Who Are We
Article by Peter Coutts, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Calgary
27 June 2000
Despite all the rhetoric, books, effort, and money thrown into change efforts in
organizations today, most fail. Mega-consulting firms Arthur D. Little and McKinsey &
Co. have studied hundreds of companies that entered Total Quality Management programs, but
about two-thirds "grind to a halt because of their failure to produce the hoped-for
results". Efforts at "Reengineering" fared worse, with a 70% failure rate.
Peter Senge puts it quite starkly in his 1999 book "Dance of Change":
"this failure to sustain significant change recurs again and again despite
substantial resources committed to the change effort (many are bankrolled by top
management), talented and committed people "driving the change", and high
stakes. In fact, executives feeling an urgent need for change are right; companies that
fail to sustain significant change end up facing crises. By then, their options are
greatly reduced, and even after heroic efforts they often decline". This seems a
bleak appraisal for any organization, but especially for a church. Yet the equally
important learning is that change efforts are still important to face.... and the sooner
John Kotter (who teaches Leadership at Harvard Business School) has made it his
business to study both success and failure in change initiatives in business. "The
most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change
process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable
length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces
satisfactory results" and "making critical mistakes in any of the phases can
have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains". Kotter
summarizes the eight phases as follows.
1] Establish a Sense of Urgency
Talk of change typically begins with some people noticing a vulnerability in the
organization. The threat of losing ground in some way sparks these people into action, and
they in turn try to communicate that sense of urgency to others. In congregations it is
typically membership loss, financial struggles or turnover in key volunteers and leaders.
Kotter notes that over half the companies he has observed have never been able to
create enough urgency to prompt action. "Without motivation, people wont help
and the effort goes nowhere
. Executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive
people out of their comfort zones". In the more successful cases the leadership group
facilitates a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts: about the new competition,
flat earnings, decreasing market share, or other relevant indicators. It is helpful to use
outsiders (say, for us, to bring in consultants, the unchurched, people from other
denominations, regional or national staff people) who can share the "big
picture" from a different perspective and help broaden the awareness of your members.
When is the urgency level high enough? Kotter suggests it is when 75% of your leadership
is honestly convinced that business as usual is no longer an acceptable plan.
2] Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition
Change efforts often start with just one or two people, and should grow continually to
include more and more who believe the changes are necessary. The need in this phase is to
gather a large enough initial core of believers. This initial group should be pretty
powerful in terms of the roles they hold in the church, the reputations they have, the
skills they bring and the relationships they have. Regardless of size of your
organization, the "guiding coalition" for change needs to have 3-5 people
leading the effort. This group, in turn, helps bring others on board with the new ideas.
The building of this coalition their sense of urgency, their sense of whats
happening and whats needed is crucial. Involving respected leaders from key
areas of your church in this coalition will pay great dividends later.
3] Create a Vision
Successful transformation rests on "a picture of the future that is relatively
easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees. A vision helps
clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move". The vision functions
in many different ways: it helps spark motivation, it helps keep all the projects and
changes aligned, it provides a filter to evaluate how the organization is doing, and it
provides a rationale for the changes the organization will have to weather. "A useful
rule of thumb: if you cant communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less
and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done
with this phase of the transformation process".
4] Communicate that Vision
Kotter suggests the leadership should estimate how much communication of the vision is
needed, and then multiply that effort by a factor of ten. Do not limit it to one
congregational meeting, a sermon by the minister, or a couple of mailouts to members.
Leaders must be seen "walking the talk" another form of communication --
if people are going to perceive the effort as important. "Deeds" along with
"words" are powerful communicators of the new ways. The bottom line is that a
transformation effort will fail unless most of the members understand, appreciate, commit
and try to make the effort happen. The guiding principle is simple: use every existing
communication channel and opportunity.
5] Empower Others to Act on the Vision
This entails several different actions. Allow people in the church to start living out
the new ways and to make changes in their areas of involvement. Allocate budget money to
the new initiative. Carve out time on the Session agenda to talk about it. Change the way
your church is organized to put people where the effort needs to be. Free up key people
from existing responsibilities so they can concentrate on the new effort. In short, remove
any obstacles there may be to getting on with the change. Nothing is more frustrating than
believing in the change but then not having the time, money, help, or support needed to
effect it. You cant get rid of all the obstacles, but the biggest ones need to be
6] Plan for and Create Short-Term Wins
Since real transformation takes time, the loss of momentum and the onset of
disappointment are real factors. Most people wont go on a long march for change
unless they begin to see compelling evidence that their efforts are bearing fruit. In
successful transformation, leaders actively plan and achieve some short term gains which
people will be able to see and celebrate. This provides proof to the church that their
efforts are working, and adds to the motivation to keep the effort going. "When it
becomes clear to people that major change will take a long time, urgency levels can drop.
Commitments to produce short-term wins help keep the urgency level up and force detailed
analytical thinking that can clarify or revise visions".
7] Consolidate Improvements and Keep the Momentum for Change Moving
As Kotter warns, "Do not declare victory too soon". Until changes sink deeply
into a churchs culture -- a process that can take five to ten years -- new
approaches are fragile and subject to regression. Again, a premature declaration of
victory kills momentum, allowing the powerful forces of tradition to regain ground.
Leaders of successful efforts use the feeling of victory as the motivation to delve more
deeply into their organization: to explore changes in the basic culture, to expose the
systems relationships of the organization which need tuning, to move people committed to
the new ways into key roles. Leaders of change must go into the process believing that
their efforts will take years.
8] Institutionalize the New Approaches
In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes "the way we do things around
here", when it seeps into the bloodstream of the corporate body. "Until new
behaviours are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradations
as soon as the pressure for change is removed". Two factors are particularly
important for doing this. First, a conscious attempt to show people how the new
approaches, behaviours, and attitudes have helped improve the life of the church. People
have to be helped to make the connections between the effort and the outcome. The second
is to ensure that the next generation of congregational leaders believe in and embody the
Kotter writes, "there are still more mistakes that people make, but these eight
are the big ones. In reality, even successful change efforts are messy and full of
You can go further into Kotters ideas by reading one of the following:
The Article: "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail" by John
Kotter. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995.
The Book: "Leading Change" by John Kotter. Harvard Business School