“Downton Abbey” – a backdrop for organizational change theory

The creator of Downton Abbey certainly picked a historical era of major change for his show….post-World War I England.  In three short seasons, he has demonstrated the overwhelming changes facing the aristocracy (and actually everyone) as post-war England begins a long journey of equalizing people and opportunity. [My apologies to those who don’t know this TV show; but suggest you watch it – it’s REALLY good]

With Downton Abbey and its colorful characters as a backdrop, let’s explore John Kotter’s first few steps of major change. Let’s call Matthew and Tom change agents and Mary, Cora, Edith and, interestingly, the dowager Countess, the guiding coalition.   Obviously Lord Grantham is the primary resister.

1. A Sense of Urgency…”examining market and competitive realities; identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities.”

Matthew, a somewhat reluctant heir, has embraced his responsibilities and been given access to the inner workings of the Downton house and town.  He  rescued Downton after a major investment went south, by investing an unexpected windfall – one he is honor-bound to protect.  As he reviews the books, he sees the inherent difficulties in continuing to run Downton as simply an aristocratic engine, fueled by inherited money. The price of goods and service has skyrocketed and technology is creating new efficiencies that will out-produce the old ways of doing things.

There are crises in the past – three prior generations have sought rescue for Downton.  There is a potential crisis in the world and economy after the war, and there is an opportunity to turn Downton into a self-sustaining, revenue producing organization.  Matthew, wanting to preserve and grow the inheritance for his offspring, sees the need for change and begins the process of discussing his vision.  Discussions with Downton’s solicitor Murray reenforce his observations and validate his vision.

His obvious passion for the change ignites great resistance which threatens to disrupt the relationships of the family.

2. Guiding Coalition…”putting together a group with enough power to lead the change; getting the group to work together like a team.”

While the formal power of Downton lies with Lord Grantham, there are other, less obvious sources of power and Matthew does an excellent job of engaging that support.  Clearly his wife Mary has influence over her father that only an elder daughter can claim.  The facts bring Cora and Edith to become excited about “what could be”, and even the Dowager Countess sees that change is inevitable.  Slowly, Lord Grantham yields to the vision.

Matthew’s passion about his vision is overpowering – a good lesson for anyone wanting to influence change.  Thankfully, Tom is able to communicate the realities and opportunities without igniting an equally strong passion for not changing.

Sometimes resisters cannot be influenced.  Jarvis was so threatened by the change that he left.  That is the best case scenario; to stay and become an obstacle creates untold difficulties for progress.

3. Developing a vision and strategy…”creating a vision to help direct the change effort; developing strategies for achieving that vision.”

Those of us addicted to this series will have to bide our time to see how the vision plays out over time and perhaps I will have enough material to continue aligning Downton’s progress with Kotter’s theory.  But enough has been said to let us glimpse that technology and machinery will play a major role, as will converting non-productive property into productive roles.

Back to Today

I enjoy seeing theory come to life, and it has been fun to think through an outstanding television series through the lens of change theory.  As you think about major change in your world, perhaps pondering some questions would be worthwhile….

Why is the change happening/necessary.  Is there a compelling reason to change?  Change is hard, so it helps to have a fire burning behind you….if there is not, why change?

Who/what is the formal power structure surrounding the change?

Who/where might informal sources of power reside?

Is the vision clear?  What is the gap between where you are now, and where the vision will take you?

The answers to these questions may help structure and frame change, whether personal or professional.

Those folks thought they were seeing major change after WWI….I wonder what they would think of the speed of change in the 21st century!


Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

3 thoughts on ““Downton Abbey” – a backdrop for organizational change theory

  1. Bravo on finding a great example of change theory in an outstanding television series – I love it! I agree, it’s so fun when theory comes to life. To your question of “why is the change happening/necessary,” I see an overarching answer as being because we live in dynamic environments. If we didn’t, Downton would have never changed – they probably could have gone on living the exact same way with servants downstairs, served upstairs, for generations. Rather, whether we use the open system metaphor or complex networks metaphor, we are all connected and when one person – one element – is changed, it has a strong ripple effect to which we must shift our balance in order to remain standing. Change truly is inevitable, and learning frameworks like Kotter’s or others coupled with our own experience is a great way to inform ourselves of how change works and how we best can support our clients, organizations, and even ourselves in building capacity for this inevitable change.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mercedes. You are right that the complexity of our lives these days necessitates agility and skill in dealing with change. One of the phenomena that I have seen in organizations, is not being totally clear on why the change is necessary or desirable. Sort of like throwing training at performance problems, not being clear on why the change is occurring can lead to tangents that don’t go where the organization needs/wants to go, or missing opportunities to capitalize on new ideas. Since folks aren’t usually that keen on change, having clear (and burning) reasons helps to establish that sense of urgency that begins Kotter’s change journey.

  3. Carol ~ What an excellent way of aligning Kotter’s work with a television series so many of us are addicted to! Thank you. I will look on my Sunday night viewing of Downton Abbey with new eyes!

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