Thought Leadership Series
A Conversation with John Kotter: Leading Transformative Change
School Administrator, January 2021

Larry Nyland has seen the impact of John Kotter’s ideas on educators over his 24 years as a superintendent in Washington state. PHOTO BY BELLO DONDJA/MARYSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT 25, MARYSVILLE, WASH.
The third installment in School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series features John P. Kotter, one of the world’s preeminent scholars on organizational change and the author of multiple books, most recently That’s Not How We Do It Here! A Story about How Organizations Rise and Fall…and Can Rise Again

Kotter, the emeritus Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, was interviewed for an hour by Larry Nyland, a retired superintendent who had tenures leading four Washington school districts over 24 years: Seattle, Marysville, Pasco and Shoreline.

The author of Leading Change, Our Iceberg Is Melting and Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World, among other works, Kotter was a General Session speaker at AASA’s 2007 National Conference on Education. The Leading Bold Change certification workshop that is based on his work was conducted for school leaders at AASA headquarters in 2011.

In Nyland’s interview, Kotter discusses the differences between leadership and management, the evolution of organizational management, and the importance of having a collaborative network rather than a hierarchy to be successful.

Acknowledging the challenges of leading in unsettling times, Kotter shares insights about how a “faster-moving, more complex, more unpredictable world” is bumping into not only organizations that weren’t designed to function well in such a world, but human nature that wasn’t designed for it either. He discusses his research on neuroscience and the brain’s survival response to threats.

Kotter suggests that although our world will never go “back to normal” — he calls that hope “fantasy” — we have opportunities to implement change that can produce positive outcomes for all of humanity. 

LARRY NYLAND: Thank you for doing this interview with AASA. I’m a fan of your work. Leading Change provided a great framework, and then Heart of Change added the emotional side of change. Your book Urgency challenged me to “call an emergency” to move the district forward. And, most recently, Accelerate provided great ideas on innovation. 

So, first question: Time magazine lists Leading Change as one of the top leadership books of our time because it transformed the way we think about change. How so? How does your work transform the way we think about change? 

JOHN KOTTER: Until Leading Change came out, virtually all of the material that was being produced in book and other forms on change was talking about managing change: planning change, organizing it, and keeping it under control.

The Leading Change research project is much more about leadership, not management. The two are different; they serve different purposes. 

When you take leadership within the context of large-scale change, there is a pattern of how things lead to good outcomes and where people get bogged down. 

Leading Change was the first book to present that pattern of common mistakes, [and] present the process associated with quite remarkable transformations. It would still be on a list of influential books today, I think, simply because the rate of complex change and the amount of uncertainty has continued to go up over the last few decades, as we’re moving from an industrial age to a post-industrial information age. And, anybody who doesn’t believe that should sit down and ponder [COVID since] the middle two weeks of March 2020. 

NYLAND: In Accelerate you say seven out of 10 change initiatives fail. I know that you’ve got management teams around the world. Have you been able to improve the odds by teaching your method to others? 

KOTTER: Yes. I decided as an educator at Harvard and as an individual advisor to certain companies that I simply didn’t have the time to be an effective consultant or advisor with a large system.

So, 12 years ago, we started a management consulting company with offices in Boston and in Seattle. Five other outposts in the United States, two in Europe, and one in Asia. It focuses only on large-scale change, transformation leadership. 

I can say now, with the proof positive of what I’ve seen with my own eyes, that it is possible to turn the science of my research into a consulting art. It is possible to help the right people be those one or two or three cases out of 10 who really do succeed. What we’ve learned, as things have even sped up more in the last couple of years, is that it’s possible to help people mobilize others to achieve things through change that, before we started, they couldn’t really imagine possible and at speeds that just broke any record of what they perceived to be possible. 

So, I’m very upbeat about the possibilities because I’ve seen it up close — watched it actually happen. 

Now, the challenge is that we’re not dealing with a static target as we try to get better at this. The target is moving and it’s becoming tougher. As uncertainty goes up, as speed goes up, as complexity goes up, the number of change initiatives that a typical corporation [faces] has been going up over the last 20 years.

So, even though I think, as a whole, that the managerial world is more sophisticated since I first wrote Leading Change, the challenge has grown at least as much, if not more, leaving us in that same position of the vast majority of strategic change initiatives turning out to be disappointing when measured against their initial aspirations. 

NYLAND: In Accelerate, and That’s Not How We Do Things Here!, you advocate for a dual operating system where both leadership and management are important. That seems to be another leap forward, in terms of the leadership work. 

 John Kotter, of the Harvard Business School, has been an enduring force known for his principles of proactive organizational change. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES/CHRIS YOUNG
KOTTER: Most people don’t realize that what we take for granted today, in terms of organizations of any size, is that it’s not as if they always existed. It’s not as if that the Roman Empire was built upon these things. They’re very much a product of the industrial revolution. And, even by the end of the Civil War in the United States, the number of organizations with more than a hundred employees you can count on the number of hands. It’s all small farms, small shops, small manufacturing, blacksmiths. But, the industrial revolution with new sources of power opened up opportunities for large-scale, much cheaper, much more reliable productions. 

There wasn’t even management education before the 1880s. It didn’t exist. The first school that tried it was Wharton. They opened up an undergraduate degree in management. The first school that offered a graduate degree in management was Harvard in 1908 and that was in response to what was happening in society. All of a sudden, you had these large organizations and people inventing new planning practices that were more formal and systematic. McKenzie was a professor at the University of Chicago who started a consulting firm to teach companies this wild new thing called budgeting, and he did quite well by himself, as a result. 

But, management as we know it was invented at the end of the last century and the beginning of this century. It was invented to help do what was not possible before, which is to get large-scale, highly efficient, highly reliable production of goods that people wanted and needed. 

It was not invented to cope with what is taken for granted today in terms of changing technologically and a globally changing world. 

So, one of the problems you have right now is [that] management, as it’s been invented, is still essential to kind of keeping the trains running on time, so to speak. To make sure that the store opens each day, the customers are served, the products are made, that service is delivered on quality, as promised. Hierarchy, controlled systems, metrics, planning, budgeting and all of the things we associate with organizations are essential. 

Those things, however, stand in the way of change. We discovered, with one of our early clients, they were doing more than just taking the process that was described in the early books. With our help, [they were] learning it and applying it and getting better results. In the case of one of our first clients, a market strategy helped them come out of the 2008 [recession] remarkably better than any of the executives thought possible. 

The notion that everything is going to get stable and predictable and you can go back to just running something well on a daily basis is a total fantasy. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. We’re going to get more change coming at us, and bigger. Even back then, [we thought] “We’ll have some time in the next 20 years, something bigger than 2008.” We would have never guessed what we’re experiencing today. But, it fits. 

And, to handle that, you need a more permanent built-in system. But, it’s a different system. It’s organized more by what we call networks than hierarchies. It has people doing more things that we associated with leadership than management. It is much more flexible and dynamic. Networks don’t reorganize themselves once every two years or every five years. They reorganize themselves spontaneously. People volunteer to be a part of them because they want to. Because, there’s something in it that touches their own sense of meaning and purpose. They reorganize themselves weekly, monthly. 

I did a historical study of organizational life cycles and found that, for virtually all forms of organization, when they’re first started, they look more like the network side. They’re very fast, they’re very agile, they’re very informal. There are no policies, hierarchies, budgets. 

But, if they’re successful, they start growing that other piece [hierarchy]. And, for a while, they have both working together, often because the central character in the drama plays a role in both sides. And, they don’t have two different work forces. They have the main work force that does the work every day, and a subgroup of them that bounces in and out of the network side to handle change initiatives. 

But, as time goes on, the hierarchy has to grow to handle the larger scale of services being provided — the larger number of finances or students. And, it tends to hate uncertainty. So, it kills off the network and you end up with a typical bureaucratic organization. 

We found that you could grow a new version of the network side and have the two working together: one side making the organization reliable, in terms of producing the appropriate quality of product or service and the other side, the network side, finding new opportunities and mobilizing people to change as quickly as possible and take advantage of those opportunities. 

NYLAND: One of your books, Urgency, caused me, as a school superintendent, to say, in the middle of the year, “Stop, we’ve got an emergency. We have to do something different.” Too many people were telling me, “We’ll fix that next year.” But our students wouldn’t have a next year. We had to do something now.
So, what are your ideas on urgency? I guess we have built-in urgency with COVID right now. 

KOTTER: One of the things that we’ve been studying in the past four years, and we’re writing about now, [is] the neurosciences — studying the brain. 

As we apply it to organizations, it’s very clear that we all have built into us a very, very powerful system that’s all about survival. It’s as if it has a radar system that runs 24 hours a day looking for threats. When it sees something that it perceives as a threat, it sends out signals and chemicals that get our emotional systems in gear, anxious, or angry, or something that catches our attention. All this happens unconsciously — in a second, literally. And, once upon a time, that’s how we didn’t get eaten by saber-toothed tigers. 

There’s a second system that developed later in the evolutionary path that is more oriented toward helping us not only to survive, but to thrive and prosper. That system is more oriented toward opportunity; the chemicals don’t spike, they just raise our energy. Our emotions do pump up, but the emotions tend to be more excitement and fun and passion. And, our minds, if anything, don’t narrow. Often, they will broaden, kind of trying to take in the context, to understand the opportunity, and try to figure out how to do something about it.

When this system works well, that energy can be maintained for significant periods of time, not just a short period of time. And, as long as there’s feedback that the brain thinks we’re making progress, it will keep going until that opportunity is capitalized on.

The problem today is there is so much going on — in the economy, with COVID and health — which is upending people’s lives. Your survival system starts seeing threats and if it gets overheated, it doesn’t function that well. It was designed for 150,000 years ago, not today. And, when it overheats, it shuts down the thrive system. People stress out and ignore what you and I might objectively say is a great opportunity. 

SOURCE: Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World by John P. Kotter
NYLAND: So, we can actually have too much urgency that triggers our survival radar. Better instead is what you call an “opportunity” statement that triggers the thrive system.

KOTTER: Right, right. Exactly, exactly. Starting 40 years ago, we’ve invented all sorts of new additions to how we run bureaucracies to try to help us adapt to new circumstances. 

Right now, because of the economy and because of the COVID implications, there are thousands of businesses and government units and nonprofits that are going through restructurings. Often, that includes not only reorganizing, but layoffs, setting off the survive radar. People are hunkering down and stressing out. Even if they have bosses who are trying to talk to them about the opportunities, they don’t have the bandwidth; they’re bogged down in their own survival.

A marvelous example is Kraft Heinz. A private equity firm took them through a two-year restructuring that cut out $2 billion worth of expenses. During that time, the management and staff and employees became more and more stressed out, defensive, watching out for number one. Product innovation went to zero in terms of output, and during those two years when they were doing no product innovation, the market for packaged foods was shifting, with a heavier emphasis on healthier [items]. A number of smaller newer firms just raced right past Kraft Heinz. They lost market share. They lost people. They lost money over a two-year period: $22 billion. 

It’s an interesting example of how a faster-moving, more complex, more unpredictable world is bumping into not only organizations that weren’t designed for it, but human nature that wasn’t designed for it. 

NYLAND: That seems to fit perfectly where we are right now in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Schools have high anxiety about restarting school in person or online. As educators, we wonder if we can we take advantage of this opportunity to build back better. How could we make that happen? What would we do differently to overcome those obstacles you point out?

KOTTER: It starts with doing everything possible to make sure that the survive side, our own human nature, isn’t overheating and just shutting down any positive opportunity-focused action. There are a number of ways to do that, including being relatively transparent with people so the trust level doesn’t go through the basement — and with all your constituencies, not just your employees. 

And, then, recognizing that the bureaucracy, per se, was not designed for this kind of a crisis. Pull together groups that want to be involved, who have a positive attitude and can relate to opportunity. Give them some rope to think through new, bolder options, and then follow through and make things happen. 

It doesn’t have to be everybody — but a diverse group. With competent leadership, diversity does produce innovation. So, if you can keep human nature from killing you off, and start building as fast as possible my kind of dual system and pointing it toward the immediate task at hand, you’ve got a shot at making progress.

This is as tough an environment as I’ve seen in my lifetime. But, crises do offer the opportunity for people to step forward, and not [just the] usual candidates, to help supply some leadership. In too many places, traditional bureaucratic organizations shut that down. 

We’ve got story after story of the people at the bottom of the hierarchy who, given a chance to join some initiative, end up being as central as anybody to coming up with a new idea that actually makes a little change in a factory or in an office. 

 John Kotter says the COVID-19 pandemic has left many workers hunkered down in survival mode. PHOTO BY CAROLINE C. KOTTER
NYLAND: So, the idea of small wins that you talk about in all of your books starts to build that momentum.

KOTTER: Oh yeah. And, if anything, what we’ve learned in the last three years is those short-term wins are even more important than I first wrote about. And, we’ve found that, basically, pulling people together, giving them a framework, the opportunity, the focus, gets them positive. But, then put the 90-day clock on their activities. Ninety days. That’s it. 

And, we’ve discovered … what a group of people under the right conditions, even inside a pretty slow bureaucratic organization, can do in 90 days can blow your mind – inventing things, cutting costs, redesigning, coming up with implementable ideas.

NYLAND: I have a small version of that to share with you. During the pandemic, a dozen students from the Seattle housing authority were asked to figure out how to help parents use the technology needed for online learning. The kids interviewed parents, developed a class and tried it out with 20 parents. Now, there’s demand from other parents to make this viral. Now, they need help from the hierarchy to build it into the system. Amazing what a group of kids did in a short time to show the way.

KOTTER: That’s exactly it. 

NYLAND: I hear you suggesting that this crisis may be opportunity, as you describe in Our Iceberg Is Melting, to overcome the power of the status quo. This may be an opportunity to build in a dual operating system, pull a guiding coalition together, frame the opportunity, and turn diverse groups loose to create small wins as a way forward. This may not be the time to hunker down — it may be an opportunity to move forward. 

KOTTER: Right. We’re already seeing the spread between the people who do try it in a new way — the way that I’ve been writing [about] — and those that hunker down. The spread of results is only going to grow. The distance between the performance of the first-place guy and the last-place guy, two years from now, is going to be considerably greater than it is right now. And that isn’t necessarily great for society. 

As a citizen, one of the things that worries me about school systems, too, is that the low end, the ones who really struggle through this, are going to be even further behind the ones who do find a way to turn this into an opportunity. And, the students in those two groups aren’t a random selection of youngsters, and that is going to have an impact on inequality. It’s going to have an impact on people who are already vulnerable. It’s going to have an impact on race relations — none of which is necessarily good. 

The notion that this is all going to settle down sometime and we’ll kind of go back to normal is a fantasy. It’s not. The world is full of examples where change has produced wonderful outcomes for humanity. We’ve got to make that an objective. That means more leadership from more people, including students, literally. Who knows what the high end is? We’re not giving up on school systems. Too important. 

NYLAND: That’s why I am still working, trying to figure out how to capture those stories. Students of color are now half of our student population and soon to be half of our work force. Our public schools need a lot more of those bottom-up solutions that go viral in changing the outcomes for the better. 

So, what about leadership? What have you learned about creating a new generation of leaders to seize this as an opportunity and not just survive the crisis? 

KOTTER: Well, at graduation [we tell] graduating students, “You are the leaders of tomorrow.” I think anything that can be done to help young people understand something about leadership. It’s not just standing up and giving orders. It’s not just something that is associated with big, important jobs that they don’t see themselves going into. But, it’s a set of actions that mobilize people and produce innovative, better results. And, students actually can find more meaning in life by engaging … sticking their necks out … playing some leadership role in their organization, community, schools.

NYLAND: Your model of including more people at lower levels of the organization in these entrepreneurial workgroups would create an opportunity for people to spread their wings and find out about leadership first-hand. 
Larry Nyland buys into John Kotter’s notion that times of crisis provide chances to overcome the power of the status quo. PHOTO BY BELLO DONDJA/MARYSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT 25, MARYSVILLE, WASH.

Yes. One client, a very cerebral guy, had a job in strategy. After we worked with him for two years, the two of us are in a conference room. He’s just wandered in and starts talking. He says, I’ve done an analysis of who’s been participating in these new efforts that are doing so much for us. And, I’ve learned, most of the people who have come forth and made a difference were not on our list of high potentials. The biggest single impact all of this activity is having is not simply that we’re growing faster, our stock is going up. It’s that we’re growing a whole bunch more leaders that we didn’t even know existed. 

NYLAND: Awesome. Any other insights from your new book that you’re willing to share? 

KOTTER: Oh, gosh. If we get into that, we’ll be here for hours.

NYLAND: Well, thank you so much for your time. 

KOTTER: This was a pleasure. It’s good to talk to somebody who is dedicated to making a difference. 

NYLAND: Yes, I wish I was just starting out. With each new iteration of research, I am anxious to get back to work putting those ideas into practice. Thank you so much and I’ll definitely be eager to see your new book in print.

Next Issue: The fourth installment of the Thought Leadership Series features author Liz Wiseman in conversation with Suzette Lovely, a retired superintendent in southern California.