John P. Kotter, arguably one of the most prolific and well-known experts on the subject of change, uses his experience with hundreds of large corporations as research on the change process and what makes it successful, or not. He has published dozens of books on change and academic articles through Harvard School of Business, as well as other publications, most published with various co-authors. He is likely to be quoted in any paper that is focused on how change happens. I admit, I am a bit of a fan, reading many of his articles and several of his books, not just for academic purposes, but for the real-world application I see in his (and his co-authors) findings, stories, and insights.
Change starts with a need – an urgency – to do something different. This urgency must be taken up by a group of dedicated people to work on what needs to change and how it might happen. The key that Kotter and his co-authors of their most recent book on change1, points out that there is a “dual operating system” of leadership within companies that are able to successfully negotiate today’s accelerated change. This dual system includes the typical hierarchy of leadership that is expected in business. Those in C-level positions have a position of leadership. The other part of this dual system is the leadership found in all employees at all levels in the company. This leadership is embedded in the culture of the company.
In a mid- to large-company in the 20th century, the typical hierarchical leaders were expected to generate ideas and make decisions to help keep the company competitive. In that past, there was much slower change. Much of the change that happened could take one or more decades, giving companies a lot of time to discover if the change was going to affect them. Having ideas trickle down from the few minds in charge was possible because there was time to ‘catch up’ to the change. Now, rapid technological and disruptive change is happening all the time, before it is even recognized as a possible threat or opportunity.
Let’s use an analogy of the invading ships in the past. For ancient cities that lived on the ocean, a ship would land close to a city, or area of interest and take everything they could. They might destroy infrastructure and kill people. The area would be devastated. It may even be under the rule of the new invaders or completely abandon afterwards.
The solution for these ancient cities was to install a watchtower. A way to see the ships before they landed so they could be prepared. But having one watchtower is like having only one person in your company looking for change on the horizon. One person to see all the trends, changes in technology, competition, social and global challenges, etc. With only one person watching for the constant change in all areas of business, it is like ships are landing all down the coast, out of sight of the watchtower. It is less likely they will be prepared and the city would ‘caught off guard’.
Ancient cities had numerous watchtowers with a sentinel posted in each. They had a process to communicate what was happening and what resources needed to be deployed. Decisions could now be made with more clarity on what was going to happen and what could be done. In your business these sentinels do not have to be assigned to a watchtower, they are already in their own watchtower, per se. They are already closely connected to their work, how their efforts fit into the business, the players in the industry, and the trends that are about to go viral. When they see a change to their expertise, the industry, or technology, etc., they can sound the alarm and decisions can be made.
Any person that works in your business may be the witness to change. All you need to do is have a process to ensure the message can get from your sentinels in their watchtowers (your employees) back to the city (including all employees in all departments, so a plan can be determined, action can be coordinated, resources allotted, and teams can be motivated to focus on the change expected. This is the dual system that ensures a business can keep up with the change that is coming at them faster and faster every day.
In his own way, Kotter is the sentinel that keeps looking for how changes happens so we can recognize change before it happens and we can be prepared.