by CIO Staff

Book Review–The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations

Oct 15, 20024 mins
IT Leadership

Making Change Real

The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations

By John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen

Harvard Business School Press, 2002, $20

To hear coauthor John Kotter tell it, all epiphanies are visual and emotional. We won’t really change our behaviors?and by extension, the tired, old and inefficient manner in which we work?unless we see something truly dramatic that causes us to have an emotional reaction. That emotion, he argues, is more important than memos, meetings, even money. A strong emotional reaction to something we see is what causes us to get off the dime and change things around us. That emotion can be positive or negative, but what matters is the strength of the feeling. Likewise, what we see?the visual content?is unimportant. It just has to be memorable enough to sear itself into our mind’s eye forever.

For instance, the procurement department at a manufacturing company wanted to centralize its processes to save money but got no response from top managers. So the procurement project manager assigned a summer intern to research the number of different gloves the company’s factories bought and how much they paid for each type. Astoundingly, there were 424 different types of gloves, all purchased separately by the factories at wildly different rates. That fact made a great statistic for a report, but the statistic itself didn’t make a real impression on anyone. One day, the project manager made a pile of all 424 different types of gloves?with the prices paid for each pair attached to them?on a conference table in the company’s boardroom and invited all the company’s division presidents in to take a look. They were speechless. The gloves went on the road to all the company’s division headquarters for all to see, and the procurement effort finally got off the ground.

Such stories are the core of The Heart of Change, and they are, for the most part, as evocative as the glove story. In another story, an airplane manufacturer announces that, effective immediately, no airplane “carcass” will be moved past the first phase of construction until all the parts for that phase have arrived?sacrilege in that industry, where parts are notoriously late. In turn, people begin scrambling?and inventing new work practices?to get the parts in so that the airplane that’s currently in production can stop looking like a whale beached in the hangar.

Those stories, however, are also the book’s weakness. If you’ve already read Kotter’s much beloved Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), you’ll note that its eight-step method for change leadership is in this book also; but now each step is filled out with a story. The problem is, The Heart of Change really contains only two types of stories. One type, the glove story, shows how “shock therapy” can get people to recognize a problem. The other, the airplane story, shows the effectiveness of integrating a dramatic moment into a work practice that needs to change. Once readers get the lesson, though, they don’t need it repeated eight times.

Still, reading these stories will stir the same kind of emotional reaction that they did in the companies where they actually occurred. And maybe you’ll get yourself off the dime and start your own change effort inside your company. That would mean The Heart of Change has had more impact than most management books. If you’re looking for a more in-depth, intellectual explanation for how to make change happen, read Leading Change. If you’re looking to get fired up, read this one.

-Christopher Koch


“Since I taught writing at MIT, I was particularly intrigued by the rhetoric of reengineering. Like most cultural revolutions, it insisted on a new vocabulary. It is almost too easy to make fun of this rhetoric, which had a serious purpose: to help usher in the new world by providing a new language to explain to ourselves what we were doing. One staff member marveled: ’Five years ago I’d never heard of facilitation, and now it’s all we do!’”

-From Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change, by Rosalind H. Williams (The MIT Press, 2002)