John Kotter’s 8-step model in the digital age – Top-down or bottom-up? Kotter’s dilemma and its digital solution

Tuesday, 18. October 2016

As I recently took a close look at the visitor statistics for our strategy blog, I found myself rubbing my eyes in amazement: Nearly 40% of all visitors had clicked on the entry about John Kotter’s 8-step model! Despite the fact that, over the past few months, we have presented and discussed strategy models that would appear at first glance to be more modern.

What is the reason for Kotter’s continued topicality? Because when all’s said and done, his book ‘Leading Change’ appeared more than 20 years ago. What is it that’s motivating our strategy community to engage with Kotter today?

As I mulled these questions over, it became apparent to me that I had been looking at Kotter’s model from today’s perspective, which is of course to be expected. But today, virtually all business processes have been digitised, and their change processes can be directed using digital strategy tools.

Perhaps, went my train of thought, such software-supported solutions could avoid some of the pitfalls that sometimes threaten to run Kotter’s 8-step model into the ground… In this and following entries I would like to share my thoughts with you as to how a digitisation approach to Kotter’s ‘Leading Change’ could lead to success in the 21st century.


All change comes from above?

In Kotter’s 8-step model, the business leader seems to be the focus of the change process, being both its starting point and driver. Kotter himself is probably responsible for this assessment: Due to his aggressive emphasis on executive function in the change process, his approach today comes across as being somewhat ‘bossy’, to put it bluntly. Kotter even mostly describes the initial impetus of each change process, the generation of urgency that something needs to change (step 1), as a top-down approach.

It is hardly surprising that this view is discussed critically by practitioners: an unchecked top-down approach in the change process throws up numerous questions:

      • How can I convince staff of the urgency of the change process?
      • And also of the validity of the vision?
      • How can the leadership coalition of change demanded by Kotter in step 2 of his model be legitimised as a non-hierarchical team?


This tension between top and bottom, between management floor and grassroots perspectives, between hierarchy and the team seems to be the overall thread that runs through Kotter’s model – and which causes frictions, frictional losses, information losses as well as countless workshops… 

Today, there ought to be more efficient tools for involving all a business’s hierarchical levels in the change process, as well as for making their knowledge come to fruition and utilising their commitment and motivation to bring about the change.


‘Leading Change’ in a counterflow procedure

By synthesising top-down and bottom-up approaches, digitisation provides the business strategy process with valuable help. Digital questionnaires are deployed in order to combine the various perspectives of top management and, for example, regional executives. These provide individual team members responsible for strategy the opportunity to work their expertise and assessment of market and environmental factors etc into the company, as well as to make a sustainable contribution to the strategy and change process, and yes, for them to take joint responsibility for it.

What are the distinguishing features of such a digital questionnaire? – Some of its content is fixed on a top-down basis on the basis of its structure, and is then refined on a bottom-up basis by those involved in the change process. Data relevant for the vision of change is collected, linked and made accessible, for example at regional level, by means of scales, free text fields and sliders, so that it is complete, uniform and structured. In this counterflow procedure, the top-down impulses are complemented by business-specific bottom-up perspectives. The impulses mean that employees gain security, and thanks to their involvement in the entire strategy or change process, it wins acceptance – even below the management floors.

Thanks to the decentralised application of the digital questionnaire, executive and grassroots perspectives permeate one another, delivering a better-quality data framework than would be the case in top-down or bottom-up approaches alone. This provides justification for urgency, enthuses employees and spares the need for workshops… 

Thanks to the digital questionnaire, the visionary power of the individual – the business’s driving force or chief strategist – is complemented by the swarm intelligence of the masses. Later this year, I will devote an article to this topic in the publication BI-Spektrum.

In my next contribution on John Kotter’s 8-step model, I will show how a digitisation approach helps to develop a successful, future-proof vision that engenders communication. Because not only must this vision be shared by all staff, but it should be deducible from the business’s underlying conditions – from the ‘soft data’ – as a strategic conclusion.