Dr. John P. Kotter is a former professor at the Harvard Business School and is regarded as one of the biggest authorities on leadership and change. He has authored 17 books, many of which are bestsellers. ‘Leading Change’, his biggest success was reedited last year a little earlier than his article ‘Accelerate’ in which he outlines his new thoughts on change and innovation. Not surprisingly, in this article his 8 steps come back, but adapted to the fast-changing world we currently live in. I interviewed John just at the beginning of the year.
Ruben: You’ve reedited ‘Leading Change’ past year. To speak in your terms; what was the urgency to do so?
John: The first edition of ‘Leading Change’ sold in incredible amounts across the world. But the book is from 1996 and the publisher noticed there is a whole new generation that doesn’t know about the book and the thoughts. Reediting the book is simply a way of getting visibility to something still very relevant.
Ruben: But your thoughts must have evolved since then?
John: Actually, it coincides with my latest work ‘Accelerate’. This is the title of an article that was the cover story of the Harvard Business Review magazine of November.
Ruben: So why did you go along then with the reediting as it strikes me that ‘Accelerate’ is different from ‘Leading Change’?
John: The reason I went along is that the thoughts in ‘Leading Changer’ are still helpful today. It’s still the leading edge of thinking about change. People tell me: ‘I flipped back to one of the old books.’ There are still many nuggets to be found in there. Even if the world has dramatically changed since then.
Ruben: Does the success of ‘Leading Change’ surprise you?
John: I believe there’s a logic chain from then to the challenges of today’s business world. You could say it started with my book ‘Force For Change’ from 1990, in which I explained the radical difference between leadership and management. I don’t focus on trendy topics; I want to get inside fundamental truths.
Ruben: What do you mean by that?
John: I was and am still leveraging on work done back in the fifties and afterwards on what managers actually really do. For example, in his book ‘The Nature of Managerial Work’ Henry Mintzberg intensively studied research done in the fifties in Europe and he came to the conclusion that managers did not behave as the books told. My research also indicated this as you can read in my book ‘The General Managers’. I wrote a chapter called ‘the Efficiency of Seemingly Inefficient Behaviour’. In order to be able to perform, managers need two things: a vision on where to go and a personal network to get things rolling. You didn’t need tons of meetings for that.
Ruben: You use the word network, yet in ‘Leading Change’ the word hardly appears whereas in the 16-page ‘Accelerate’ I counted it more than 40 times. How come?
John: It’s true. But it has always been there. I’m really into how and why organisations perform. And I’m trying to find the generic pattern behind differences in performance. The one fundamental trend nowadays is the increasing amount of change in the world. Increasingly we’re in a fast moving turbulent world. You have to stretch your capacity to take big strategic decisions. You have to be agile. But the agility is not about moving right or left. You have to move right and left and faster. And for that you need networks.
Ruben: So it’s strategic change at the core of your business. What difference is there with innovation?
John: It overlaps. You can make change without having lots of innovation. But you can’t innovate without change.
Ruben: And what role do you see for creativity? According to an IBM study CEO’s worldwide see creativity as the top leadership quality to be able to handle the accelerating change.
John: Creativity is very relevant and overlaps with the other two. In themselves, people are creative. But many senior executives don’t want to hear new and creative ideas, they don’t know what to do with them, they don’t know how to deal with them. Many organisations have no mechanism to pull out ideas. That’s why in ‘Accelerate’ I introduce 2 different operating systems for one organisation.
Ruben: Could you please expand on that?
John: The first operating system is making sure you have dinner everyday. That’s the operating system we know, it handles the day-to-day business and it’s a very important one. But you don’t need a lot creativity to keep that one going. The second operating system is new and that’s the one you organise to pull out all those creative and innovative ideas.
Ruben: In your article ‘Accelerate’ you talk about an army of volunteers from inside the company and throughout the hierarchy. Are people able to combine the 2 operating systems in one organisation?
John: There are plenty of people who can do both. Even moderately competent managers are able to step up and lead. But to the one question ‘what kind of leadership is needed today?’ organisations come up with many answers like ‘it should be more sophisticated’, ‘it should understand technology’, ‘it should work worldwide’. But actually the real answer is ‘more!’
Ruben: More… what do you mean by that?
John: Just more. Whatever type of leadership it is, we need more of it. Everybody talks about leadership but we don’t know how to make it happen.
Ruben: So what could we, you and me, do as leaders to make this happen?
John: It’s actually why I started my company. Its basic vision is ‘millions leading… billions benefiting.’
Ruben: My mission is to change and innovate through meetings. What role do meetings play in the process of change?
John: In most meetings the question that pops up for a rational man is ‘where’s the gun to shoot myself?’ We create these horrible things where time and money are wasted. We all know meetings should be as short as possible, with the right people in the room, with good slides and people having an honest and engaged discussion. It’s no rocket science. You don’t have these problems in start-ups where somebody just says: ‘hey, I have a problem.’ And then they meet and discuss the issue without having to schedule it. In meetings you need to get the discussion on topics that bother you.
Ruben: So why aren’t these discussions happening?
John: The problem is that the initial energy of start-ups gets lost with bureaucracies, hence my dual system. You can retain some of this energy in the second operating system. That’s why it’s crucial to build networks and not hierarchies.
Ruben: One last question: what role does humour have in all this serious business?
John: Humour is a huge deal in organisations. It’s a way to pull people in and to engage them. People need fun at work. We try to have lots of laughter around the work.
Ruben: Many thanks John. Now I usually send a draft of my interview for you to review. Is that OK with you?
John: That’s not necessary. I trust you completely. Do something useful with it as we need people that take these ideas further.
Ruben: Wow, thanks. That’s actually the second time it happens to me (see also my interview with Al Pittampalli). And I must admit, it puts the pressure on me to deliver a great interview.
John: Ha, ha… Good answer.