Book Reviews: Leading Change and Good to Great

In a recent post, I mentioned that I would occasionally write reviews of books that have influenced my life and work. I hope to share these with you to inspire you to pick up a book and read it and be changed.

I must confess to a strong distaste for most management writing. It tends to focus on the immediate, the urgent, the trendy. And because the vast majority of it is from American authors who seem to be incapable of self-awareness or of how culturally bound they are, I find a lot of management writing to be annoying (if you only knew just how many times I rewrote that sentence to tone down the rhetoric…). However, now and then there are some good ones that catch my attention.

Two books that are helpful if they are combined are John Kotter, Leading Change, and Jim Collins, Good to Great. I’ll give a very quick review of each and explain why I find them helpful when read together.

John Kotter Leading Change

Leading Change is helpful primarily because of the way it is organized. Essentially it is a bullet list of 8 stages to go through in order to change something. Like most HBR publications, it completely ignores culture, societal norms, basic values and other critical things that affect change and jumps straight into it. Here is just one example of his modern-America-is-best-centric thinking. On page 18, he says, “People of my generation or older did not grow up in an era when transformation was common.” Right, because there was no change back then… Think I’m exaggerating? He puts another nail in that coffin in the very next sentence when he says, “…the norm back then was stability and ruling motto was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'” He’s talking about the 1960s. Can anyone think of some change that happened in the US around then? No? Neither can I… (sarcasm alert!). Sorry, but I think he makes too light of the past and the powers affecting life then, and I think he belittles the people who pursued their understanding of the good life and the American dream in the 1960s. I can only imagine what he would say about us if he were writing 50 years in the future and looking back on 2015: “Oh, life back then was so buccolic. What a bunch of country bumpkins they all were.”

However, all my acerbic thoughts aside, let me summarize the helpful parts of his book.

Kotter begins with a problem: our change efforts suck. We’re not very good at change and most people try to avoid it. But organizations that have succeeded at it have often felt forced to do something or die. Indeed, force is common word in this book, and it is important to know that Kotter believes that change must be forced. Forces encouraging stasis must be overwhelmed with the forces of urgency and politics. And so begins his eight stages of creating major change. These are as follows:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency. Look at the market and competitive realities; identify and discuss crises, potential crises, or major opportunities. These are the forces around why we should change.
  2. Create the guiding coalition. This is the group of people with enough power to lead the change. Get them to work as a team.
  3. Develop a vision and strategy. First vision, then strategy.
  4. Communicate the change vision. Use every vehicle possible to overwhelm, er, constantly communicate the new vision and strategies. The guiding coalition should model expected behaviour of employees.
  5. Empower broad-based action. Remove obstacles to change (heaven help you if you’re an obstacle!), and change the systems or structures and undermine the change vision. Encourage risk taking, nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions.
  6. Generate short-term wins. Manufacture them out of thin air if you have to (oops, he didn’t say that exactly). Plan for visible improvements in performance, or “wins.” Because, you know, it’s a management book and therefore should include a few “win-win” phrases. Visibly recognize and reward people who made the wins possible. Make sure everyone knows that power comes to those who create wins (he didn’t say that exactly either, but it’s all over this book).
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change. Basically, use the increased credibility and power to change everything that’s left over, including systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit together or don’t fit the vision. Hire, promote, and develop people who can implement the change vision.
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture. Create better performance through customer oriented behaviour, and productivity-oriented behaviour. Become a better manager and leader. Train and hire better managers and leaders. Articulate the connections between new behaviours and organizational success so that people can see that their actions have an influence on success.

Kotter does provide a quick and competent overview of one challenge to avoid in leading change: the drive of some to overly manage and control things. Essentially, he says, watch out for bureaucracy, which he defines as taking care of internal needs in an insular or political fashion while neglecting external constituencies (customers and stockholders). Exhibit 4: The Creation of an Overmanaged, Underled Corporate Culture is very good example of this (hint, pick up the book and read it!).

Jim Collins Good to Great

Good to Great is much more nuanced and culturally aware, and seems to me to be more thoughtful. For example, Collins’ use of a flywheel metaphor conveys a very important and complex principle in a simple way. Flywheels, for those of you who are not mechanically inclined, are heavy and hard to start turning, but once they are spinning they are much easier to keep spinning and are also hard to stop. Inertia is a powerful force in organizations. Collins argues that we must get the flywheel of inertia working for us and to do so requires discipline to hold things together while keeping the flywheel turning: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.

Unlike Kotter, Collins does not jump right into action. Instead he says we must start with the right people – disciplined people. Collins has a surprise for the typical American management hero – the first person he starts with is the leader who he says must be a level 5 leader. This leader is not a bold, brash, headline-making big ego leader with bad Trumpesque hair. Rather, he says they are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. This disciplined, mature person also doesn’t jump right into strategy and taking action (as per Kotter). Instead, they get the right people on the bus and the bus will drive itself.

Only after these first two steps are taken does Collins move on to disciplined thought. Disciplined, thoughtful leaders confront the brutal facts – the hard facts, the facts that the data demonstrate should not be ignored. And then consider what he calls The Hedgehog Concept: what you are deeply passionate about; what you can be the best in the world at; and what drives your economic engine. Note how different this is than panicking about change.

After all this, we finally begin to move to disciplined action. Hiring disciplined leaders (getting the right people on the bus) helps breed a culture of discipline. But Collins explains that this also must be carefully thought out and applied appropriately. He, like Kotter, believes that we must avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. One of the best lines in the book is on page 121, where he makes an example of a strong leader, “He understood that the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline – a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.”

And lastly Collins talks about how companies that make the leap from being good to being great by using technology to accelerate the transformation. They are not technophiles, but neither are they technophobes. They thoughtfully choose technology to help them move quickly.

Did you notice how rarely Collins talks about change? And yet that is exactly what the book is about: the subtitle is “Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t.” He believes that disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action will take care of change. Although I generally agree, it is at this point I believe that bringing Kotter’s eight stages of change and Collins’ discipline together can be helpful. Combining the thoughtfulness of Collins with the fridge-magnet practicality of Kotter helps me make sure I have my bases covered.

So how exactly have I put these two books into practice in the Registrar’s Office at my university?

  1. I recommitted myself to hiring only the very best, the most disciplined people I could find. In the past, I sometimes let market forces work against me and I made slightly desperate hiring decisions. After all, I told myself, these people were good people, good enough for now and, you know, the competition for staff is pretty stiff. Not anymore – now I hold out for the very best. I’d rather not hire anyone than the very best, the most disciplined people I can find. Collins’ phrase, “Get the right people on the bus” has stuck with me.
  2. I use data to inform and challenge my ideas. For example, customer service surveys recently told me that while our office was generally doing well, we had a few specific problems to deal with. When the survey was proposed, I initially thought it was a waste of time but the data showed me that I had blind-spots. The facts were not kind, and I felt threatened by them, but I disciplined myself to face them.
  3. I use Kotter’s eight stages of change as a checklist. I am forgetful and I have a tendency to think that others think like I think. I can’t afford to forget key points such as creating a guiding coalition, or to celebrate successes along the way. Kotter helps me remember those items. As you might have sensed from my review above, I use Kotter with a healthy dose of skepticism and care, but his list helps me to balance my own personal tendencies.

These two books are often on my desk at work. I’ve found them to be valuable tools in my workplace.

What is your most recent favourite book that is work related? Leave a comment with the title and author so I can check it out.


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