Book Review: Accelerate by John Kotter

Accelerate is a book by John Kotter, first published in 2014

I’ve been aware of John Kotter’s book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World as foundational text in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) canon. As someone who operates within organisations adopting the framework, I was curious to understand the significance of the text, and try to appreciate why it is so compelling to help kick start the SAFe movement.

John Kotter is respected thought-leader, author and academic in the field of leadership, strategy and consulting. I had previously read the fictional story Our Iceberg is Melting – another of his books that talks of change and success in a fast changing world. Since this book is written as a fable, I was hoping that Accelerate would not only offer models and practices, but also citable research and thorough case studies to underpin Kotter’s thinking.

The “dual operating system”

Eight accelerators for the network.

In Accelerate, Kotter does well in describing how organisations can apparently adapt to rapid change by adopting a ‘dual operating system’, where the traditional hierarchical co-exists with a more nimble and entrepreneurial network of individuals. These intrinsically motivated individuals are driven by a sense of urgency, are supported by a guiding coalition, are catalysed by short-term success, and other such accelerators that would be familiar to readers of this post.

The dual operating system. Traditional hierarchy on the left, integrated with the entrepreneurial network on the right.

I find the apparent successful marriage of the traditional hierarchical with this network-like structure to be an intriguing, but huge claim. A claim that disappointingly isn’t backed up by citable research or thorough case studies.

For example, Kotter says those operating on the network side need to find time in addition to the time needed to fulfil their duties in the hierarchical side. To explain this, the book is strong on rhetoric, but weak on providing something like detailed first-hand accounts, or day-in-the-life stories. I was hoping to understand how individuals had navigated the trials and tribulations to overcome the cultural status quo, protectionism and suspicion. Without this, I find Kotter claim a tall order, even with the presence of his accelerators.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

Knowing that Kotter is an academic, I’m surprise by the lack of evidence-based research from which his models, concepts and practices should emerge. The phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” comes to mind. I found extraordinary evidence is lacking in Accelerate.

The evidence you’re given are mostly brief paragraphs describing what anonymous individuals and organisations have done to adopt the ‘dual operating system’. This stands in stark contrast to other leadership and strategy books, such as Alan Lefley’s and Roger Martin’s Play to Win. Throughout Play to Win the authors lean upon their lessons transforming Proctor and Gamble. I acknowledge this is only one organisation, but at least the case study is authentic, comprehensive and underpins their advice.

Maybe Kotter has other books and research which provide the rigour I’m seeking (let me know if there are). Until I see it, I am sadly unconvinced about the feasibility of what Kotter advocates in Accelerate.

Leader’s role in enabling organisational competitiveness

How well is your organisation responding to rapid change and uncertainty?

In responding to change, as a leader, how are you engaging individuals across your organisation?  

How are you enabling organisational learning in order to enable organisation competitiveness?  

These are crucial questions that will be discussed in this talk. 

We’ll discuss the principles for nurturing and promoting continuous transformation. A transformation that is respectful of legacy, recognises established success and is accommodating to each individual’s growth journey. 

Supported by the speaker’s experience, the talk will help leaders use the following approaches to foster exploration and emergence – prerequisites for organisation competitiveness:

  1. Leaders supporting individuals to test assumptions
  2. Leaders acting as grand conductors
  3. Leaders creating a safe-to-learn environment
  4. Leaders forming and protecting an adaptive space for innovators and operators

Come along to this talk if you are a leader facing the challenge and opportunity of inclusive organisational change.

This is a TEKsystems Global Services talk created and delivered by Dean Latchana


Upcoming Dates

Lean Agile London 2023 – 19 October 2023

Previous Dates

Social symbolism and attached meaning of shared objects

I know, I keep banging on about the importance of co-location, and on what we’re losing when working remotely.

Here’s another lose I’d like to share: “Deep social problem-solving with the aid of physical material”

Let’s relate this to research that reveals tool-use as an extension of our body.

“When we do something as apparently simple as picking up a screwdriver, our brain automatically adjusts what it considers body to include the tool. We can literally feel things with the end of the screwdriver.”

12 Rules for Life (Jordan B Peterson)

I speculate that tool-use (including physical material) doesn’t only extend our physical perception of self. We also attach symbolism and meaning. Think of children personifying and creating stories with a crude rag doll.

When objects are used socially, such as during a collaboration workshop, the symbolism and attached meaning have unspoken shared significance.

Does the digital and remote world in which we now operate offer the same potential as the placemaking of a shared physical environment? Does it equate to the emergent symbolism, attached meaning and collective perception that arises when collaborating with physical material?

Related reading

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Reflections on The Startup Way – Part 2

The Startup Way: How Entrepreneurial Management Transforms Culture and  Drives Growth: Ries, Eric: 9780241197264: Books
The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth. By Eric Ries

In his The Startup Way book, Eric Ries reveals how entrepreneurial principles can be used by businesses to take advantage of enormous opportunities and overcome challenges resulting from our connected economy.

In this series of posts, I’ll share my key takeaways, and relate those to my own experiences and reflections. In the last article, I explored how organisations corner themselves by becoming over-reliant on their successes. In this article, I’ll introduce and reflect upon the missing organisational capabilities for entrepreneurialism and new growth.

Ries describes these capabilities as:

  • Create space for experiments with appropriate liability constraints
  • Fund projects without knowing the return-on-investment (ROI) in advance
  • Create appropriate milestones for teams that are operating autonomously

In my experience, successful innovation occurs when entrepreneurs’ autonomy is bounded within a governance process which selectively and incrementally invests in strategies that are demonstrating early success. If innovators cannot demonstrate early signs of ROI then they either pivot to a different strategy, or they receive no further funding.

This approach enables appropriate liability constraints, operational autonomy and funding without knowing the ROI upfront. It protects innovations teams from over-committing, and it protects the business from over-investing in strategies which haven’t proven themselves.

The team is liable because they have the responsibility to achieve what’s been agreed. The leaders are also liable in that they must remove organisational impediments and protect the team from the status quo that may hamper the innovation team.

Freedom is constrained to ensure the team and leaders focus on what specifically needs to be learnt at a sustainable pace. The constraints should be both time and funding; for example 4-weeks and $25,000.

Yet, this approach doesn’t mean innovation teams are micromanaged; it’s quite the opposite. Once an innovation team has agreed on the measures of success, gained the support of leaders and received the funding, they have the freedom to explore how to achieve their goals within the agreed constraints.

Couple Buying Meat at a Supermarket
The innovation team relied on the leaders’ support, protection and network to work with store managers who were open to testing the benefits of the Scan and Go app.

Photo by Jack Sparrow from Pexels

An example of where I’ve supported a retail client achieve this is with their Scan and Go service they were developing. The team wanted if store operations could support customers purchasing items by scanning and purchasing them using smartphones, and then immediately leaving the store. This allowed customers to avoid the checkout queues and put less pressure on the checkout staff.

There was natural concern that there would an increase in theft (known as shrink in the retail industry). To contain risk the innovation team had liability constraints of 2-weeks when they could test a prototype in two stores which were closely monitored. The types of items which could be purchased were also limited.

Assorted Bottles and Cans in Commercial Coolers
To create safe-to-learn constraints, types of items were excluded from the Scan and Go experiments. For example beers, wines and spirits which are high-value items.

Photo by junjie xu from Pexels

No one knew the ROI upfront. How much would it cost to build and operate? How would it impact sales and shrink? How would store security respond? To find out the team worked with the leaders to agree on measures of success and thresholds.

Within a limited timebox, budget and range of items, the innovation team chose to develop and conduct experiments in a way they felt appropriate. The leaders were on hand to use their social network to identify the rare store managers who were open to partnering with the team.

Without prompting, tentative signs of success were shared between store managers. The excitement of collaborative discovery created interest from area managers. This buzz created a larger opening for the next scale of experimentation. Changed was never pushed onto store and area managers.

This unprompted exchange of stories between different groups shows that innovation is as much a social phenomenon as a technological one.

This example of experimentation with liability constraints, funding without knowing the ROI upfront and allowing teams to operate with autonomy, became an exemplar of entrepreneurialism for my client.

Remember from the last article, that entrepreneurialism is vital to ensure organisations don’t become over-dependent on past successes.

In my next article, I’ll reflect upon my next takeaway for The Startup Way, which will be on scaling the innovators’ successes with the resources of the parent organisation.

Reflections on The Startup Way – Part 1

The Startup Way: How Entrepreneurial Management Transforms Culture and  Drives Growth: Ries, Eric: 9780241197264: Books
The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth. By Eric Ries

The Startup Way is a 2017 book by Eric Ries, which is a follow-up to his blockbuster Lean Startup.

In The Startup Way, Ries reveals how entrepreneurial principles can be used by businesses to take advantage of enormous opportunities and overcome challenges resulting from our connected economy.

In this series of posts, I’ll share my key takeaways, and relate those to my own experiences and reflections. Let’s start off by exploring how organisations corner themselves by becoming over-reliant on their successes.

Kodak has become the go-to case study of an organisation that became myopic and over-committed to its past successes.

Ries states that if an organisation is constrained by capacity, they’d typically endeavour to acquire more, in a bid to gain greater market share. New products tend to be variations of existing product lines. Firms compete primarily on price, quality, variety and distribution. Barriers to entry are high, and growth is slow.

In my view, if exploited for too long, what Ries describes can result in dangerous consequences. It can create a difficult-to-reverse dependence on legacy successes. Repeating and scaling an organisation’s previous successes can become its unspoken raison d’etre. In an increasingly fast-moving market, this can be disastrous.

The over-reliance on existing successes also develops an expectation that stifles the emergence of innovation within organisations. Success leads to criteria that promote the fine-tuning of existing products, processes and behaviours. This makes it difficult to accommodate internal disruption, vulnerability and relearning – qualities necessary for innovation.

Organisations scale success by developing a highly tuned operational system. This is often at the detriment to their capacity to innovate.

I believe this ties into Apex Predator Theory developed by Dave Snowden. Organisations will eventually fail as they become competent and too wedded to the current operations and market offerings.

Apex Predator Overlapping S-Curves | AGLX Consulting
Apex Predator Overlapping S-Curves. Illustrated by

My next article reflects on another takeaway from The Startup Way – the missing capability that enables organisations to overcome their over-dependence on past successes.