Accelerate: Building strategic ability for a faster moving world (2014) by John Kotter. Reviewed by Kris Denton and Sue Lohret.

Accelerate by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2014) Reviewed by Kris Denton and Sue Lohret

John Kotter’s book Accelerate presents five principles and eight accelerators within a dual-operating system. This system is the necessary structure to support innovation which he describes as evolutionary and revolutionary in today’s competitive market. This structure is what manages and grows a company at a steady rate while at the same time ignites innovation and focus on the ‘big opportunity’. The key takeaways from Kotter’s book Accelerate include: the dual operating system between hierarchy and network, management and leadership, the five principles and eight accelerators associated with the dual system.

The book provides insight for business leaders looking to survive and thrive through change; and in our case, educational leaders, as we weave our way through this ever-changing educational field focused on school improvement to maximize student learning.

Which is more important – leadership or management?

Management is not leadership. The perception is that those at the top lead and those in the middle manage, however Kotter explains this is incorrect. Management is the processes such as budgeting, staffing, planning, etc. Good management helps an organization become reliable, efficient, and ascertain predictable results. Management enables companies and organizations to do what they already know how to do in the most efficient way. In contrast, leadership is about setting a direction and creating vision. It is through empowerment that leaders mobilize staff to leap to a better future. Leaders are everywhere within, not just one or two individuals who ‘save’ the organization- a CEO or executive committee or superintendent. Interestingly, Kotter points out that leaders may or may not be at the top of the hierarchy, little leadership action actually takes place from those at the top. It’s about changing people and the organization toward a better future through new opportunities, no matter the obstacles or threats.

Kotter’s point regarding management and leadership is although they are very different, they are both essential to successful organizations. Well run and innovative, adaptive, and energetic organizations have a higher degree of leadership from executives, managers, and employees, AND a higher degree of effectively managed processes and methods from these groups as well.

Five Principles exist in the Dual Operating System. These principles provide the foundation.

  • Many people driving important change, and from everywhere within, not just the usual appointees. More eyes, more brains, more legs in order to accelerate. Additional people with their own experiences and ideas to innovate.
  • A “get-to” mindset, not a “have-to” one. Aspiring to work with others for an important and exciting shared purpose creates the feeling of involvement as a privilege not a requirement.
  • Action that is head and heart driven, not just head driven. Appealing to the need for greater purpose and better future.
  • Much more than leadership, not just management. It is the ‘guts’ that are the managerial processes, but leadership that capitalizes on opportunities.
  • An inseparable partnership between the hierarchy and the network, not just an enhanced hierarchy. The two work interdependently sharing information and supporting the whole organization’s improvement. “The way we do things.”

Eight Accelerators focus on the big opportunity in the organization, and are similar to the eight steps to leading change however these accelerators are continuously driving change. Kotter describes these as the “building blocks” that support the system in a natural way.

  • Create a sense of urgency. This purposefulness among large groups of people for the long-haul, not just an immediate urgency but broader.
  • Build and evolve a guiding coalition. This the core of the network and develops from urgency or purposefulness.
  • Form a change vision and strategic initiatives. The core of the network or guiding coalition define the vision and how to move forward toward the vision- the steps in becoming action oriented to support the purpose.
  • Enlist a volunteer army. Guiding coalition and others in the network communicate to share the vision and purpose creating a buy-in among others.
  • Enable action by removing barriers. Network talks, tests, identifies goals and removes barriers.
  • Generate short term wins. Celebrate early relevant wins, make them visible to the entire organization.
  • Sustain acceleration. Large initiatives tend to lose power if related initiatives are unsuccessful.
  • Institute change. The wins are integrated into the hierarchy’s processes and culture.

Recognizing the Opportunities that Exist.

The Big Opportunity (TBO) is the urgency that is strengthened by an ‘aligned energy’ towards a unified opportunity. It is not going in many different directions but synergizing around a common goal or group focus. The starting point is possibilities and opportunity in the midst of change. Opportunity is a product of change and encompasses the heart and mind of the people within the organizational network and hierarchy. The message or statement that initiates and gets people excited and involved is critical. The TBO must be:

  • Short (less than a page for ease in sharing)
  • Rational (why us, why now, why..)
  • Compelling (a sincere appeal to the heart)
  • Positive & Real (belief and excitement)
  • Clearly Aligned (to current statements, plans)

A common misconception is that vision is the same as a big opportunity. Vision requires looking into the future but within your own context and experiences. Sometimes this leads to negative reactions or passive resistance because people see something in the statement they don’t like or cannot relate to in experience. In contrast, big opportunities statements focus on logical and exciting possibilities. When vision is heard unintentionally as a top down message with tone, it actually interferes with an organization’s progress and makes people ‘stop and not go’ in the direction that is needed.

When districts and organizations hire consultants to develop a vision for their district, a negative response and direction results because the vision lacks quality and credibility. According to Kotter, this causes people to consider the vision as ‘fluff’ instead of a sensible analysis and will not compel enough response to improve and support.

The TBO cannot be a template, and successful TBOs are created by executive teams that want to accelerate a strategy, a new way of operating to win, or both. Kotter recommends the TBO be designed by those with total clarity about the goals. Kotter suggests 3 fundamentals when determining TBO:

1) Create a memorable, smart, and emotionally compelling statement.

2) To have a product so good that when top management is asked if they believe in it, everyone will raise their hands, most of them quickly and sincerely.

3) The statement inspires executive committee to want to help take it to the rest of their organization (spread and share it), and when at least two on the committee volunteer to help lead it (without knowing all the details).

See Kotter’s TBO examples below:

Example 1

Because of the changing attitudes among the public and shifting marketplace needs, we have the opportunity to double our revenues within four or five years and to become the leading global company in our industry. That would mean the leading firm in terms of market share in those areas where we compete. That would mean the highest percentage of new plants that are built.

            This possibility is realistic as long as we maintain our leadership in technology, which is most certainly possible. This is realistic if we live our values every day we can.

            Our success, ultimately, will come because of our customer’s success. And our successful customers will help millions of people around the globe to have better lives.

Example 2

Customers are rethinking their entire supply-chain infrastructure. We have the opportunity to revolutionize supply-chain processes with our innovative product and our culture of people who are so highly dedicated to customer success. We have a very realistic opportunity to become the first choice of customers and to build a company that we can be proud of for the rest of our lives.

The message below was posted on EngageNY and could possibly be identified as a big opportunity for school districts in NYS regarding the opportunities that exist in the STLE grant offered to districts.

Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness

We know that New York State has some of the very best teachers and leaders in the nation. Our highest-performing districts and schools combine strong classroom instruction led by innovative principals with effective parent communication and a results-driven school culture.  Great educators change lives.  Our goal is to ensure that every year, every school has an effective leader and every classroom has an effective teacher so that every child can learn and achieve to his or her full potential.  When our educators succeed, our students succeed, too.

The book provides an appendix with two self-assessments for leaders. We would recommend reading these sections and utilizing these as a means to understand what methods you currently use, and how well those approaches/methods are working for you presently and in the future. The second assessment focuses on the existence of the dual operating system in your organization today and in the future. Although the book is geared towards the business world, Kotter’s message is easily applied to nonprofit organizations like school districts struggling with organizational change. Let’s face it, pioneers exist in every organization, but not every pioneer is equipped with the essential knowledge of how to “survive and thrive” in an ever-changing world. After reading this book, you will be ready.


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