Managing Change "When Alligators Are Nipping at Your Heels"

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Day to day problems of the business often prevent leaders from taking the time out to think, plan and act in order to make the kind of transformational changes that are needed in organizations. In the Heart of Change, John Kotter presents the case study “When Alligators Are Nipping at Your Heels” as an example of a leader who decided to deal with the crisis confronting him and his organization before he began to look for ways to transform the organization. Kotter quotes Nick Pearce as saying that “you have to focus on putting out the big fires and on anything that can quickly restart those fires” before you can begin working on bigger transformation (Kotter, p. 25).

However, the pace of work and change is happening so quickly in today’s work environment, a leader runs the risk of using “putting out fires” as an excuse of not finding the time, energy and focus to address the very real issues that need to be changed within an organization. The felt need to focus on the fires, in fact, can derail any effort for implementing change. “Many of the current struggles with transformation are a result of leaders not attending to the cultural, behavioral, and mindset components of transformation or not attending to them in ways that make real impact” (Anderson and Anderson, p. 16).

Managers are often compelled to deal with the business issues of the day. They feel their expertise and experience is needed to help “put out fires” in their area of expertise. Leaders however, recognize that they must focus on the business of building “burning platforms” that help people and organizations realize the need for change, that compel them to move out of their comfort zone and begin to change (Kotter, p. 27). This takes time, energy and focus. Using excuses that the organization has too many fires to put out only distracts from the real attention and encourages employees to fall back in the old way of doing things rather than focusing on the change at hand.


Anderson D. and Anderson L. (2001). Beyond change management. San Francisco: Jossey – Bass/Pfeiffer.

Kotter, J.P. & Cohen, D.S. (2002). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people

change their organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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