skills and experiences that can make the team more cohesive. And they can offer an unparalleled leadership training experience, giving up-and-coming leaders the opportunity to harness and coordinate different departments’ skills in pursuit of a shared goal.

However, such cross-functional teams are by no means guaranteed to deliver results. According to the Harvard Business Review, a whopping 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional and often have problems sticking to their allotted budget, delivering results on time, and aligning their work with the company’s strategic goals.
Leading Change Step 2: Form a Guiding Coalition

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Here's what you'll find in our full Leading Change summary:

  • Why successful firms are those that can implement long-term change
  • A breakdown of the key steps for leading successful organizational change
  • Why change must be led by a team, not by a visionary individual

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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