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Additional Reading Information:

In this module, we concentrate our focus on Kotter’s steps 1 and 2: establishing a sense of urgency and creating the guiding coalition.

An important question for us to keep in mind is, why is establishing a sense of urgency in a change effort so critical to success? The answer is that inertia is hard to overcome. People in organizations tend to do work and perform processes as they have in the past, and often they do not see any reason to change. Employees tend to get in their comfort zone and want to stay there. So it is the responsibility of the leader to engage employees in the change effort, particularly related to why it must occur. When we reflect on change efforts we have seen, this is often missing, as a decision to change is made at the top of the organization, the targeted change is announced, and everyone else is expected to implement the change. This is the reason for many failed change efforts. The communication of the rationale for the organizational change by the leader is critical for success. The rationale usually takes one of two forms: (a) a reactive position of weakness and (b) a need for proactive positioning. The following is an example of “a reactive position of weakness”: “We need to make this change because we are behind our competitors and if we do not make this change now, the following problematic outcomes will occur.” An example of “a need for proactive positioning” would be the following: “We need to make this change because of what we see on the horizon in the near future to position our organization to not only survive, but to have a competitive advantage over our competitors, and if we do not make this change now, the following problematic outcomes will occur.” To employees, the most important communicator of this is the employee’s direct supervisor. The direct supervisor needs to be prepared to answer questions from employees about the urgency of the change effort, particularly why it is needed, what changes it will mean for the department and the individual employee, and what is required of the employee to take steps toward making the change a reality in the near future.

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In a real sense, a sense of urgency should be established with great care. As leaders, we are trying to create a readiness for change, but we have to provide the outlet and aligned channel for employee efforts toward that targeted change. Without providing clarity on what role an employee is to take on and expectations for the employee to perform to get there, leaders can stir the pot and get everyone wound up, but no true action forward will occur. It is our job as leaders to ensure that this does not happen.


Creating the Guiding Coalition

Most leaders never take the time to develop a powerful guiding coalition, and this is a mistake. Attempting to drive a change effort from an isolated position or going solo is an easy way to fail, as leaders will fall prey to many “blind spot” problems that could have been avoided by having a strong guiding coalition team. Kotter identifies four key characteristics that should be used as criteria for potential members of the guiding coalition. These characteristics are (a) position power, (b) expertise, (c) credibility, and (d) leadership (Kotter, 2012). These are very important characteristics in selecting an individual for the team. The additional characteristics of the ability to influence others in the organization and the ability to listen to the tone of the dialogue about the change effort in the organization could also be added.-
Most leaders don’t take the time to develop a powerful coalition. Doing so can prevent many blind spots, which could have been avoided if the organization had a strong guiding coalition.

Kotter (2012) likes to have a balance between proven leaders and managers who meet the criteria for the team, and this is good advice. Some like using a proportion of one-third leaders, one-third managers, and one-third informal leaders within the organization. The addition of the informal leaders adds value in two primary ways: (a) They have earned their credibility and position of influence in their work group, hence they can influence that work group and others who know them in the organization, and (b) they are usually the most knowledgeable about day-to-day operational processes to produce work, and that is extremely valuable in driving an organizational change effort, in avoiding pitfalls not seen by upper-level decision-makers regarding the change effort, and in the planning and implementation of the change effort, especially where “tweaks” need to occur.
Embracing the shared vision of the change and working as a team toward that goal, with earned trust in place, makes for a strong guiding coalition team. Having stated that, the underlying question for you as a leader is, who should be on the guiding coalition team and why? Answering the “why” question is critical. The rationale for selection may go outside of the considerations previously stated, and that is fine; however, be sure that the rationale is legitimate.
Loading a guiding coalition team with likeminded individuals who support the leader’s position and who will drive through a change that nobody wants or believes in is a recipe for disaster. A key ingredient in a strong guiding coalition team is everyone on the team listening to the dialogue about the change in the organization on a daily basis and intervening as needed to support the change and remove obstacles. Embracing the vision of the change and working together as a team make for a strong guiding coalition. Having stated that, the next step is to answer the question that the leader must answer: Who should be on the team?


Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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