In 1995, John Kotter first introduced his steps for successful change management in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, powered by research he had conducted on the topics of leadership and change.

Nearly 30 years old, these eight steps are still relevant for those seeking to transform their organizations in today’s fast-moving business world:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency – If people do not see a reason to change their behaviors, they will dig in and continue to stick with the status quo. And yet, when a person gets a toothache, they prioritize going to the dentist to have it fixed. Document your organization’s toothaches, talk about them regularly, and show employees why they need to be fixed.
  2. Put together a guiding coalition – Find leaders and staff who already believe in the change and solicit their help as change agents. Do not focus just on executives. Find employees at all levels of the organization who can help to enact change.
  3. Create the vision – Defining and discussing the vision for transformation is an important component of convincing people to change. You need to identify the north star and point people toward it.
  4. Communicate the vision – You can’t overcommunicate during transformational change. Communicate early and often. If there is news you perceive to be negative, share that as quickly as possible with relevant employees. Don’t drip out the bad news, a little at a time. It is better to rip off the Band-Aid. If you share bad news incrementally, employees will live in a state of fear, anticipating a steady drip to come.
  5. Empower others to act – Build teams and empower them to design and implement best practices for the business.
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins – Transformational change can take years to fully complete, but many short-term wins are possible along the way. Be sure to call out the early wins and celebrate successes as they’re achieved. This builds excitement and energy to keep employees moving forward.
  7. Consolidate improvements and produce more change – Leveraging early wins and momentum, bring on more change agents and tackle harder, more ingrained operating models, which need to evolve and improve.
  8. Institutionalize new approaches – Through succession planning, hire team members who believe in the vision and want to support long-term success through continuous improvement.

Broadly speaking, change occurs in phases, and each phase must be effectively implemented for a transformation to truly succeed. Skipping a phase may create the illusion of speed and efficiency, but overall outcomes will fall short as a result. Skipping a phase of change almost guarantees problems later on.

One notable takeaway from Kotter’s research is the broad concept that mistakes will happen on the way to bringing companies together onto standard technology platforms and business processes. At Essential Utilities, our gas business first implemented SAP ERP Central Component (ECC) in 2011, and we completed our upgrade to SAP S/4HANA in 2019. In 2022, we brought our water and wastewater businesses onto SAP. Essential Utilities is now working on plans for our future. 

Since most organizations don’t go through large-scale transformations regularly, it is difficult to entirely avoid mistakes, and any mistake can be crippling. At every step of the way in our SAP S/4HANA upgrade, we have focused on the importance of change management and fully supporting our employees. Like most organizations, we’ve experienced some surprises along the way, but we’ve learned from each one and refocused to achieve our desired outcomes.

Kotter’s research led him to identify eight steps to achieve success with change. Though written nearly 30 years ago, Kotter’s approach still resonates today, and I found them to be helpful during Essential Utilities’ digital transformation.

If you are embarking on transformational work, I highly recommend following Kotter’s guidance and prioritizing each phase of change to achieve success.

Whitney Kellett is Chief Administrative Officer at Essential Utilities, Inc. 

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