John Kotter’s Step 5: Remove Obstacles to 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 are the most common obstacles to change in an organization? How can you overcome those obstacles?

Whenever you try to make big changes, especially in an organization, roadblocks are inevitable. The biggest roadblock is usually the resistance to change among the junior and middle managers.

Learn how to overcome these obstacles below.

Remove Roadblocks 

In Leading Change, Kotter writes that when you’re spearheading an organizational change effort, you’re inevitably going to face obstacles to change on your way to transforming your organization. As a leader, you’ll need to navigate these carefully, because roadblocks to change can be deeply disempowering and discouraging for those who are trying to guide the organization along a new path.

He notes that barriers to reform often come from a few common sources:

  • Bosses and managers standing in the way
  • Lack of proper training
  • Poor organizational structure

Overcome Resistance From Managers

Kotter writes that junior and middle managers often feel that they will be the “losers” in a reorganizing process. Complicating matters, these managers are often people who have been with the company for a long time and have advantages of seniority, institutional knowledge, popularity, and power that can make them effective at standing in the way of needed change.

For example, a top-performing sales manager who sees herself personally benefiting from the existing way of doing things in her company may be highly resistant to changing it (even if that way of doing things is bad for the company as a whole). And because she brings in a lot of revenue, she’s likely to have a lot of clout within the organization and to be effective at convincing or pressuring others to stand in the way of change.

Kotter advises that for change leaders, there’s only one option: Confront these holdouts early in the process. Tell them what’s expected of them for the good of the organization. If they’re unwilling to get on board and keep throwing up roadblocks, then they’ll need to be replaced.

(Shortform note: Other commentators note that there may be additional reasons, other than self-interest, that make people resist change, and that it’s important to address these root causes. Often, the resistance is rooted in a poor understanding of why the change needs to happen, cynicism based on past failed change efforts, or fear of job loss. Once change leaders have a better understanding of these root causes of resistance and dissatisfaction, they can draft a better communication and response strategy to mitigate them.)

Strengthen Your Team With Training

Kotter writes that proper and regular training is essential for any organizational transformation to succeed. When you haven’t trained employees properly, you’re going to suffer from a lack of skilled people on hand to actually implement the change. 

Moreover, if an organization has been doing the same thing for a long time, it’s likely that it’s learned and internalized some bad habits over the years. Those entrenched bad habits need to be unlearned and replaced with good habits—and regular training is one of the best ways to do that. 

(Shortform note: In The Ultimate Sales Machine, Chet Holmes writes that training needs to be consistent, regular, interactive, and fun. Real skill-building comes when employees are engaged in the training and participating in shaping their experiences as they’re learning. Role-playing exercises can be great for this, helping your team direct their own education while working through real-life scenarios.)

John Kotter’s Step 5: Remove Obstacles to Change

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of John P. Kotter's "Leading Change" at Shortform.

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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