Kotter’s “Guiding Coalitions”

Adapted from an article “Guiding Coalition:  Parts 1, 2 & 3” by Dennis Goin of  Kotter International.

Leaders cannot implement new strategies on their own. As one former first lady said, “It takes a village.” Or as we at Kotter International like to say, “It takes a guiding coalition.”

That coalition—a powerful, enthusiastic team of volunteers from across an organization—is a crucial tool for leaders looking to put new strategies into effect and transform their organizations. And deciding who should take part in the guiding coalition is essential.

Diversity is Key

The most important aspect of a guiding coalition is its diversity. An effective team is comprised of individuals from across the organization who bring unique skills, experiences, perspectives and networks to the table: their distinct views allow the team to see all sides of an issue and enable the most innovative ideas to emerge; their varied roles and titles give credibility to the change effort; and their enthusiasm helps push the campaign forward with the speed and momentum necessary for success.

Behavior, Not Personality, is Crucial

Most of us do not necessarily interact or get along with all of our fellow (congregants). But instead of focusing on personalities, leaders should emphasize candidates’ day-to-day actions when determining who should participate in the guiding coalition.

These are the types of behaviors leaders should avoid including in a guiding coalition: 

  • Naysaying: Hampering positive, open dialogue keeps the guiding coalition from developing creative ideas and identifying opportunities for growth.
  • Distraction: Unfocused individuals can steer the team off course, when laser-like focus on the new strategy is essential.
  • Selfishness: The guiding coalition’s efforts move the organization as a whole and affect everyone; members who do not act with the entire organization in mind will derail the team’s efforts. No hidden agendas!

On the other hand, the following characteristics should be included in a guiding coalition: 

  • Introversion and Extroversion: The guiding coalition is a forum for members to contribute distinctive ideas based on their own experiences. A variety of perspectives is important, as this recent TIME Magazine article explained.
  • Unconventional Thinking: Creative and innovative people spark new ideas in other people. Loading your team with free thinkers can help to generate the sort of novel ideas necessary for success in today’s rapidly changing business world.

In order to recruit those volunteers, leaders must first create a sense of urgency among their (people) about the opportunities that lie ahead and then ask for their help in propelling the organization towards those opportunities.

With a majority (of the congregation) feels a sense of urgency, scores of individuals are likely to apply to be part of the guiding coalition—sometimes ten times as many as can actually take part! But what about those enthusiastic (members) who may have applied but not been one of the 30 to 40 selected for the guiding coalition? Won’t they be left feeling rejected or de-motivated?

There are myriad ways of involving other committed members of a volunteer army in a guiding coalition’s strategy implementation efforts, and leaders must make these opportunities clear as they launch into the selection process.

Leaders must let their people know:

  • By merely raising their hands and offering to take part in the guiding coalition, they are already demonstrating a strong commitment to building their organization’s future and helping it to move in new directions as quickly and effectively as possible; 
  • While strategy implementation moves forward, and the initially selected guiding coalition identifies opportunities to accelerate the organization’s pace, it will take more than just those 30 to 40 individuals to drive such big initiatives. Leaders will draw upon all willing (members), especially those who had first raised their hands and expressed their enthusiasm to help to identify and knock down barriers and seize new opportunities;
  • Throughout the process, the most energized, committed individuals—whether they are guiding coalition members or not—will be asked to contribute innovative ideas to push their organization toward success; 
  • As the guiding coalition racks up wins and move towards its stated “change vision,” they will also call upon their colleagues to help spread urgency to bring others in the organization on board. Communicating this urgency is crucial to maintaining organizational momentum, and it takes more than just the official members of the guiding coalition to do so;
  • Because organizations are operating in a world of rapid, constant change, a new guiding coalition will be necessary each year in order to keep pace. Applications will be accepted and reviewed at that time, and any employee can apply again. As the organization rotates its guiding coalition members, it will allow opportunities for many more voices to participate in its long-term engagement, acceleration and innovation.  These are important leadership opportunities for everyone in the organization.

..Change can take time—and often more than a single guiding coalition is needed to lead it. Each year leaders should recharge the guiding coalition and ask new (volunteers) to apply for a spot on this team (current members can reapply too). Refreshing the membership each year brings fresh perspectives and energy to the table and gives people who really want to be a part of this guiding team a chance to make an impact.Ensuring the transition from one guiding team to the next goes smoothly is essential. If it is mishandled, employees lose momentum and energy, progress barriers can creep in, and new growth strategies can fail to take hold.   

Below are three tips for keeping this network of volunteers energized as one “generation” of guiding coalition members transfers their strategic initiatives to the next.

Never Stop Communicating

After establishing the first guiding coalition, leaders must maintain open communication with all employees (not just coalition members) to sustain a high sense of urgency around the firm’s major opportunities and help people remain urgent about playing a role in achieving these goals. Coalition members themselves must communicate frequently with their own networks within the organization to keep other employees consistently engaged in their work and informed about the strides they’re making.

Ensure Early Lessons Are Transferred to the New Team

It’s imperative that the lessons and momentum from the first guiding coalition aren’t lost when a new group of employees comes on board. The outgoing group should help show new coalition members how to work together, sharing solutions that helped them accelerate strategy implementation and knock down barriers to change.  If the communication we recommend above has been happening, new team members will already have a strong picture of the initiatives the original coalition has led, but will need guidance on how to keep them accelerating toward successful implementation.

Address Struggles with Letting Go

Sometimes it’s difficult for original coalition members to “let go of their baby.” This is understandable – they have spent a year working relentlessly on strategy initiatives that are crucial to the organization’s success. Any time people devote themselves to something it can be difficult for them to step aside and let a new team in. The key is to show outgoing coalition members that they still play an essential role in accelerating the organization’s growth and driving it toward achieving its big opportunity.  Encourage them to communicate the pride and passion they’ve felt as guiding coalition members to others around the organization to keep urgency levels up. Publicly celebrate the wins they made while serving on the guiding coalition, and urge them to extend the work they started by offering help to new team members.

If transitions between coalition generations are not led with care, an organization can squander much of the progress it made toward crucial performance goals. Open and frequent communication, vital lesson transfer, and acknowledgement of past generations’ contributions can help prevent transition problems and help an organization take advantage of key market opportunities with remarkable agility.


Leave a Reply