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John P. Kotter’s Leading Change established why change in organizations can fail and the forces that shape successful in the first two chapters. The two sets of opposing forces he identifies are used to define his famous eight-stage model for change. The first step of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second step is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for to make change happen.

Kotter defines a guiding coalition as a team built on trust and a common goal. The team must reflect the proper balance of four key attributes in order to be effective:

  1. Position Power – Are the members of the coalition in the right organizational positions to support and foster progress? Are they in the right place in the organization to overcome those outside the coalition that can disrupt progress? For example, not including line-management in the guiding coalition for a change that affects them is typically dangerous. Not involving the leadership of the organization most directly affected will generate active resistance or passive aggressive behavior. Without the involvement of those that will be affected  In a software development organization, not including development managers in the guiding coalition for planning and implementing changes that would impact how they staff a project would generate resistance.  It would easy to view the change they are being asked to make as being forced on them from the outside..
  2. Expertise – Do the members of the team have the relevant skills and knowledge needed to make the decision’s needed to make the right change happen? When considering the topic of expertise, the concept of diversity must be considered. Relevant diversity helps team take broader perspective when making decisions.
  3. Credibility – Does the broader organization (specially the areas impacted in the change) trust and believe in the reputations of the members so that decisions will be accepted? Without credibility the guiding the decisions and messaging around the change will not be taken seriously.
  4. Leadership – The guiding coalition has to have enough leadership to drive the change. While there is not a single precise definition of leadership, the core attribute of all definition is the ability to influence a group of people to achieve a goal.

The guiding coalition needs to reflect a combination of all of these qualities. For example, a guiding coalition without leadership will either tend to wander aimlessly or not have enough influence to get the organization to follow them. Kotter drives home the point that a well-balanced team is needed by comparing changes driven by the lone, powerful champion and the underpowered committee. The lone powerful champion can work in scenarios where diversity of thought is not critical or the required rate of change is slow. Given the pace of change and level of complexity most development organizations face on a day-to-day basis, these scenarios are outside of the norm today. Many organizations appoint committees to lead and champion change that are merely groups of managers that meet to facilitate status sharing or don’t have the power needed to generate change and influence the organization. A few years ago I was asked to observe a project steering committee for a CMMI implementation. The implementation touched every aspect of the development group in the organization (including support and enhancements). The steering committee was comprised of proxies for the leaders all impacted departments. Each person on the committee had their own agenda insuring that the committee was a group rather than a team. Also, because they were proxies for other leaders there were very few decisions they were empowered to make because they had very little positional authority. The steering committee had a hard time steering anything.  A guiding coalition needs to be a team that is focused on a single goal in order to effectively provide the structure needed to harness and guide the energy unleashed by a common well understood sense of urgency.

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