Business & Leadership

Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World

The book Leading Change (1996) introduced an 8-step process for change and built the reputation of John Kotter as a preeminent global expert on leadership and change management. Released in 2014, his latest work Accelerate (XLR8) turbocharged this influential change model to remain relevant in current competitive business environments.

The book Leading Change (1996) introduced an 8-step process for change and built the reputation of John Kotter as a preeminent global expert on leadership and change management. Released in 2014, his latest work Accelerate (XLR8) turbocharged this influential change model to remain relevant in current competitive business environments.

Smaller = Faster

Case A: You are the founder and CEO of a young, dynamic company. Your sales revenue is growing quickly, so are the clients, team and issues to handle. So instead of making every decision together with your COO and CFO, you decide to delegate your power and promote a new team of managers. Everything appears to be going well, until one day you find yourself no longer aware of the most recent trends and your company seems to be doing the same thing every day. You regret the old good days.

Case B: You are the Strategy Director of a large organization with a perfectly-designed structure and well-trained staff. A new competitive threat emerges. You quickly set up an internal committee and call upon a team of external consultants to work on it. By the time they come up with brilliant propositions (which might not be years), your competitor has gained millions of new users. You envy this newcomer.

Sound familiar? Then you may need to read John Kotter’s book Accelerate, which gives a fascinating answer to the question: if small structures survive and thrive in a world of constant turbulence and disruption, how can larger organizations change quickly and efficiently enough?

1 + 1 > 2

One of the most groundbreaking concepts in this book is the notion of “dual operating system”, which is a combination of the traditional management-driven hierarchy with a second, more agile, strategy-acceleration network.

The former, Kotter argues, is “one of the most amazing innovations of the twentieth century,” because it meets the everyday demands of running an organization through clear reporting relationships and responsibilities, and helps to maintain reliability and efficiency.

Although capable of handing incremental or predictable change, the hierarchy is not enough in a world where constant change has become a norm, because such structure tends to minimize risks, discourage innovation and promote the routine. Kotter thus recommends bringing back the agile, experimental, silo-free network that almost all highly successful entrepreneurial organizations have at the early stages of their formation. Focused on the opportunities and demands of the future, this network is to sit alongside the hierarchy.

It is worth noting that essential for the success of the business, the two operating systems work side by side. Under the new system, all the members work within a traditional hierarchy on routine tasks, and at the same time part of the group volunteers to contribute to the agile network that takes on missions of innovation, flexibility and big change. In order to sustain the agile network, top management needs to launch the initiative and formalize the structure.

5 principles

A well-functioning dual operating system is guided by five core principles (p. 23):

1. Many people driving important change, and from everywhere, not just the usual few appointees.
As it always says, "United we stand, divided we fall." In an age of information explosion, you cannot work alone but need the energy, insight and vision of others in order to gather information, make decisions and take action with speed and agility.

2. A "get-to" mindset, not a “have-to” one.
The Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Porter & Lawler, 1968; Vroom, 1964) states that Motivational Force (MF) = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valance, so existing people can become motivated agents of change if they feel they are working for an important and exciting shared purpose, can see the realistic possibility of doing so, and are equipped
with the proper tools.

3. Action that is head and heart driven, not just head driven.
In his 2002 book The Heart of Change, Kotter began to recognize the power of emotion. Most people are not appealed by logic, numbers or business cases, but really need to feel an emotional connection to truly embrace change.

4. Much more leadership, not just more management.
Management is about the known and the repetitive, whereas leadership is about the unknown and the unpredictable. “The game is about vision, opportunity, agility, inspired action, passion, innovation, and celebration,” he says. Chapter 4 of the book further explores the notion of leadership.

5. An inseparable partnership between the hierarchy and the network, not just an enhanced hierarchy.
The two systems work as one, with a constant flow of information and activity between them.” There shouldn’t be two super-silos staffed by two different groups of full-time people; instead, the volunteers for the network already work within the hierarchy.

From 8 steps to 8 accelerators

In 1996, Kotter outlined in his book Leading Change a practical 8-step process, which has since become seminal in the field of change management:
        • Establishing a Sense of Urgency
        Creating the Guiding Coalition
        Developing a Vision and Strategy
        Communicating the Change Vision
        Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action
        Generating Short-Term Wins
        Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
        Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

In his new book, the 8 steps have evolved into a more dynamic, change-oriented concept, “Accelerators” (p. 27). The differences are marked in bold.
        Create a sense of urgency around a Big Opportunity
        • Build and evolve a guiding coalition
        Form a change vision and strategic initiatives
        • Enlist a volunteer army
        • Enable action by removing barriers
        Generate (and celebrate) short-term wins
        Sustain acceleration
        Institute change

Kotter explains three main differences in an article published in HBR in 2012:
(1) The steps are often used in rigid, finite, and sequential ways, in effecting or responding to episodic change, whereas the accelerators are concurrent and always at work. (2) The steps are usually driven by a small, powerful core group, whereas the accelerators pull in as many people as possible from throughout the organization to form a “volunteer army.” (3) The steps are designed to function within a traditional hierarchy, whereas the accelerators require the flexibility and agility of a network.

The Big Opportunity and the volunteer army

The book also reveals how companies can focus and align their people's energy around the Big Opportunity, which is also the core of the 8 Accelerators. It designates “something that can potentially lead to significant outcomes if the possibility is exploited well enough and fast enough” (p. 133). Both rational in light of available data and emotionally compelling to people inside an organization, a Big Opportunity is neither a “vision” nor any form of “strategy” or “strategic initiative,” and its statement should be short, rational, compelling, positive, authentic, clear and aligned. You can refer to Chapter 7 to further learn about this notion through detailed explanation and examples.

Another powerful new concept is the volunteer army. Kotter and his team have found that “just 5 to 10% of the managerial and employee population in a hierarchy is all you need to make the network function beautifully” (p. 35). These individuals can come from all levels and all silos, bringing energy, commitment and genuine enthusiasm to align actions that imbue the network with the power it needs to undertake smart, strategic action.

Take action

Kotter willingly admits that more details remain to be revealed while organizations begin digesting and implementing all these new concepts. Inevitably, all the novelty and change will face resistance, difficulty and challenges, but the most important is to get started. And if you feel confused, read Chapter 8, where you will find the answers to some common questions that other leaders have already come across.

Perhaps no one is in a more suitable place than an expert in change management to acknowledge that change is constant, to which even the best model of change is not immune. This is probably the most symbolic meaning of Kotter’s new work: by turbocharging his own model, he proves everyone needs to change, including himself.

Photo by Keiradog. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

About this book:
Title: Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World
Author: John Kotter
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (2014)
Pages: 224
Find it at Amazon

Jeanne Yizhen YIN

This article is dedicated to our fortnightly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.

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