Monday, 21 April 2014

Accelerate XLR8 - John Kotter - Book Review

In his latest book, Harvard Business School Professor, John Kotter, argues that established hierarchical managerial structures do not provide the agility for organisations to respond sufficiently quickly to take advantages of the narrow windows of opportunity that present themselves. Kotter's solution is that firms should re-organise themselves to be able to cope with the demands of an increasingly changing world. In particular, firms should augment their their hierarchical structures with a network comprised of volunteers drawn from a range of levels and divisions within the organisation. Thus the firm would have a dual-operating system with the hierarchical structure providing day-to-day reliable management and the network providing agile strategic leadership. Kotter believes that this structure existed in most firms at a much earlier stage of their evolution.

The following YouTube clip provides an excellent summary of the Kotter's main arguments:

At the heart of Kotter's argument is the concept of the "Big Opportunity":
A Big Opportunity is something that can potentially lead to significant outcomes if the possibility is exploited well enough and fast enough.  . . .  A Big Opportunity is not a "vision" . . .
A Big Opportunity is also not any form of "strategy" or "strategic initiative."  pp.133-36
In order to make the shift to a dual-operating system Kotter believes that it is necessary to develop and maintain "a strong sense of urgency".  (Here there is an echo of Kotter's previous work on Leading Change - see review of Our Iceberg is Melting.)
Urgency in the sense that I am using the word here, means that significant numbers of people wake up each morning and have, somewhere in their heads and hearts, a compelling desire to do something to move the organisation towards a big strategic opportunity.  p.112 
This was a very thought-provoking read and the advantages of the dual-operating structure are clear. It was easy to see what "B" looks like, but the practicalities of how to make the transition from an established hierarchical structure to a dual-operating system were less clear. Kotter endeavours to share his experiences of working with a number of firms who have successfully moved to this model; however, I found that the case studies given in the book are so generalised that I was left wanting more detail about how each organisation had managed to make what is undoubtedly a difficult step towards the new structure.



  1. Hi Mark, I always find your blog interesting - I shall have read. I have often thought the same. I think there is something in the fact that schools work with children that lends themselves to having such hierarchical structures but equally that there is something flawed in this approach. Take a look at Neflix and their management culture

  2. The idea of a dual operating systems is a good one but it is not new and it isn't easy. Thirty years ago I wrote an article in HBR about how our firm had changed:

    It changes the power relationships in the organization and that's very difficult to do without a significant crisis. It is also difficult to sustain as new regimes have a way of embedding themselves. So you are right about it being a difficult step.