John Kotter: Change Management Is a Team Effort

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 say about managing change? How is leading change similar to a team sport? Why is it so important to properly support developing leaders?

According to John Kotter, change management is a team effort and should not all fall on one individual. This is because many organizations are interdependent, and a change in one department could dramatically affect another one.

Here’s what Kotter says about managing change in an organization.

Managing Change

In addition to outlining specific techniques you can use to effectively bring about change, Kotter also examines change from a broader perspective, looking at how and why it’s so important. He notes that because companies are so interdependent on each other and on the wider economy, their ability to evolve is crucial. He notes that this interdependence leads to challenges but also to opportunities, allowing leaders to arise from a wide variety of areas.

Managing Interdependency

According to John Kotter, change management is a team sport. It depends more on building effective coalitions, systems, and cultures than it does on any one individual’s talent or experience.

The reason for this is that organizations have become extraordinarily interdependent. Kotter argues that whether your organization is a small business, global corporation, or nonprofit, it is deeply affected by events happening around the world entirely beyond your control.

For example, if you’re a medium-size U.S.-based manufacturer of nails and screws selling primarily to neighborhood hardware stores, your business depends a great deal on the availability of cheap imported steel from China. Things that disrupt the global supply chain—like tariffs or the Covid-19 pandemic—can have a major impact on your business.

And, as Kotter points out, these interdependencies don’t just apply to things happening outside your organization. Indeed, your organization is highly internally interdependent. Everything you do to change one process or department affects every other process and department. All of this makes change much harder to manage. What starts as one isolated project becomes an organization-wide effort. This is one major reason why change efforts require large, representative, and collaborative coalitions to pull off successfully.  

The Three Types of Interdependence

There are different ways in which your organization can be interdependent, and the distinctions between them can affect how you approach change. Sociologist James D. Thompson identifies three types of organizational interdependencies:

Pooled interdependence, in which each department or unit operates (for the most part) independently of the others, but they collectively contribute to the same outcome. Managing this type of interdependence usually means creating a standard set of rules and operating procedures.

Sequential interdependence, in which one department cannot produce its output until another department has completed its output—the most well-known example of this structure being the assembly line. Managing this type of interdependency is typically a matter of implementing clear timetables and schedules for outputs and inputs.

Reciprocal interdependence, in which the inputs and outputs of all departments are related on a cyclical, never-ending basis—most medium- to large-sized businesses operate on this model, where if one part of the cycle falters, the entire model collapses. The way to manage this type of interdependence is through close communication and shared access to information.

Developing a New Generation of Leaders

This close interdependence inside modern organizations gives people from anywhere within the organization the opportunity to become leaders. Because there are so many more collaborative projects, a far greater number of people gain hands-on experience in solving organization-wide problems and forging important relationships with stakeholders from different departments and different levels.

According to Kotter, this democratization of the leadership pipeline is important, because leadership is not some “innate” quality that someone either has or doesn’t have. With the right leadership development training, many people have the potential to become successful leaders. 

New leaders rise from the bottom up. The key is continuous learning, adapting, and being willing to put in the work. Crucially, Kotter writes, successful leaders are humble people who display a willingness to learn, listen to others, and admit their own shortcomings.

Your personal talent and intelligence will only get you so far. It’s your willingness to work hard, lead by example, and rally others to your vision that will enable you to become a true change leader.

The Talent Myth

In Peak, Anders Ericsson explores in greater detail the value of hard work that Kotter discusses. Ericsson writes that there exists a highly deterministic idea that your abilities are limited by your genetic characteristics. This comes back to the idea of “natural” talent: Some people simply have it, and others don’t. But, he argues, this isn’t true—except for people who suffer from severe physical or mental limitations, with the right practice, just about anyone can improve in any area they choose.

Ericsson warns that the belief in “innate” talent can even become self-fulfilling prophecies—people who develop the idea that they’re “bad” at something never practice, and, therefore, never get good at it. Meanwhile, children who show early promise tend to be lavished with attention and praise from teachers and parents and receive more training and resources to help them develop their skills than children who struggle. The “gifted” students don’t possess some innate ability that others don’t, they’re just given more of an opportunity to develop. 
John Kotter: Change Management Is a Team Effort

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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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