Why Projects Fail – Kotter Step 2/8 – Forming A Powerful Guiding Coalition

It was another  great  day at the office for me – why? Well, on the surface it might have seemed like an all too typical work day.  A busy day, with a peppering of morning meetings – a day where lunch consisted of a 7 minute event just before 1:00PM where the “back-to-back” meeting fun was just about to begin.  Busy.  But busy in a good way, as Kotter discusses in  this video  – an environment where the  sense of urgency  and fundamentals of Change Management are well engrained and like a tidal wave, helps to sweep away all the non-critical “make busy” work that may seeem urgent  but isn’t really important .  Where you leave the day and you feel – important progress was made today. Those days are great days.

That may seem rather dramatic – after all, it’s still only Monday –  but this type of energy is what you want to see take hold as you build momentum for your project, and it is what Kotter’s framework for Change Management really does.  Once you’ve set that  sense of urgency  people tend to work harder than normal, get more done – they find a way!

Kotter Change Management - Forming A Powerful Guiding Coaltion

Once you have created a sense of urgency, the next step is to create a powerful “guiding coalition” whose job it will be to sustain that sense of urgency and help to marshall the project or initiative to success – for the duration of the change process.  The members of that coalition need to be individuals who have significant credibility or authority – two key supporting elements you want associated with your project or initiative.

Now a question I get asked frequently is “How many people do I need?” The answer is “it depends”, but you as the project manager are in the best position to make that determination.   I know, that’s not really an answer.  If you need something more let me add this — I have an engineering background, and engineers love facts, figurues and formula’s – a colleague once mentioned an academic paper (which I cannot source) whose thesis was that there was a correlation between the size of your guiding coalition where you need  n members in your change management “guiding coalition” for a group of size nthat you are trying to motivate to change.   I think the order of magnitude there is “roughly right” – and again, not prescribing this as a formula, but I definately agree with the fact that there is a correlation to size of your impacted group.  So, to put it simply – the larger the initiative, the larger your “Guiding Coalition” may need to be.  I would also say that I don’t think you can ever make this group   too big.  If you have stakeholders in your company that are not “ on the bus ” then they might “get in front of it” – so I would rather have them “sitting on the bus” rather than take a chance…(that’s my own personal advice)

One other important element of “the guiding coalition” is that it should contain individuals from outside the normal hierarchy.  For example, a scenario: let’s say you were trying to drive change in a Distribution Centre – perhaps rolling out some automation and/or WMS platform that will streamline wall-to-wall activity in the warehouse for DC associates.  As an operations initiative, your “Guiding Coalition” might include senior and middle management from within the Operations team and perhaps even the General Manager, but you might decide to also include membership from Customer Service or even someone from the DC who is in the “population pool” you are trying to move through the change process.  Why do this? Well you are sending the message that initiative is so important that you want to include perspectives from stakeholders outside the immediate change scope (i.e. Customer Service) as their support will likely be key due to integration points between the teams.  Furthermore, including members of the group impacted, also signals and supports the messaging that you will be involving the “broad user base” in the design and recognize the impact on them is known to be significant.

Once the group is decided, they need to collectively be moved through a process which allows them to “get on to the same page” and at the end, possess a shared sense of ownership and understanding of the vision, the problems or challenges that are anticipated.  These   Forming and Storming   stages are key to building    successful teams   and will form the interpersonal bonds, trust and foundation needed not just to ensure your project “survives” to completion – but that it “thrives”, meeting or exceeding project objectives and in years to come, serves as an example or case study for others to discuss, learn from and help springboard future initiatives or change efforts.

Your project cannot affort to overlook this step.  I believe this to be one of the most critical steps in a project or change management life cycle – the right “guiding coalition” will be able to meet roadblocks head on. The wrong or lack of support in this area has derailed many great projects – I can certainly attest to that.

Tomorrow we move to step 3 and Creating a Vision – until then I will leave you with this quote from   John P. Kotter:

“Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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