Networks are the Key to Accelerate Change – A Reading from the Gospel of Kotter

Networks are the Key to Accelerate Change – A Reading from the Gospel of Kotter

Finally the long-standing traditional leadership guru embraces networks! Woot!

So, I don’t normally do book reviews (I have done 1 other) … but this one was begging me to do it. Plus, my colleague David Dinwoodie loved the book and told me I had to read it since it was about networks, so I felt compelled to break his heart a little bit. 🙁


In Kotter’s new book, Accelerate, he points to the use of networks as the true accelerator behind organizational transformation. While he doesn’t fully let go of his 8-step model of change (you’ll see a slightly modified version of his 8 step model in this book), he at least recognizes the strategic agility and speed that activated networks play in creating swift and lasting change.

The “Dual Operating System” Not Exactly Novel, But Well Articulated

dual operating system from book

Kotter’s big idea in this book is what he calls the “dual operating system.” Essentially, it means that organizations should use their management practices and hierarchy to do what it does best (reliability & efficiency), and utilize the informal networks to do with they do best (which is innovation, adaptability, speed, strategic agility, and of course transformational change).

The idea that organizations have formal structures and informal networks, and that informal networks play a big role in the success of companies and their strategies is not really a new idea. But, as usual, the idea is expertly articulated, and the stories in the book are quite compelling.

What Exactly is Kotter Talking about When He Talks about the Network?

I do have to admit, though, sometimes I felt that the stories were a bit of a stretch. He really wanted to focus on the informal nature of mobilized networks, but he ends up telling his “success story” of Davidson by how he was able to set up a Guiding Coalition with his sponsorship to make change happen. I’m not sure how this is different from the tiger teams, cross-functional teams, and other structures which he says is just really part of the hierarchy and not the network.

Is he really talking about using the informal relationships that already exist? Or is he talking about creating new relationships among people to do something new or/different? I just don’t know. Do you have a particular read on this?

5 Principles to Mobilize the Network, In 4 Principles or Less

So, while I don’t agree with his 8 Steps for change, I do appreciate his 5 principles. I mean I would if I could find all five. I could only find 4 of the 5 principles.

Principle 1: “you need a radical increase in the number of people involved in creating or executing strategic initiatives” pg. 79

Kotter refers to this as creating the “volunteer army” – a mass of individuals each leading change without direct orders or any authority. This is probably the biggest opportunity organizational leaders have to figure exactly how to do this. I like this principle, and I totally see the power in this.

Principle 2: “it’s all about volunteers” pg. 80

You can’t mandate people to be excited and energized to achieve your goals. So you need try something else.

And this is where I lose the third principle. (I can’t find it, if you do, let me know). Let’s jump to the fourth principle. It’s about leadership!

Principle 4: “leadership, leadership, leadership” pg. 81

Right on Kotter! But what does that really mean? And how does it differ from leading in the typical organizational management structure? I think this might be one of the best quotes of the entire book:

“But the crucial mindsets and behaviors–those that initiate action without waiting for higher-ups to give orders, that imagine what could be done rather than just figuring out what needs to be done within normal bounds, that help people enthusiastically buy into decisions about what to do, that creatively overcome obstacles to achievement, and that relentlessly work until opportunities are capitalized on—these are all leadership behaviors.”  Pg 80-81

I couldn’t agree with you more that this is leadership. At CCL, we call this increasing the overall Leadership Capacity of the organization. And it’s directly tied to the leadership culture work we do (check out my colleague Nick Petrie describe leadership culture in this video). And it’s directly tied to mobilizing and energizing the informal network.

Principle 5: “although two systems are required for acceleration, they must act as one organization” pg 81

Great point! They need to work together and support each other. Too often, I see the informal networks rise just to fight off the injustices of the “management system.” Imagine Neo from the Matrix leading a human army against the machines. But in this case, the machines are the hierarchy and management systems.

So, how do we make all this happen? Follow His 8 Step Model, Duh!

We’re supposed to follow Kotter’s 8 step model to create change. Does that surprise anyone? Yes, he has changed the names of some of his steps in this book, but they are essentially the same. This is where I get concerned. The book is about networks and the dual operating system, but to accelerate change we just follow the same (more or less) 8 steps that have been around for ages. This really doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like Kotter has finally recognized the power of Networks – but can only see it through the lens of his 8 steps. If today’s marketplace is so vastly different than before when he wrote his first change book, why not change the model? Why not simplify the model to reflect how organizations change today?

My Last Point I Promise: We Already Know Networks are Important for Success

The big idea for this book is about highlighting the power of networks. But, that’s not really a new idea.

This book is an extension of what we’ve been discovering for many years now with the work from Steve Borgatti and Rob Cross. We also have unequivocal evidence to show the importance of effective networks for individual performance. Sandy Pentland’s new book, Social Physics, identifies how effective networks in trading firms help individuals make better trades and more money, not to mention the 30 plus years of research Ron Burt has done on this very topic. At the societal level, we just need to look around and read the news. Social movements are changing the landscape of politics and governance with the likes of the Arab Spring [A great pod-cast on this topic by Clay Shirky]. It also has changed the way in which individuals help each other like what we saw during the Haiti Earth quake [Crisis Mapping by Ushahidi].

So How Do We Really Harness The Mystical Power of Networks?

If the science behind networks is already out there, and we can’t or shouldn’t just use old models in a changing environment, how are we supposed to use this information to become better leaders?

My answer, is look in unexpected places. Many people have been working on this question, especially in the world of community development and non-profit work. Check out the Network Leadership Training Academy and the work of the Leadership Learning Community. Additionally, CCL recently convened a conference that brought 30 of the biggest names in Leadership & Networks together to start answering these question.

We have also been working on this at CCL with our clients and researchers. We have discovered a process that is customized, grounded in research, and highly potent, but it’s not 8 steps long. Our approach in not a pneumonic, but is founded on growing our network perspective and recognizing that changing who and how we interact others is what ultimately affects the structure of our networks.





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