What Buhari/APC-Led Government Need to Learn about Change Management. An Interview with Prof John Kotter

What Buhari/APC-Led Government Need to Learn about Change Management. An Interview with Prof John Kotter

 What Buhari/APC-Led Government Need to Learn about Change Management. An Interview with Prof John Kotter

By Adedoyin Adebayo

APC-led Federal Government rode to power on the mantra of “change.” There is no doubt that the times are difficult and the Nigerian state is facing enormous challenges. I was excited and delighted when Prof. Kotter kindly accepted my request to interview him. Speaking with Professor Kotter was phenomenal, and his deeply researched and informed ideas on change and leadership for now and the future are ones which every leader and manager must contemplate in this fast paced world.

John P. Kotter is a Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School. He has been the go-to guy on the subject of Change Management and Leadership. He received his degree from MIT and Harvard Business School, has taught at MIT, Boston University and Northeastern. He’s a New York Times best-selling author, award winning business and management thought leader, business entrepreneur, and inspirational speaker. He has authored 18 books to date, including Leading Change, The Heart of Change, Buy-in: Saving your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, Our Iceberg is Melting and His latest books: That’s Not How We Do It Here, Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World.

His ideas, books, speeches, and company, Kotter International, have helped mobilize people around the world to better lead organizations, and their own lives, in an era of increasingly rapid change.

The interview with Prof John P. Kotter was conducted over Skype by one of our Senior Consultants. Please read on.

Insel Consulting: When executives ask you for advice on leadership in these uncertain times, what do you tell them?

John Kotter: Many things! I will summarize it. One, because of the past, executives in business and in government tend to when they want to implement a change basically drive it from a few people on top and usually turn it into big projects. The kind of world we live in right now, that approach doesn’t work very well for many reasons. Starting with the fact that if you can’t get a lot of people in getting to help you change will not really take off in the first place nor sustain the change efforts. So it’s not about the elite few, increasingly it’s about the many from anywhere. In corporate sense, we now create conditions or help organizations create conditions where people from the bottom of the hierarchies can volunteer to help.

Two, driving change based on a problem can sometimes weigh people out. Driving change is not just about Danger! Danger!! Danger!!! but Opportunity! Opportunity!! Opportunity!!! It has to be opportunity based and let people think in terms of opportunity.

Three, if you look at all great leaders in business and in politics over the years that have been very successful at helping their organizations or their countries go through difficult period to change; they are very good at getting many people involved. They see a big opportunity that could ignite the hearts and minds of their people and they’re able to articulate and communicate it. They do this by not only appealing to their minds with just reeling out information about the situation but appealing to their hearts as well. People buy-in into a change efforts because it makes sense to them and it feels good, right, just, fair and sensible.

Four, in trying to initiate change, skeptics will erect obstacles. It is essential even though it takes time to make changes really significant but I advice leaders to quickly get some credible successes along the way as quickly as possible- we call this short-term wins. This gives credibility to what leaders are trying to do. In a sense, short-term wins give some form of pat-in-the-back, sort of positive feedback, celebration to those people who work hard to make things happen. Without those short-term wins, things tend to slow down and stop. People have only so much patience, so proof must come quickly. Celebrating those wins will buoy the volunteer army and prompt more people/employee to buy in. Success breeds success.

Insel Consulting: In your new book “Accelerate” published by Harvard in 2014, you increased the scope of the 8-Step Change Management Process from “Leading Change” your book that’s been widely recognized as the seminal work in the field of change management  published in 1996. What is new?

John Kotter: Both versions are relevant and effective today, but they are designed to serve different contexts and objectives

Insel Consulting: Can you quickly take us through your change management model?

John Kotter:

  1. Create Sense of Urgency- Your top leaders must describe an opportunity that will appeal to individuals’ heads and hearts and use this statement to raise a large, urgent army of volunteers.
  2. Build Guiding Coalition– A volunteer army needs a coalition of effective people — coming from its own ranks — to guide it, coordinate it and communicate its activities.
  3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives- strategic initiatives as targeted and coordinated activities that, if designed and executed fast enough and well enough, will make your vision a reality
  4. Enlist a Volunteer Army: Large-scale change can only occur when very significant numbers of employees amass under a common opportunity and drive in the same direction.
  5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers– By removing barriers such as inefficient processes or hierarchies, leaders provide the freedom necessary for employees to work across boundaries and create real impact.
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins– Wins are the molecules of results. They must be collected, categorized, and communicated — early and often — to track progress and energize your volunteers to drive change.
  7. Sustain Acceleration- Change leaders must adapt quickly in order to maintain their speed. Whether it’s a new way of finding talent or removing misaligned processes, they must determine what can be done — every day — to stay the course towards the vision.
  8. Institute Change– To ensure new behaviors are repeated over the long-term, it’s important that you define and communicate the connections between these behaviors and the organization’s success.

Insel Consulting: Are your models and theory on organizational change apply to a country/government trying to initiate change programs countrywide?

John Kotter: These theories are applicable to both businesses and governments and they are very relevant in every sector!

Insel Consulting: In Nigeria, less than two years ago we had a party who came to power on the mantra of ‘Change’ , fast forward to now, an average Nigerian feels that this is not the change they wished for and there are lot of dissenting voices about this. We have a case whereby the president is credited to have said change should begin with the citizen. Should change be a top-down or bottom up approach?

John Kotter: It’s none of the above. If the president and his cabinet don’t start to conduct themselves in a way that is different than in the recent past why should anybody assume that things are going to get better? They are going to have to find some new ways of thinking; new ways of acting that make the current realities of a complex difficult situation. So that is true and the earlier they do that fast and very visibly so that people can see it the better. But at the same time after that, this is where people can be seating under arms and just be waiting for the next things to happen from above. They are going to have to get involved. Difficult changes happen from all directions. From the top, to the down and sides etc. You need to start thinking from both ways. Even citizens need to get involved.

Insel Consulting: Our president- Muhammadu Buhari is a very meticulous personality. He’s often credited with this statement “Slow but steady, wins the race.” In fact it took him more than six months to form his cabinet. How important is establishing sense of urgency as a leader in a change program?

John Kotter: Sense of urgency is highly important! It is huge. At the beginning of any effort to make changes of any magnitude, if a sense of urgency is not high enough and complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes so much more difficult. Sense of urgency sets the stage for you as a leader to be able to do anything. I understand his point. You know as well I know that integrity in government is a serious problem for Nigeria. If he’s saying that he wanted to get his government on the footing of integrity, he’s making a good point. However, under the circumstances with which the oil prices have battered your economy and the situation generally in the country, most especially where you have so many people suffering and finding it difficult to feed, it’s also just imperative that he moves faster and get the sense of urgency around not just where the disaster and the situation is bad but what is the big opportunity for this wonderful country.  The faster that he can get things done the better. The reality is that speed is an issue here. Speed that is stupid is not going to get you anywhere and I guess that’s the point he’s trying to make but he’s got to move very swiftly and create a sense of urgency around single big opportunity. And opportunities do exist in an amazing country like Nigeria.

Insel Consulting: What is the importance of a mobilizing and inspiring vision by a country? Do you think it is necessary for a major change most especially in an environment dominated by several problems/challenges?

John Kotter: Let me use this illustration. If you run into an accident on the road, and literally it’s a car and there are some people bleeding and dying that is not the time to sit around and talk about how to improve the medical system in the country. That is the time to make sure the people on the ground from the car accident don’t die. If there are some things happening in the country right now that is probably equivalent to people dying in the car accident obviously you have to attend to that first but as quickly as possible you get them in the ambulance and they are going to the emergency room.

However, given the lingering and unresolved socio-political and economic challenges in your country, it is imperative to provide urgent answers and create a way out of the problems. The problems confronting any nation can be solved. There is so much power in a vision for a country. Some notable example of successful visions is President John F Kennedy’s vision of America landing a man on the moon in ten years. Visioning is not wishful thinking or “day-dreaming.” It must be inspiring. It must appeal to people’s emotions and elicits voluntary action and society’s collective endeavor. It must be shared by all segments of your society.

Insel Consulting: Can a government led by the president and his team make the same mistakes organizations often make when trying to effect real change?

John Kotter: Oh yes! We see it all the time.

Insel Consulting: Can a president of a country alone ignite true change?

John Kotter: The desire for change may start with one person or a political party as you have in your country but it really doesn’t end there. The president and his cabinet can’t do it alone. It’s going to require a lot of people. It can’t be done by few smart people on top. Every country that is extraordinarily dependent upon oil is in one way or another struggling right now. If it were easy to deal with, that wouldn’t be true. A lot of minds, lot of people need to make things happen. Nobody can provoke great changes alone. Successful change requires the efforts of a critical mass of people. It’s going to require lot of minds. Lots of people.

Insel Consulting: Communication is very important when it comes to initiating change. How do you think a President/C-in-C should communicate to his team and the populace about his change vision and should there be more communication before the change or during the change?

John Kotter: As a general rule, one of the reasons that big changes don’t happen well and fast enough and sustaining itself is because there is no enough communication. Effectively communicating the change vision both in business and government is critical to success. Driving a country like yours through change has to be something a layman on the street can understand. Your president, his cabinet, governors, legislators and even business leaders must be able to communicate the whole concept the country needs to achieve and how they are committed to do it. It has to be around something understandable and clear. They must be able to write it down in just a paragraph. Not a ‘seventeen-paged’ paper. This is where the country needs to go and there is a greater opportunity for making us a stronger, better country. The more communication you get the better as long as it is sensible.

Insel Consulting: What piece of advice do you have for a system especially a country like Nigeria struggling through change?

John Kotter:

  1. The more people who can do precisely what you are doing the better. Everybody needs to get involved in one way or another. You need millions of people who can help out with your system/government the better. Can you get more people who can do similar thing that you are doing? People who are not helping out for their own self interest.
  2. People need to exploit many big opportunities that lie within your country. There are tons of these opportunities in your country.
  3. People should talk. Make demands of government and make demands of yourself.

Thank you Prof!

Do you think the current administration has the skills in leading the country through change? What are your views?


Adedoyin Adebayo conducted this interview. He is a Senior Consultant at Insel Consulting



The Law of Margins

By Samuel Aiki


In 2003, Cristiano Ronaldo, an 18 year old Portuguese footballer caught the attention of Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, who signed him for £12.24 million (€15 million). Six years later, CR7, as he had popularly been re-christened, became the most expensive footballer in history after moving from Manchester United to Real Madrid in a transfer worth £80 million (€93.9 million/$131.6 million). In addition, his contract with Real Madrid, in which he is paid €12 million per year, makes him one of the highest-paid footballers in the world, and his buyout clause is valued at €1 billion as per his contract. The question is “How does a man increase his worth by over 500% in just 6 years?”


Economists in the late 19th century explained that the value of a given thing – a corporate brand, a footballer, an engineer, a sales clerk, even a President – is subjective. It depends entirely on how people value that thing at a given moment. In fact, a sale takes place largely because a given buyer values the product higher than he is willing to pay for it, while the corresponding seller values the money he would receive higher than the product he is willing to trade. This value judgment (on the part of the buyer) takes place within such split seconds that Malcolm Gladwell described as the moments of the “Adaptive Unconscious” or over extended periods of analysis (usually by the seller). Even as much as I believe football clubs, employers of labour, project clients and buyers take more time to sift through the alternatives they have and sometimes work through some complex analysis before calling their banks, the most effective decisions are made with recourse to the margin. How much better is CR7 than Antonio Valencia? Or what extra value will CR7 bring to our team that we don’t already have? Positioning oneself strategically to satisfy a target buyer’s perception of the margin has proven profitable time and time again. So, it’s not about the qualifiers, it’s about the differentiators!


Figure 1 The “Get” Ecosystem

Gary North, a US journalist described microeconomics as the study of who has the money and how I can get my hands on it. Money is basically an exchange medium for value. In essence, value is being traded. Money in itself is of no intrinsic value. They call it Fiat money!












In Figure 1, I have identified 12 value elements that people pay for. Blue Brand (Intellectuals): Experience, knowledge and special talents; Green Brand (Growth): time; Purple Brand (wealth markers): technology, materials, intellectual property, property, information, investments; Red Brand (Feelings): networks/relationships, brand; Yellow Brand (Light bulb): Creativity.


It is therefore instructive that for a man to increase the size of his exchange medium, money, he needs to increase in any of those 12 value elements. For obvious reasons, it is better to develop multiple streams of income by majoring in more than one value element.


If you ever wonder why your boss gets paid more than you even though he does so much less, you must think to the margin – experience, or why an Apple MacBook costs about twice the price of a Samsung laptop, think to the margin – technology, brand and the user experience, or why network marketing dazzled many in the first decade of this millennium, think to the margin – the desire to profit from networks/relationships or why CR7 is more glamorous than Lionel Messi, I’d say a rare talent coupled with a solid personal brand.


I believe the time element of the Get Ecosystem is the ultimate value resource, because it is limited in quantity and it thus constrains the capacity to acquire the other 11 value markers. You can acquire more information by association, improve your creativity through stimulus variation or enlarge your networks by meeting people and participating in social networking, but your time is limited today and in your life. Hence, it would be folly to trade time for money. Any vocation or endeavour that only gives a pecuniary benefit is not worth doing at all. Steve Jobs once said “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and everyone should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our lives. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the executive team could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it’d better be damn good.”


When next you have to make a career or personal decision, think consciously to the margin! The extra value!


Samuel Aiki wrote this article. He is a co-founder at Foodlocker, an e-Commerce + Agritech + Retail start-up. He has strong interests in infrastructure development, business turnaround, brown and green field projects, strategic alliances, financial markets, operations, start-ups, capital raising, project finance, real estate and investments.