Skip to Main Content

Organizational Change in Theory and Practice

July 07, 2022 - 8 minute read

There are nearly as many theories of change as there are theories of leadership, ranging from anachronous armchair advice to pithy philosophical prescription. Rapid Change (Laipple, 2012) rewards the agile, accelerated and adaptive leader. In contrast, in Theory of Change (Drucker, 1954), clarification of long-term goals or outcomes precedes short-term or early outcomes or conditions. Gap Analysis (McKinsey, Nadler-Tushman, PESTEL, etc.) simplifies the change process, asking where we are , where we want to be, and how we get there. John Kotter’s (2007) seminal article in the Harvard Business Review is distinguished in both its rigorous empiricism and pragmatic applicability, offering organizations unique strategies for and obstacles prevalent to eight distinct stages of change. 

Rapid Change 

Responding to the challenge of creating and sustaining change, whether in an organization’s culture or a leader’s professional development, Rapid Change critiques the overdependence upon vision and mission statements which compound resistance to change by creating goals that are too far in the future or too high to climb, out of the realm of wishful thinking and into the reality of effective and real change. Rapid Change removes barriers to change by reducing the immediate opportunity cost, allowing clients to take on change in small doses. The model includes nine steps of rapid change which include: 

Step 1 – start with a persistent and deliberate impatience
Step 2 – maintain a clear line of sight
Step 3 – observe and gather a body of evidence
Step 4 – break performance into component behaviors
Step 5 – do something different now
Step 6 – see it work
Step 7 – fine tune what you are doing
Step 8 – practice with repetition
Step 9 – develop positive accountability

Any one of the principles can provide a major breakthrough for leaders or organizations who find themselves otherwise caught in the cyclical rat race (or more appropriately the spinning hamster wheel) of success and accomplishment.


Theory of Change 

Theory of Change is a kaleidoscope, as there likely are as many variations of its namesake as there are flavors at Baskin Robbins. These models have in common their open-ended, loose structures, rarely offering substantive differentiation of process or action. Perhaps most popularly employed by non-profits and NGO’s (like UNICEF), Theory of Change comes out of the tradition of program evaluation, but adapted more recently to strategic planning, all the while maintaining its end-result orientation. A common tool is Backwards Mapping, which grounds itself in the clarification of the final change outcome and builds sequentially and linearly in reverse, each outcome predicated on the step before it.

These step-wise outcomes typically branch and fork the further away you get from the final outcome. Early and intermediary outcomes are often regarded as conditions for successful change, as the final outcome is predicated upon their realization.

Step 1 – Final Outcome
Step 2 – Outcome preceding Final Outcome
Step 3 – Outcome preceding the prior Outcome
Step 4 – Repeat Step 3 as needed


Gap Analysis

Step 1 – Where are you now?
Step 2 – Where do you want to be?
Step 3 – What is the gap between Step 1 and Step 2?
Step 4 – Why does the gap exist?
Step 5 – How can you narrow/eliminate the gap?

Business Consultants offer variations of Gap Analysis (e.g., McKinsey’s 7S Framework), a common framework used to help companies set an aspirational state, measure their current state, determine the precise gap between aspirational and current state, and implement strategies that will narrow or close that gap.

This simplification of the change process into before and after states is complicated by the diverse segments of each industry and internal departments and components. An implicit step is to determine why the gap exists in the first place, critical information that will shape the change process. Though Gap Analysis provides both a target and a trajectory, it is intentionally rooted in an understanding of our starting line, and the predicates of our present state.

Kotter’s Model of Organizational Change (KMOC)

Through interviews with executives of hundreds of international companies around the world, Kotter observed a consistent pattern amongst those organizations who most successfully navigated change. They had in common eight distinct steps, each accompanied with potentially debilitating obstacles:

Kotter’s model of organizational change synthesizes and organizes other theories of change in a coherent and systematic way, giving primacy to no single focus as the other theories have done.

Step 1 – Establishing a Sense of Urgency
Step 2 – Forming a Guiding Coalition
Step 3 – Creating a Vision
Step 4 – Communicating the Vision
Step 5 – Empowering others to Action
Step 6 – Rewarding Short-Term Wins
Step 7 – Accomplishing Long-Term Outcomes
Step 8 – Shifting Culture


Case Study – Crean Lutheran High School & The Pandemic 

Around the world, schools have been forced into organizational change because of the global pandemic, the outbreak starting in Wuhan, China late 2019. Most schools were caught unprepared and unaware, conducting business as usual until the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. These schools were not able to follow Kotter’s prescribed 8 Steps of organizational change, some jumping right into Step 4 (Communicating the Vision) and Step 5 (Empowering Others to Action). As a result, many of their change efforts were straddled by inefficiencies, resistance, mistakes, and delays. Their organizational change was a knee-jerk emergency response to a situation that was completely alien and largely misunderstood. As a result, many students experienced up to a year of learning loss, school districts were sued, employees experienced burnout and quit in numbers we have not seen in recent decades. 

In contrast, Crean Lutheran High School in Irvine, California distinguished themselves in their pro-active, intentional and successful transition through the Pandemic. Vice Principal Eun Chu Kim had lived and worked in Shanghai, China for a decade, and through her many relationships knew of the nationwide school closures and transition to online learning happening across China by early January 2020. Vice Principal Kim addressed the need for a school-wide response by conveying news from China to her leadership team and executives, establishing a sense of urgency (Step 1). The trust that permeated through the school’s leadership resulted in an immediate and complete acceptance of this imminent threat, and a guiding coalition (Step 2) with representation across the organization was formed which collaboratively crafted a unified vision for action (Step 3) and effectively communicated this to all faculty and staff (Step 4) by late January 2020. Before most Americans had heard of COVID-19, Crean Lutheran High School was gathering data, researching online education, gathering best practices for disaster response. They began training all faculty and staff by February 2020, and allocated appropriate resources across the campus for the planned shift to a Pandemic-ready school environment (Step 5). When the announcement from Federal, State, and County levels came to close schools in March 2020, Crean Lutheran High School was months into their response strategy and smoothly transitioned to their new model. Students, parents, and staff were continuously kept in the loop, and milestones and accomplishments were regularly recognized, praised and rewarded (Step 6). They were praised by their peers, community, and parents for their preparation and execution of organizational change, and students were not only keeping up, their learning was accelerated through the concerted and collaborative efforts of all stakeholders (Step 7). Between 2019 and 2021, their student body increased from 700 to 900 students, they retained nearly all of and grew their faculty, their athletics teams and performing arts received accolades, student mental wellness was prioritized, and top universities like Harvard and Stanford accepted more of their students than in previous years. Since then, Crean Lutheran High School has reverted back to a fully open campus, but has maintained the culture and practice of online learning in every class from theology to trigonometry to theater, an integration of technology and personalization implemented throughout and beyond the Pandemic (Step 8). 

In Conclusion 

According to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal, we cannot simultaneously measure both an object’s position and its trajectory. Perhaps we are left with a similar compromise when it comes to Rapid Change, Theory of Change or Gap Analysis. While Rapid Change is repetitious and immediate, it lacks the careful attention to the distance to be closed of Gap Analysis or the predictive anchoring power of Theory of Change. Each model’s strengths are also its shortcomings, sacrificing immediate for enduring (Rapid Change), finality for context (Theory of Change), and distance for the finish line (Gap Analysis). On the other hand, Kotter’s Organizational Change Model balances rapid (Step 6: Short-Term Wins) and enduring (Step 7: Long-Term and Step 8: Shifting Culture) the past (Step 1: Urgency) and future (Step 3: Vision), and the team (Step 2: Guiding Coalition) with the process (Step 4: Communicating and Step 5: Empowering). I welcome readers to learn Kotter’s model through the powerfully simple message of The Iceberg is Melting, a picture-book accessible even to grade-schoolers and used in executive MBA programs around the globe. 



Back to top