John Kotter: Sustain Acceleration to Cement Change

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 Kotter mean by “sustain acceleration”? Why don’t changes tend to sustain themselves?

Step 7 of John Kotter’s 8-step change model is to sustain acceleration. Kotter says that you must continue to build upon your changes, otherwise, employees will fall into their old ways of doing things. In his book Leading Change, Kotter provides some actionables and tips on how to do this.

Continue below for an explanation of step 7 of the change model.

Change the Culture

Kotter writes that culture is the set of norms, behaviors, priorities, and shared values that persist within a group or institution over long periods of time and are passed on from generation to generation.

It’s important to understand how cultures are formed and sustained, he argues, because any organizational changes will likely be illusory unless there is a transformation of the broader culture because policy, practice, and process are all ultimately downstream from culture.

In order to sustain acceleration, Kotter explains, you must continue to build upon the changes. If the culture isn’t remade, as soon as the change-leading CEO or coalition leaves the organization, people will naturally revert to the old ways of doing things rather than. Of course, culture is difficult to reshape because it can’t be created solely by managers in a top-down process. It has to develop organically over time by hundreds or thousands of people. In the course of change, this often means that aspects of the old culture need to be eliminated if the vision is to be fulfilled.

For example, if your company has a goal of launching a business-facing product line to complement its consumer products, that might require developing a more formal, traditional corporate culture to present a more staid and conservative appearance to potential clients. This might mean changing some elements of your early, casual startup culture and doing things like instituting formal dress codes and eliminating perks like Summer Fridays or take-your-pet-to-work day.

(Shortform note: Commentators note that affecting culture change is one of the hardest things to do as part of a change effort. Although Kotter argues that culture change cannot be imposed top-down, some argue that leadership does, in fact, play a significant role in reshaping the values, practices, and assumptions that comprise an organization’s culture. One approach is for leadership to use a vision to tell a story about the organization’s future. Once the vision is in place, leaders hand the reins to managers, who implement new procedures, define new roles, and reorganize budgetary resources to begin actively changing the culture. If these first two methods still don’t produce culture change, as a final measure, coercion and punishment can become necessary—including firing those whose attitudes and values no longer align with the culture.)

Hire Based on Culture Fit 

Kotter recommends that change leaders prioritize changing the organization’s culture and ensuring that those changes stick. Part of this is through having current employees participate in regular training sessions to instill in them the new ways of thinking and behaving, as we’ve explored. 

But, Kotter also says that you should also take cultural fit into consideration in your hiring decisions when evaluating prospective employees. Indeed, candidates should be evaluated not just on the basis of their skills and experience, but also on how well their personalities and values harmonize with your organizational culture.

Personality vs. Experience: Top Entrepreneurs Weigh In

The subject of whether to hire based primarily on experience or personality is a controversial one—some of the world’s top entrepreneurs are split on the question.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson favors hiring based on personality, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit with the company. Branson argues that, while job-specific knowledge can always be taught, the emotional or temperamental attributes that make someone a good or bad fit for a company are innate. For Branson, if someone has the wrong personality, no amount of training can overcome that. 

On the other hand, Robert Herjavec, founder and CEO of the Herjavec Group (and one of the judges on Shark Tank) says that a candidate’s skill set and level of focus are the most important attributes when it comes to hiring decisions. Herjavec says that an interview needs to be structured to help the interviewer distinguish between good performers and those who are merely good at presenting themselves in interviews.

Culture Change Comes Last

Crucially, Kotter writes, culture change must be the final step in your transformation effort. It is only when behaviors and attitudes are changed and the holdouts leave (either voluntarily or through termination) that a new culture and set of norms can flourish.

Once the culture begins to turn, the changes you’ve instituted will start to become self-perpetuating. They’re no longer new and don’t require constant feedback and correction; instead, they just become the way things are done.

(Shortform note: Some commentators argue that cultural change can only happen when small victories change an organization’s collective understanding of what’s possible. This inspires confidence among people that they can do more. Thus, it’s usually a mistake to start the change process with big, complex planning steps. Instead, start by addressing the most pressing performance challenges. Once these immediate challenges are successfully overcome, more strategic concerns can be tackled. As the organization demonstrates greater capacity to achieve, change leaders can begin to set more ambitious strategic goals.)

John Kotter: Sustain Acceleration to Cement Change

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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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