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Adoption and Change

Book Review-Change Better: Survive – and Thrive – During Change at Work and Throughout Life

A surprising amount has been written about change. It’s been written from an organizational context, a personal context, and a societal context. The underlying connection is that all change is personal change. To get our organizations and societies to change, we must change personally as well. This lies at the heart of Jeanenne LaMarsh’s book, Change Better: Survive – and Thrive – During Change at Work and Throughout Life.

Life is Change

The book was written in 2010 – a decade ago. However, the language could be appropriate today even without LaMarsh understanding the scope of her statements. “No matter who you are, the skill to deal with constant change needs to become a permanent part of your life.” The change velocity then was more than it had ever been in the history of human civilization, and it’s even faster now. Instead of measuring change in generations, we measure change in decades, years, months – and even minutes.

Each of us craves stability and certainty. It makes our prediction-engine brains comfortable to know that they can do their jobs. However, we never had certainty. There were changing weather patterns before we could predict the weather. There were floods and fires that would wipe out entire towns. Despite the knowledge that certainty is an illusion, we cling on to it.

To thrive today, we’ve got to let go of the quaint belief that we can know everything or plan for everything, and instead we must build a capacity within ourselves to accept – and even welcome – change. We need to learn how to surf the waves of change instead of being crushed by their relentless nature.

The Transition Delta

What William Bridges calls the neutral zone (see Managing Transitions), LaMarsh calls the delta zone. The Greek letter delta is used to signify change. It’s a place of confusion where every decision that might have previously been automatic must be reevaluated and considered in the context of the new world that we live in. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow provided a model for cognition that includes two systems. Most of the time, he explains, we walk around using “System 1,” which is automatic. Switching into “System 2” requires more energy and therefore is a less desirable state. However, in conscious change, we must constantly reengage “System 2” and therefore consume more energy even if the energy is consumed through thinking rather than action.

Thinking Is Not Doing

While it’s true that thinking about something doesn’t make it so, it’s equally true that thinking can be work. In the United States, we have a bias against thinking being “real” work. We can look at the biology and neurology that indicate we’re consuming energy, but somehow, to the protestant work ethic, thinking doesn’t feel like getting anything done.

Of course, we can take Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment, “If you fail to plan, you are planning fail,” as an indication that we must do some planning work to be successful, but that doesn’t make it “feel” more like work. Athletes are taught to visualize their success to enhance their performance. We know that all but the motor neurons fire when someone is visualizing their performance – so they’re rehearsing it. Even patients with amputated arms are taught to visualize to allow them to help them cope with the loss of their limb. (See Descartes’ Error.)

We must fight our bias towards action and moderate our action with our capacity to plan. If we can’t do planning in conjunction with our action, we’re destined to fail.

All Change is Personal

Change Better is squarely focused on the personal level of change. Not that it’s about changing yourself personally but rather it’s about connecting what you need to change personally to help the organization’s change be successful. It’s filled with worksheets of questions that are designed to improve your ability to see the reasons for the need to change, the exact nature of what the change will look like for you personally, and the path to reach this new place.

These worksheets are available from the LaMarsh web site at I’d encourage you to check them out to learn how to Change Better.

Book Review-Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results

Most books on change conveniently dodge the challenge of culture. After all, changing an organizational culture is difficult. It’s easier to deliver a tactical project than it is to change the way that people think. However, Roger Connors and Tom Smith rightfully think that until you change the beliefs embedded into the culture, you’ll never achieve the breakthrough results you really want. In Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results, they lay out a process for getting different results based on the foundation of accountability and beliefs.

Working Backwards: Results, Actions, Beliefs, Experiences

In the end, everyone is pursuing a change, because they want a different set of results than what they’re getting today – or they predict they’ll get in the future. The point of the exercise is the tip of Connors and Smith’s pyramid. However, to get to different results, you need different actions. It’s the actions that lead to the results – but what leads to the actions?

Our beliefs lead to our actions. Certainly, there are mitigating factors like skills and motivations, but fundamentally, we will act out our beliefs if we’re not influenced by anything else. Similarly, if our beliefs aren’t right, then they’ll pull our actions back. We can “fake it” with our actions for a time, but ultimately, we’ll revert to our core beliefs. That leaves the question about how we develop our beliefs.

Our beliefs are based on our experiences. Our beliefs must make sense of our experiences. We’ll keep shifting our beliefs until we can make our experiences fit – or we’re able to ignore incongruent experiences. Actually, we’ll believe what we want – until we can’t. That is, we’ll believe what we want until the weight of the experiences we have can no longer be denied. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Shortcut to the Top: Behaviors Only

In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, we often look for the shortcut, the quick answer, and the easy results. That’s what happens when organizations decide to skip over experiences and beliefs and jump solely to actions while hoping to get results. While this strategy may work in the short term, over time, the pressure to perform actions in congruence with beliefs becomes stronger.

It’s like diets. They work for a while, but for the most part, they fail in the long term, because they’re working on the surface problem instead of the core beliefs. Reports are everywhere about people gaining more weight than they lose, with only a few who manage to keep weight off for more than 3 years. Eventually, the core beliefs that make up the person’s eating habits erode the logical control of their actions. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for a model for how our beliefs – or emotions – can override our conscious control.)

Building Beliefs

Most people are curious about how others hold beliefs that differ from theirs. The answer is simple. They have different beliefs because they have different experiences. They grew up in different cultures, neighborhoods, and families. These environments impart a set of experiences on people, and those experiences add up to the beliefs that they hold.

If you want to change the beliefs of the people in the organization, the path is paved with experiences that clearly indicate to everyone what the beliefs you want them to hold are. There are four levels to experiences:

  • Level 1 – These send a clear and unmistakable message about what beliefs you want people to hold.
  • Level 2 – These experiences need to be interpreted for people to understand their meaning and the beliefs that you want them to hold.
  • Level 3 – These experiences won’t influence beliefs no matter how much explaining that you do.
  • Level 4 – These experiences detract from the beliefs that you want people to hold, and as much as possible, they should be avoided.

Culture and Alignment are a Process

Creating a culture is hard enough, but it’s even harder to maintain that culture when the organization grows and changes. It’s hard to build the experience into the lore of the culture – a permanent and unmistakable message about what the organization believes. When Johnson and Johnson pulled all the Tylenol off the shelves of every store in the United States as the result of a few tampered packages in Chicago, they sent a clear and unmistakable message that the safety and health of their customers was more important than profits. This incident ended up becoming a part of corporate lore – and more broadly to the world around the organization in this case.

In most cases, it’s hard to find or create the kind of type 1 experiences that naturally embed themselves in the lore of the organization. However, it is often possible to convert type 1 and type 2 experiences into persistent stories that can help to maintain the culture of the organization – if they’re reinforced.

Maintaining a corporate culture requires continuous work on the alignment of the organization around focusing challenges and opportunities that are compatible with the corporate culture. This requires continuous work, as both the environment around the organization and the internal skills and challenges shift.

Neither culture nor alignment is a “one and done” type of project. Instead, it’s necessary to continue to work at them long after the process has started and reached a level of success.

Focused Feedback

Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor explains how feedback should be clear and complete. Cy Wakeman makes a similar point about being direct in No Ego. Connors and Smith agree that feedback should be candid, clear, and complete. More importantly, they share a concern that people tend to dismiss negative feedback.

Before dismissing feedback, they recommend asking four questions:

  1. Is it accurate?
  2. Is there a basis for this feedback?
  3. Is it relevant or irrelevant?
  4. Is it right or wrong?

Some feedback will be baseless. Some will have a foundation but won’t rise to the measure of being relevant. Overall, you’ll have to decide whether the feedback warrants your attention – but give it the benefit of the doubt when you can. At the very least, you can validate the feedback with others and see whether it’s something that you’ll need to address or not.

Two Pyramids

In the end, there’s a pyramid that begins with the current experiences, the current beliefs, the current actions, and current results. There’s another pyramid with the new results you want that are based on new actions, new beliefs, and new experiences. If you want to really change the culture of your organization, perhaps it starts with one behavior: reading Change the Culture, Change the Game.

Book Review-Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization

My first highlight from this book is “Stability is no longer the prevalent condition of our age.” That’s a simple and profound truth as we must find ways to cope with the constant change we’re in while simultaneously leading our organizations and families. That’s what Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization is all about. It’s about leading our organizations through change. In it, Darryl Connor (who also wrote Managing at the Speed of Change) puts forth the proposal that organizations today need nimbleness, resilience, human due diligence, and execution.

Change – For Better or Worse

In today’s world, we’re faced with change whether we like it or not. While there’s a long list of folks who say there’s a 70% failure rate with change efforts, there’s still relatively little attention paid to the biggest blocker of change: people. What is more concerning is that few people are minding the hen house as changes continue to fail and therefore represent unnecessary expense and turmoil for the organization. Even those changes that are “successful” fail to produce the intended value, therefore failing to return on their investment to the organization.

The return on change – like return on investment – is a factor of both the cost to implement the change and the benefits that are received. Not all the costs are hard dollar costs. Some of the costs are the mental energy that the process sucks up from employees, vendors, and customers. These costs are often substantial even for change projects that aren’t funded with much money.

Consider that there is transition and uncertainty in any change, which necessarily causes a reduction in production. This trough of productivity can encourage burnout (see Extinguish Burnout). It can deprive the organization of the sales and therefore cash it needs to survive.

The return on the change may similarly be non-monetary. Some changes will result in a more pleasant work environment, more future stability, or less operational friction. All these are great outcomes that don’t show up on the bottom line.

The Dynamics of Change

We perceive solid objects as, well, solid. The trick is that they’re still mostly empty space. It’s just that the atoms and molecules form a pattern that doesn’t adjust very easily. The atoms themselves are a dense center with spinning electrons circling them. This creates the illusion of space consumption and, in some cases, solids. Much of what we see as constant is really a set of overlapping and joining oscillations that are, for the moment, in one state; but in the next moment, they may change altogether.

Even in the coldest of our winter nights, we still are bustling with energy. We see water change from liquid to solid and believe that nothing is happening; yet, down to -273.15 degrees Celsius, there is still energy vibrating the atoms. We must learn to not only anticipate change but to accept that we’re standing on constant changes.

Predictability Lost

The great challenge to all this is that, as humans, we are prediction engines. (See Mindreading for more.) We try to predict the future to reduce the potential for future harm. We believe that our predictions allow us to control or shape the future. (See Compelled to Control for more on our need to control.) To acknowledge that what we think is real is just an illusion created in our brain is disconcerting for most of us. (See The Hidden Brain and Incognito for more.) It means that our ability to predict the future is very, very limited. Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner explore the limits of prediction in Superforecasting, but their predictions operate at the level of organizations – and the struggle of lost predictability is personal. It’s our ability to maintain our belief that we’re safe.

Change In and Across Systems

The changes that we find in organizations occur at a micro level within a person or a team but ripple across the entirety of the organization. Some of the changes that we try to accomplish reside inside a single individual. It’s a change to reduce destructive behaviors or enhance productive ones. However, those changes impact the dynamics of the others in the family. Often with people afflicted by addiction, their recovery disrupts the network of relationships they have, including friends and their families. Their former friends lose a drinking buddy. The family regains a parent or child but often to the disruption of the routines that were already established.

The changes we make may be focused locally but will ripple outward to other systems. Conversely, the changes that we desire to make across systems all come down the need for individuals to change their behavior.

Limits to Operation

Every system has limits to its operation. (For a primer on systems, see Thinking in Systems.) I remember my high school chemistry class. I loved it. I loved the idea that you could mix things together and get other things. I also vividly remember that reactions didn’t work outside of a PH range. If you wanted the reaction to occur, you had to be in the range – and if you wanted to prevent it, all you had to do was drive the solution out of the range. While the specifics are related to chemistry, the general case applies to every category of systems – human, organizational, societal, etc. They only work in a range. When the environment changes the system may or may not work.

Organizations, by their nature, develop a set of systems. Michael Gerber encourages the creation of systems in his classic book, The E-Myth. These systems will continue to work right up to the point where they fail. Nassim Taleb warns of spectacular failures in The Black Swan. In the end, change masters are ones who can see the systems that are going to break because of changes – before they completely break.

Pushing the Limits

The opposite end of the spectrum are those situations that push people and organizations to grow. Taleb’s follow on book to The Black Swan, Antifragile, explains how systems can be designed to push the limits and grow from the process. It’s not that pushing people to the edge of – and occasionally beyond – their comfort is easy or for the faint of heart. However, ultimately, it’s this process of constantly extending capabilities that allows individuals and organizations to become more resilient and survive over the long term.

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler explains how the seemingly superhuman feats of athletes are simply the progression of their abilities over time. If you work at the limit of your capability and grow consistently, you’re bound to end up doing things that most people don’t believe are possible if you are simply given enough time.


Success – in the market and in life – is then simply a matter of guesswork, pushing the limits, and waiting for the long odds to eventually come in. You can’t expect that you’re going to hit a home run. They’ll happen occasionally, but they’re difficult to do consistently. Instead of hitting home runs, working to consistently get on base ultimately gets you the most runs. It’s about working towards your goals in the long term and accepting that everything you do today is a guess as to what will lead you to those goals in an increasingly uncertain world.

So, on the one hand, you can’t predict the future, and on the other hand, you must work towards the future even if you don’t know exactly what it will be.

Large and Tiny

There’s a tricky bit to solving the problems that come from the environment. We tend to believe that the scope of the solution must be commensurate with the size of the problem. However, that’s not the case. As Dan and Chip Heath point out in Switch, the size of the problem and the size of the solution need not be related. It’s possible to solve very expensive problems with simple solutions.

Often, the simple solutions are better, because they don’t require the kind of build up and support that complex solutions do. Consider for a moment the need to turn over a can. It’s simple to build a machine that grabs the can and flips it over. It could even move it from one place to another. However, if you want to flip every can at scale, you can simply induce a half-turn spiral into the process. It will rotate the orientation of the cans 180 degrees both reliably and quickly. The problem of flipping over all the cans can be solved in a complex way or in a simple elegant way. Often in change we skip over the simple and elegant on our way to the complex and difficult.

Leaders: Live Your Own Life

Sometimes, the problem with change isn’t a change problem at all. It’s a problem where a leader feels like they didn’t get to do something, and as a result, they’re reliving the experience through their organization. In my review of The Available Parent, I shared the story of a man whose daughter had to play soccer, because he missed out on a soccer scholarship. These kinds of misses occur at work too. A manager who didn’t get a chance to play with some new technology may chose to invest in new technologies when the right response is proven methods of success.


It’s sometimes called agility, and it’s about adapting to change. When organization become too bureaucratic and rigid, they invariably become misaligned with the world. As a result, they soon wither and die. When change was infrequent, these eventual deaths were often looked upon with the reverence of an old friend who had retired. In today’s constant change and turmoil, these losses start to resemble people who left before their prime – or even before they could be fully known.

Being nimble is about increasing the organization’s capacity for change such that it’s possible to capitalize on more benefits for more change with less future shock and frustration.


Of Conner’s concepts, this is the one which I have the greatest struggle with – not because I disagree that resilience is important, because I know it is. Nor is it because I don’t think that he relates good points. I struggle, because I believe his coverage misses the key aspects of resilience. Rick Hanson’s book, Resilient, does a much better job overall – which is to be expected, since he dedicated the book to that premise.

Where Conner is focused on seeing people as being more optimistic or having a realistic belief that they can succeed, I believe that learning self-efficacy and trusting those who care for us has more to do with resilience than focusing on opportunities. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more.)

Human Due Diligence

What Conner now calls “human due diligence,” he called “assimilation points” in Managing at the Speed of Change. The point that people can only cope with so much change is accurate – but providing it with a trademarked name seems a bit over the top to me.


While not much is said about execution other than the expected statements about grit and determination, execution is a key part of any change. (See Grit, The Four Disciplines of Execution, and Willpower if you’re interested in learning more about execution.) For your execution, perhaps it starts with reading Leading at the Edge of Chaos.

Book Review-The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change

Change is often seen as a monster. It’s seen as something that is there to attack the status quo and disrupt everyone’s life. Jeanie Daniel Duck explains how this monster can be tamed in The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change. The change monster, she explains, follows a predictable path called the change curve, and by mastering the change curve, you can tame the monster.

The Change Curve

The change curve has five phases:

  • Stagnation – The result of poor strategy, lack of leadership, a market shift, a product failure, a lack of new products or services, too few resources, outdated technology, outdated process, or poor execution, stagnation can be identified by outdated products or services, falling sales and share price, customer desertion, and talent drain – though it’s possible that it will have none of these indicators, particularly if addressed early.
  • Preparation – After the decision to change, preparation begins, and work is done to prepare the organization for the required change.
  • Implementation – With planning completed or mostly completed, implementation of the planned changes begins, and as things unfold, the plans are adjusted to fit reality. This is the start of the “real work” of changing behaviors.
  • Determination – The point where the organization realizes that the change is real and it applies to everyone, including them.
  • Fruition – Not every change will reach this phase but those that do see the benefits of the change – and ensure that the next change will work better.

These are the phases, but it takes strong leadership to guide the change monster through the phases successfully.


Leadership is a hard thing to define, as Joseph Rost proves in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. Whether or not you share Rost’s perspective on the need to deemphasize leaders and speak more about the relationship, you’re likely to know what it looks like when the leadership isn’t aligned towards a common goal.

The result for middle managers and employees is disorienting. What starts at the top as a small gap in vision or approach becomes a wide gap by the time it reaches middle management and the employees. While leadership may believe that people aren’t following their beautiful strategy, it may be that the differences in understanding, the impracticality of the strategy, or the leadership conflict is freezing everyone into old patterns. In short, it may not be as much as the “they” aren’t doing it as much as “we” aren’t explaining things consistently and realistically enough for anyone to follow.


In most organizations, the problem isn’t strategy as much as it is an inability to translate that strategy into the thinking and behavioral changes that every employee needs to make to make the strategy successful. Too often, executives (I hesitate to call them leadership) develop the strategy during some three-day retreat in an exotic or at least peaceful location. They come back and hand off the strategy believing their work is done.

It’s more accurate to say that they’re ready to start the work – the hard work. It’s the work of translating the goals in the strategy into the set of actions, behaviors, and metrics that are needed to cause the vision contained in the strategy to come to life. These steps aren’t done, and as a result, it becomes impossible for employees to understand how things must change behaviorally and how their thinking must change.


Every implementation of change has problems. It’s not possible to completely avoid problems. It is possible to plan for them, and it is possible to address them once they occur. It’s wrong to believe that problems won’t happen or that they can be ignored. It’s the response to the problems that allows leadership to show their strength.

In the most ideal form, the responses to change and the inevitable problems that will arise create a willingness and wanting for everyone to display the same commitment to change and to resolving problems. Good leadership does more than solve the immediate problems. Instead, they teach everyone how to manage change and solve problems going forward.

For Love and Behavior

The goal with any change project is for everyone to love it. The goal is to tell such a compelling story about the need for change that everyone loves the solutions the leadership has proposed. However, even when this is not possible, it’s necessary to hold everyone accountable to ensure their behavior is in alignment with the proposed change. It’s too easy to end up on one side of the spectrum, requiring love from everyone, or the other, ordering compliance.

Finding the middle way that encourages love but requires compliance is difficult but necessary inside organizations.

Ready, Willing, and Able

Duck focuses on three key aspects of change readiness: Ready, Willing, and Able. Ready is about recognizing the need for change. Willingness is about being willing to do the work necessary to accomplish the change. Ability is about having the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful. Ready and willing roughly equate to ADKAR’s desire, while able roughly equates to ability.

All three are required in varying degrees for a successful change effort. If an organization doesn’t show signs of readiness, willingness, or ability, then these will need to be developed prior to the change starting or during the change process to be successful.

Communications and What Happens When You Don’t

Most change approaches are preoccupied with communications for good reason. When people aren’t given a real, concrete answer, they’ll make up their own fantasy about what is or will be happening, and their fantasy will be more powerful than any reality you may be able to communicate. If you don’t believe this to be truth, consider the now retracted story about the connection between autism and immunization. The lead author on the study that The Lancet retracted has lost his license to practice medicine. Despite this, there’s a very vocal contingent of parents who don’t believe in immunizing their children because of a single, retracted article. It was first and plausible, so it became the story that was anchored in people’s minds – even after substantial proof that it’s wrong.

The unfortunate reality of the fantasies created in the minds of the organizations’ workers is that they’ll connect the dots in the most pathological way possible. The ways they’ll connect the dots between your messages to make sense of their experience will necessarily be negative and will invariably be weird to the point of pathology.

That’s why it’s necessary to not only communicate the message consistently via mass media in the organization but also to get managers and their teams face to face to discuss what the message means to them. Without this, it’s not that you can just see how interpretations could go off the rails – you should expect it.

Converting the Rebels

If you want to make people perk up their ears and take notice to what you’re doing, don’t move the folks who are on the fence to your side, move your staunchest opponent to your corner. The conversion to your cause sends a strong message that even one of the most opposed saw the logic of your change. The power of a single rebel converted to your way of thinking is worth their weight in gold. Those who followed them in their opposition are likely to follow them across the line and can swing the tide of the change.

You won’t convert every rebel, nor should you focus all your energy in this direction, but, done correctly, this is a powerful tool to accelerate the adoption of your change.

There is No Shortcut to Greatness

During changes, it’s often necessary to make cuts. It’s necessary to free up resources to provide those resources for the change effort. However, no change that is focused exclusively on cuts can be successful at accomplishing greatness. To accomplish greatness, it takes the kind of innovative leadership and strength that is generative, not reductive.

Testing Assumptions

The fact that change is a monster is an assumption like any other. It’s not that assumptions are bad. It’s what we’re designed to do as humans. It allows us to process and increasingly complex and confusing world. However, failing to test your assumptions can be an Achilles heel that brings down even the best change project. Maybe it’s time to test your assumptions about change by trying to tame The Change Monster.

Book Review-Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail

It’s the early 1990s, and corporate cultures, and learning how to cope with increasing degrees of change, are becoming a thing. That’s when Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail was first released. It’s a window in time to the leading edge of the change that we’re all now fully immersed in. Daryl Conner had been consulting and studying organizations and change for a few decades when the book came out, and he recorded his observations about how organizations change – and more importantly what derailed those changes.

Doing the Same Things

The premise then and now is that the same techniques we’ve used in the past to manage complexity and change no longer work. The explosion of media, communications, and virtual connectivity fundamentally rewrites the landscape of our human condition. Because of that, the typical approaches to command and control just don’t work any longer. (See Reinventing Organizations for another view about how organizations need to evolve to accommodate the changes we’re seeing in the world.)

The idea that we can, from on high, control things in the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world we find ourselves in is ludicrous. (See Stealing Fire for more on VUCA.) The Soviet Union had fallen, because the central planning model of Lenin’s Marxist beliefs just couldn’t compete with the chaotic power of a free market system. While everyone likes the idea of control, we’re finding it increasingly harder to do. (See Compelled to Control for more on our need to control.)

Future Shock

We’ve entered into a time when we’re experiencing future shock. The changes are happening around us at a rate greater than our capacity to cope, and this is causing dysfunctional behaviors. Like a deer stuck in the headlights of an oncoming car, we’re frozen or worse, and with the current rate of change, there seems to be few or no recovery options. We get up every day only to be knocked down by a seemingly unrelenting tsunami of change.

This is particularly true as we continue to face the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 that it causes. We’re adapting to new routines, new rules, and new approaches nearly daily. The weaknesses in our supply chain became apparent as we ran out of toilet paper, masks, and hair coloring. (See Antifragile and The Black Swan for more about how our tendency to optimize has made our supply chains more fragile than ever before.)

Dysfunctional Behavior

When Conner first wrote the book, he was concerned about the dysfunctional behavior he was seeing because of the future shock he believed we were experiencing as a society. The LA Riots were around this same time, and though he didn’t mention them by name, it’s clear that the level of civil unrest weighed heavily on his mind as he sought to reconcile the kinds of societal changes he was seeing in the face of constant change.

Understanding dysfunctional behavior isn’t easy. In Personality Types, the Enneagram model is explained – including the capacity for people to have both functional and dysfunctional behaviors within their primary operating models. The degree of change – and therefore the degree of future shock – caused Conner to speculate about the dysfunctional behaviors at a societal level.

I cannot imagine the vehemence of his words if they were written today, as we’ve seen so many dysfunctional behaviors that it makes the challenges of 30 years ago seem pale in comparison. We’ve seen riots and unrest on top of individuals attacking others for whether they are or aren’t wearing their masks.


Like Pandora stuck in the box with all the horrors of the world, we find hope through the development of resilience in people. We find that, in these times – like those after the 9-11 attacks – people are coming together. So, while there is unrest there are also random acts of kindness as neighbors help other neighbors. Conner explains that resilience is “the capacity to absorb high levels of change while displaying minimal dysfunctional behavior.” Not only do some people absorb high levels of change and display minimal dysfunctional behavior, they also actively mitigate the dysfunctional behaviors by doing acts that are designed to reduce the impact.

Reactions to Change

The way that people respond to change is, in some sense, predictable. At another level, it’s largely unpredictable. If the change is perceived negatively, then the person will go through the stages of grief as described by Kubler-Ross in On Death and Dying. If the change is perceived positively, Conner asserts that there’s a different sequence of emotions: uninformed optimism, informed pessimism, hopeful realism, informed optimism, and completion – with the possibility of checking out as a part of the process. This process is similar to Gartner’s hype cycle, though Gartner doesn’t focus on how one might exit the process.

Bridges, in Managing Transitions, has a slightly different assertion. He asserts that, even when changes are perceived as positive, people still experience a sense of loss for the current way of doing things and will therefore follow an emotional cycle like the one Kubler-Ross describes. Bridges’ model doesn’t preclude the kind of unrealistic optimism that Conner describes. Similarly, Conner doesn’t prohibit the concept that someone might simultaneously think that the change is both positive and negative and therefore may be on both cycles simultaneously.

Intellectual Preparation and Emotional Readiness

Our reason can intellectually prepare us for events that we anticipate in the future, yet it can somehow not necessarily prepare us emotionally. When you’re aware that a loved one is on the slow decline to their death, it doesn’t change the emotional toll that their passing places on your heart. The simple fact is that no amount of intellectual preparation can prepare you emotionally. Emotions, it seems, operate with their own mechanisms.

It’s possible to communicate and prepare an organization for an impending change and still need to carefully address the emotions associated with the change. Whether the change includes the retirement of a beloved mascot or saying goodbye to facilities that are no longer appropriate for the organization, the emotions that are uncovered may be overwhelming at times.

Ignoring these emotions or pretending they do not exist should be done only at one’s peril. Not only is the change effort likely to not succeed, but one’s career is also likely to be negatively impacted.

Prediction Engines

More than anything, humans are prediction engines. We try to predict what will happen next to prepare ourselves for it. While we may not be able to change the circumstances, we find some solace in our ability to predict the outcomes – even the negative outcomes. Our brains are wired around prediction so completely that even laughter seems to be the result of a prediction gone wrong. It’s the error-checking routine in our head that focuses us on more accurately predicting what’s happening next. (See Inside Jokes for more.)

I was trained as a comedian. (See I am a Comedian.) The good news is that this helped me learn how to be funny and how humor works even when I’m not funny. However, it’s also made me very aware of the tricks that comedians use to get the audience to laugh – as a result, they don’t deceive me, and I don’t genuinely laugh. I can appreciate their application of the techniques, but in many ways, learning how to better predict comedy made comedy itself less amusing.

Laughter is the relief valve programmed in to allow us to find amusement at the failure to predict the outcome. It’s a way to recalibrate and prevent us from the anxiety of a failure to accurately predict the future. We’re so wired to doing this that nature needed a pressure relief valve. It’s also why people under extreme stress sometimes think that inappropriate things are funny.

The Need for Control

Our fundamental nature as a prediction engine leads us to a high need for control. We want to know that the predictions we make will come true, and the best way to do that is if we are in control of the outcomes. Of course, control is just an illusion, and therefore we have a great number of ways that we shield our egos from the truth about our minimal degree of influence or control over certain acts. (See Compelled to Control for more about our need to control and Change or Die for more about our ego’s defenses.)

We believe that our control of situations eliminates violations of our expectations and therefore keeps us safe. However, the more we believe in our predictions and the more certain we are about our safety, the greater our risk is of being proved wrong in spectacular ways.

The Nature of Change

While we view all change as the same thing, not all changes are the same. Some changes are trivial and incremental in nature, while others are transformative. The techniques that are optimized for incremental and continuous improvement aren’t designed to address the transformative kinds of change that shake our perceptions of the world. Some of the changes that we confront are mere inconveniences, while others may require radically rethinking our values.

While it’s convenient to refer to all change in one big bucket, choosing strategies for responding to change requires a more detailed understanding of the forces that are preventing the change and the reasons that can be harnessed to create the change.

Demystification of Patterns

Watching an airplane take off for the first time can be a powerful experience. There’s something magical about that moment when you see an aircraft lift itself off the ground with nothing – at least that’s what it seems like. There are forces working on the aircraft in a predictable way, but you’re unable to see or understand them until someone explains them to you. Bernoulli first discovered the impacts of air flow and differential pressures, which led to the creation of the airfoil, which generates lift. Once you know how these forces work, you may still revere our ability to create heavier-than-air flight, but it’s no longer mysterious, and it’s somehow a bit less scary.

The change in our organization is similar. The better that we can teach people to demystify the forces that surround the culture and the change, the less concern and fear will surround the moment. The heart of change management is to demystify the process to the point where fear has no place to hide.

Assimilation Points

The truth is that it’s practically impossible to eliminate fear in organizations. (See The Fearless Organization for more.) Instead you must settle for reducing fear to a manageable level so that everyone can continue to function. Everyone has a degree of fear that they’re capable of accepting before their behavior becomes dysfunctional. That degree of fear is driven by their assimilation points. Assimilation points are consumed for every change consumed. It’s the capacity for change and fear. The greater the change and the more potential for negative consequences, the more points are consumed. Once you’ve consumed more points than the person has, they begin their dysfunctional behavior.

Obviously, this leads to the need to manage how much change you ask of people. More than that, it calls for you to create situations where there’s a greater number of assimilation points available. This comes through providing opportunities for the person to strengthen their self-efficacy and therefore become less fearful of the changes.

Conner here speaks of assimilation points as if there’s a fixed cost for a given change and as if people have different capacities. In my observation, it’s not that people increase their capacity as much as the costs are lower for people who have greater levels of self-efficacy because of the reduced fear they experience.

The Economics of Change

One of the recurring themes in change management is the costs of staying the same must be higher than the costs of changing, whether this is expressed via the Beckhard and Harris Change Formula or more simply by saying the change was mandatory. The important point here is that Conner coined the term “burning platform” based on the 1988 disastrous explosion and fire on an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland and the interview with survivor Andy Mochan, who jumped from certain death on the platform to possible death in the freezing waters below.

The idea of a “burning platform” has become a part of change lore. John Kotter’s first step is to create a sense of urgency, but he’s careful to discourage yelling “fire” about platforms that aren’t burning. If there’s truly a burning platform, then it’s appropriate to warn others; however, if you warn folks too early, you may become as irrelevant as the boy who cried wolf.

Climbing the Shallow Slope

While it’s possible to get people to flee certain death and take whatever measures necessary – no matter how risky – in most cases, our change efforts don’t involve a truly burning platform. Instead they’re motivators that push us forward towards change, but the degree of change that individuals are willing to risk is proportional to the risk they perceive of staying the same.

Thus, we end up in a situation where, if we ask big things from our users, we’re forced to ensure that the motivating factors are large. So, we can either invest energy in making the problem seem as big as possible, or we can spend time making the asks of people easier for them to do.

Here, Robert Cialdini’s work in Influence is a key accelerator. He explains that if you ask people for small but measurable commitments, they’re more likely to make bigger commitments in the future. When it comes to change, we want to make sure that the first changes we ask someone for are small enough to be perceived as reasonable. From there, we remove the barriers to the next step (see Demand) and continue to ask for progressively larger changes until we’ve achieved all the individual changes that are required for organizational change success.

Visible Commitment

The fact that these small commitments must be visible isn’t a small factor. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations was clear that the ability for someone to observe that others are doing the behavior is key to winning over the majority. We can amplify the visibility of changes by celebrating the successes of the change. Enhanced visibility not only for the change that is desired but the results that are achieved.

This is why organizations do successful case studies. People want to know that others have been successful before they’re willing to make the change themselves.

Resisting Loss

It’s common to hear that the people in the organization are resistant to change. It’s become folklore that people resist change. The problem is that this isn’t true, as Bridges has pointed out. (See Managing Transitions.) People resist loss – not change overall. When you experience resistance in your change effort, the key question isn’t “Why can’t they just listen?” The key question is what loss are they mourning? (See On Death and Dying for more.)

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine – Pay for Commitment or Resistance

You don’t have to do the work to generate commitment any more than you need to put a stitch in torn clothing as soon as you notice the tear. You can choose to ignore the situation; however, if you do, you should be prepared to deal with the consequences. Whether it’s nine stiches or the resistance that will naturally ensue when people aren’t committed to the change, there will be a cost.

It’s a pay me now or pay me later situation that allows you to prepare folks so they don’t feel profound loss and instead are focused on the benefits that they’ll receive – or you can pay for the resistance that is generated when they focus on their loss.

Needing Each Other

With the exception of solo entrepreneurs, the truth is that everyone in the organization needs everyone else for the organization to continue to succeed and therefore stay employed. There are people in the organization whom you need to do their job so that you can do yours. Often in corporate life, it becomes one group against the other group – competing for whose approach is best or who is more important. However, in change, we need to rely on one another to accomplish the objectives rather than compete for scarce resources.

No ingredient is more important than another when making bread. Neither can an organization exist without its departments all functioning. Until the perspective is changed that everyone is there to support each other and the organization, it’s likely that the change effort will struggle.

Understanding Not Agreement

A key miss when developing this shared sense of mission and mutual need is the belief that we need to agree with everyone else in the organization. That’s not required. All that’s required is a degree of understanding of the others’ perspectives and the awareness that their perspectives are valid – even if they don’t match ours.

This key also supports us when we’re working on resolving conflicts inside the organization. Too frequently, we get caught by the fact that we don’t agree and fail to work towards understanding. (See Conflict: The Importance of Acceptance for more.)


When we feel as if others don’t understand us and they won’t listen to us, it’s easy to fall into the trap of victimhood. (See Hostage at the Table for more on victimhood.) We all visit victimhood from time to time. The trick is to learn not to buy a house there. The more that we can help everyone learn how to recognize their role in the change process, the less concerned that we need to be about people making an offer on the house. We feel like victims when we believe we have no power and no voice in the conversation. Giving everyone a voice reduces the tendencies towards victimization.

In the end, managing change may be about learning how to use the existing forces and perspectives to your advantage so you can do some Managing at the Speed of Change.

Book Review-Reimagine Change: Escape Change Fatigue, Build Resilience, and Awaken Your Creative Brilliance

My work often feels like it’s strangely disconnected; however, Reimagine Change: Escape Change Fatigue, Build Resilience, and Awaken Your Creative Brilliance connects two aspects of my world. Aspect number one is the work on change management. (See Confident Change Management for more.) The second aspect is burnout. (See Extinguish Burnout for more.) They connect and intersect in the ability to engage and motivate people, though change requires an ability to get people unstuck from burnout.

Reimagine Change is odd in that it sits somewhere between personal change and self-help book and organizational change management. Most books end up solidly on one side or another, but this one is one part of each with no clear weighting to either side.

Change Advocates

“Leaders at all levels are now expected to assume the role of change advocate.” I don’t know that I’d qualify this as “now.” I think leaders have always needed to be the facilitator of change. Leaders are, after all, leading somewhere. I do, however, think that there’s a greater awareness of the need for leadership and how it’s separate from position and a distinct discipline from management.

Here, Burns’ work, Leadership, and Rost’s work, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, help to articulate the difference between someone who manages and someone who truly leads. We’re left with little doubt that leaders are changing themselves, those that follow them, and their organizations daily.

6R Model

Reimagine Change is built around a 6R model:

  1. REALISE your reality
  2. RESPOND via your capability
  3. RECLAIM your brain
  4. REGENERATE your body
  5. RECODE your mind
  6. REIMAGINE your creativity

I don’t know that these six are fully explored in the book, but many of them are reminiscent of the teaching we do with Extinguish Burnout.


Perhaps the biggest challenge I had with Reimagine Change came from the lack of precision around what burnout is, how it works, and the role of stress. I’ll freely admit that we’ve developed a highly consistent view of how burnout works and what it is and isn’t. Our work here is informed by an understanding of the work around learned helplessness (see The Hope Circuit for more) and, importantly, Spolsky’s work in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

In short, stress is a payday loan. It’s short-term gain at the expense of long-term consequences. This necessarily reduces our long-term efficacy. This reduced efficacy makes us believe that we’re not making progress, which leads to learned helplessness and the feelings of inefficacy that characterize burnout.

When authors confuse stress (an indirect impact) as directly causal for burnout, I’m given great pause. While Lancaster is far from the only one to make this mistake, it’s concerning every time I see it.

Stressor Assessment

It’s concerning, because it fails to see the problem with enough clarity to enable folks to move forward. Consider, for a moment, stress itself. It’s considered a single thing, when, in reality, it’s not. We evaluate stressors for their probability and impact, and then we separately evaluate our capacity to overcome or mitigate the impacts of the stressor. The more resources we have directly or through our relationships, the less likely we are to see a stressor as stress inducing.

We experience stress when we’re concerned about our capacity to address the impact of a stressor. To be clear, it’s only when our capacity and the perceived impact are close that we develop a stress response. In cases like asteroids hitting the Earth, most of us don’t believe we have the resources to survive such a cataclysmic event, and therefore it rarely – if ever – creates stress for us.


What percentage of folks do you suppose are self-aware? Tasha Eurich is quoted as saying that 95% of people believe themselves to be self-aware when 10-15% of people actually are. Here, it’s tricky, because we’re all self-aware to some degree. We’re wired to have a self-perception of our body parts. It’s called proprioception, and it’s a part of us. More than that, we all know what colors and foods we like as well as a long list of things that we dislike.

The problem with such a broad-brush statement is that it’s treated as a binary response rather than the continuum that it is. I think a better statement would be that all of us should strive towards better self-awareness. This is something that even the Dalai Lama would agree is something that he works on. (See An Appeal to the World and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more.)

Feelings Trump Facts

When it comes to who wins between the emotional elephant and the rational rider, it’s no contest. The rider believes they’re in control but discovers that the elephant gets its way when it really wants it. This is built on the elephant-rider-path metaphor that Jonathan Haidt first talked about in The Happiness Hypothesis and Dan and Chip Heath discussed in Switch.

The uptake of this is that our feelings, whether we like them or not, are really in control. If we want to make changes in our world, we’ve got to be willing to address our feelings as well as our thoughts.


Everyone has trauma in their lives. We can either let it define us or we can work through it and work towards healing. Books like Opening Up and The Body Keeps the Score help us to see how trauma may be a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

Maybe if you want to find a way to change from your current place of being, whether personally or professionally, it’s time to Reimagine Change.

Book Review-Making Sense of Change Management: A Complete Guide to the Models, Tools, and Techniques of Organizational Change

Change management and organizational change are a big topic area. However, for the most part it’s been a territory without a map. Few books have focused on cataloging the organizational change space and instead seek to promote their own perspective about what’s the most important. Making Sense of Change Management: A Complete Guide to the Models, Tools, and Techniques of Organizational Change is a good map of the space without the overt bias towards one approach over another. It’s by far the most comprehensive catalog of concepts related to change management and organizational change that I’ve seen assembled. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it means that the coverage depth is very shallow for any given topic. The authors, Esther Cameron and Mike Green, have opted to send you to the original authors and research rather than attempting to convey such a vast collection of knowledge.

Change Management Body of Knowledge

The Change Management Institute (CMI) published a Change Management Body of Knowledge. There was only one edition before they started referring folks to Making Sense of Change Management instead. That’s a powerful statement about the comprehensive nature of the work and the perception that it’s the authoritative place to get an overview of the industry.

It should be noted that CMI isn’t the final authority on change management. There’s also The Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) that is moving forward the profession. Their approach to change management, standards, and publications is different. ACMP publishes The Standard for Change Management©, which is a collection of processes and artifacts that they believe lead to good change management.

Like any process, it is better when executed in conjunction with skills. Making Sense of Change Management offers awareness of many skills that are helpful in the successful implementation of a change where The Standard provides no guidance.

However, the situation is reversed when it comes to the way the organizations approach training. ACMP certifies Qualified Education Providers (QEPs) to teach change management materials that lead to the Certified Change Management Professional (CCMP). The CMI has a sole contract with one company to deliver their change management training. I don’t like sole contracts, because they don’t invite innovation and improvement of the materials. However, this situation illustrates how both organizations are closed in some respects (ACMP on The Standard, CMI on training delivery) and open on others (ACMP on training delivery, and CMI on the skills necessary to be successful).

Scoping Change

Because the book is intended as an overview, there were very few topics with substantial detail. However, there were various clues as to frameworks to view change in. The organization of the chapters builds up from individual change through team change and ultimately to organizational change before describing how to lead change from a position of authority – and a position without authority. This aligns with the awareness that all changes that are accomplished in organizations comes through teams, and all team change comes from individual change.

Sometimes, when we take a leadership, planning view of change, we forget that all change is individual change. The organization can’t change without the actions of individual people that themselves are changing. Remembering that change comes from individuals is important, because the place that change falls apart most frequently is in motivating the individual behaviors of individuals.

Transactional or Transformational

Think about the successful leaders that you’ve known. Think about the great presidents who have stood out across time, the great civic leaders, the great CEOs. They’ve got one thing in common that’s not easy to see from their accomplishments. They all got something done but did different things in different ways. What we recognize as good leaders, however, isn’t their ability to execute transactions or to squeeze the extra penny out of the process.

What we recognize most about great leaders is their ability to transform the way that we think about something from one way to another. Steve Jobs made us think that you could be creative and use a computer. Abraham Lincoln had us thinking about the United States and slavery in a very different way. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us about his dream, and in doing so, he changed what civil rights meant. It wasn’t about equality. It was about friendship, comradery, and community.

Great changes are forged from the same stuff. Great changes are not incremental changes that shave a few percentage points off the cost or incrementally increase revenue. Those change are, no doubt, needed. However, the great changes, the memorable changes, transform the way the organization sees itself and how it interacts with the world.

Any Route to Mindfulness

Sometimes people look to a technique, because they believe it will give them the reward they want. Mindfulness is one such technique that has been idealized for its ability to improve leadership. While some denounce the commercialization of such a personal and spiritual practice, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, it doesn’t matter the intention if they are truly reaching mindfulness.

When incorrect intentions collide with practices, sometimes it’s the intentions that shift. Techniques like mindfulness expand the capacity of the mind – and no matter why or how people came to this technique, they’ll find themselves positively transformed if they’re willing to be true to the practice.


It’s not a single task or technique but rather a habit or demeanor that is the most powerful thing that influences change. The thing that influences change the most is something that Rosabeth Moss Kanter explained in The Change Masters. It’s persistence. There are several analogies and stories that can be used, like the consideration that the Grand Canyon was dug slowly by the Colorado River. We tend to want to do change when it’s easy – but it’s rarely (if ever) easy.

We all want to think about change as easier than it is. We want it to not take as much energy. Like good leadership, our ability to accomplish change is only truly seen when the going gets tough and we’ve got to persevere through the hard times.

The Pain of Staying the Same and the Pain of Change

Having worked with addicts whose lives is falling apart, I’ve learned a simple truth about change – all change. That is the pain of changing must be less than (or appear less than) the pain of staying the same. It’s not possible to get someone to change who doesn’t see some pain in their current situation. (If you want to learn more about my journey with helping addicts, you’ll find more hints in Chasing the Scream and Dreamland.) The good news is that for everyone the pain they’re currently experiencing can be the fear of future negative consequences. Robert Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains how we’ve subsumed the stress response and can use it to drive future fear into the present.

One of the most challenging things about change is helping everyone in the organization understand how their current state is more painful than the change that you’re asking them to embark on. Sometimes that’s done by understating the effort of the change – consciously or unconsciously. A better approach is to help everyone understand the pain of the way they’re doing things now.

This isn’t always as easy as it seems. 70 years ago, there was no such thing as a microwave. When the Radarange microwave was released, people couldn’t imagine why you would want it. Why would you sacrifice taste and tenderness to be able to cook things without a stove? Today, no kitchen is complete without one. To achieve the change, it’s necessary to help people see the benefits of a solution that they don’t fully understand.

Change Emerging from Conditions

As broad a set of change management practices and perspectives as Making Sense of Change Management offers, there is no hidden secret. There’s no magic incantation that will result in a successful change in every condition. Instead, there’s the wisdom of David Bohm that things emerge. (See On Dialogue.) We can’t cause change to be successful. What we can do is create the conditions that favor success.

While it’s convenient and comforting to think in terms of direct cause and effect, this obscures the truth that there is rarely a single condition that leads to a result. Instead, we find ourselves looking at several factors that all lined up to create the success or failure. To simplify a change to a single technique or person that created the success or failure is an oversimplification that doesn’t help us be successful more frequently.

Change is Learning

All change is learning. It’s learning a new way of doing things. It’s a new set of behaviors, and those new behaviors are encouraged by knowing why a different approach might be better. Everett Rogers observed in The Diffusion of Innovations that it was the most cosmopolitan of farmers who first realized the value of a new technique and were therefore the most likely to adopt it.

Ed Schein believes that the critical task is to help people through the learning process. That is, we need to make the learning process easier, so that they can make the transition easier. This is at the heart of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users that I wrote back in 2008. I wrote it to make it easier to learn Microsoft SharePoint – at a time when it was very difficult to find any training for end users. By making the process easier for end users to learn, I made it easier for organizations to transition to SharePoint.

I should insert an asterisk here and say that Schein is only mostly right. It’s not that you must help people through the learning process, it’s that you must help them be able to more easily perform the desired behavior. In other words, learning isn’t the end goal, it’s simply a means to an end. The other approach is to provide someone with a performance aid so that they don’t have to remember. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for more.) The truth is that The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide sat in the middle. We didn’t care if you learned SharePoint – we wanted you to be able to do things with SharePoint.


Change brings anxiety. Most people don’t understand what anxiety is. It’s simply fear without a specific target. If you know what you’re afraid of, you have fear. If you’re not sure what you’re afraid of exactly, you have anxiety. The difference is in your belief that you can anticipate the kinds of problems that you’ll encounter. If you feel as if you’re able to predict the threats that will be a problem for you, then you’ll have fear of them.

The challenge with anxiety is that you can’t fix anxiety. There’s no specific thing to go address, mitigate, examine, or work on. You just have a sense that your world can be turned upside down at any moment. This is what most people feel like in corporate or organizational change. They didn’t know it was coming, they didn’t have any input in the process, and they don’t know where it’s heading.

There are two ways to combat the natural anxiety that comes with change. The first is to continue to develop and reinforce everyone’s sense of personal agency, their ability to get things done, and to cope with changes. The second way is to continue to communicate completely and effectively. The more people realize that you’re telling them the whole truth, as you understand it, the more they begin to trust that they’ll know about a problem before it’s too late and there will be others who will be there to help them. The net effect is less anxiety – and therefore less resistance to the change.


If there’s one place to end a book that is a survey of the kinds of skills that change managers and change agents need, it’s clarity. While the book itself lacks some clarity on the exact tools and skills that you should use to implement change in your organization, it is clear that the clarity that you can create about your change in the organization is a powerful lever that can be used to move the change forward.

Clarity seems like it’s an easy thing, but time and time again, we realize that getting to clarity isn’t quick. However, once you’ve reached clarity, it makes the communication and engagement process easy. Einstein is reported to have said that if he had an hour to work on a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and 5 minutes trying to solve it.

Create clarity about what you need to do by reading Making Sense of Change Management – so that you can understand clearly the change that you want to create.

Book Review-Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change

Never has the relationship between leadership and change been so laid bare as in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change. It should not be surprising that leadership and change are so related. Leaders are the catalysts and instruments of change. They help organizations and individuals make different decisions and exercise different behaviors. They are, in some ways, the embodiment of the best parts of change.

Defining Leadership

Joseph Rost spent most of his book Leadership in the Twenty-First Century trying to come around to a conversation about what leadership is. In the end, I’m not entirely sure he nailed it – but neither has anyone else, so whatever you’ve got is, I suppose, good enough. Rost – like James MacGregor Burns – believes that we focus too much attention on the leader and not enough on the relationship between the leader and the team. (If you’d like more about Burns’ work, it was titled, simply, Leadership.)

It’s in the context of realizing that leadership is about how a person – the leader – manages their relationships with others and how that can generate amazing outcomes.

Long Term Leadership

There’s definitely an awareness that leadership is a long-term game of developing people and accepting the criticisms that come your way when you’re willing and able to make some hard choices. Of course, effort must be consumed to keep from becoming the issue instead of just being the messenger of the issue. That being said, the essence of leadership is taking the hard-to-swallow pills and waiting to see how things are going to come out better.

The key to effective leadership is a long-term focus, but if you’re going to be around for the long term, you’ll have to expose people to a rate of change that they can absorb. Too fast, and the wheels come off the cart. Too slow, and the competitors in the market eat you for lunch.

Rate of Change

Post-It notes are interesting things. If the adhesive is too weak, they fall of the page. If it’s too strong, they tear the page when removed. Post-It notes work because they’re in that narrow band that’s neither too weak nor too strong. That’s where you want your rate of change for the organization and for individuals. Not too fast and not too slow. This sounds relatively simple in theory; however, in practice, it’s very difficult to accomplish.

Every person and every part of the organization has their own measure of the ideal rate of change. Some people have a high degree of tolerance for change, so they can handle a higher rate of change. Others in the organization have a much lower tolerance and need a slower rate of change. This means trying to find a general pace that’s in the center between most individuals, finding ways to mitigate the degree of apparent change for the folks who have a low capacity for change while accelerating the degree of apparent change for those who have a much higher capacity.

Complicating this process is that different parts of the organization will experience different amounts of change at different times. The result is a constant struggle to stay on the ball to ensure a degree of change that’s working for most people in most departments.

Leadership on the Line calls this “controlling the heat.” It’s about pushing enough to keep people and parts of the organization from falling out of the change process and not pushing so hard that people exceed their capacity for change.

Apparent Change

While Leadership on the Line doesn’t directly address the gap between actual change and the perception of change, the managing the heat metaphor certainly reflects this constant management of perceptions so that people perceive the change inside of their band of tolerance. There are several ways to manipulate this.

One way is to spread out the required behavioral changes over time. In the context of a single department, this may lengthen the time for the change, but depending on how things are sequenced inside of the overall change process, it may not impact timeline at all. By starting with the groups that have the most change and allowing them to process that change over a longer period of time, it’s possible to “turn down the heat.”

Another approach is to deploy a temporary compensating measure. Consider the idea of a need to do double entry during a transition for a short period of time. It’s possible to ask those responsible for data entry to enter into both the old system and the new one, or it’s possible to hire assistance to do the old work. (I’d encourage this rather than the added requirement of doing the new work.) Similarly, it’s possible to add help to take care of mundane tasks to create time and availability to do the double entry.

Obviously, care must be taken that the compensating measure doesn’t become a permanent crutch, but as a part of ensuring that the rate of change remains acceptable, it’s an important option.

Quality Connections

Not to discount the importance of mass communication, stakeholder management, or any of the other things that one needs to understand in managing a successful change project, but above all, the connections that people make and maintain with one another are critical. Humans are wired for connection. In fact, in The Heart and Soul of Change, it’s asserted that the most powerful component of the therapy process is the alliance between the therapist and the patient – their connection.

We see this need for connection everywhere. Even baboons whose mother has a better social network have a higher survival rate. In the wild and in our domesticated societies, connections matter. (Even connections with dogs matter – see How Dogs Love Us.)

Accepting Anger

When someone – particularly when they’re in a close relationship with you – expresses their anger at you, it’s hard to stay detached and absorb it without becoming personally defensive. (See Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement for more on detachment and Dialogue for more on automatically being defensive.) However, as difficult as this may be, it’s a powerful way of building trust. By absorbing the attack without retaliating, you demonstrate that you’re safe both physically and psychologically. (See The Fearless Organization for more on psychological safety.) This isn’t the normal expectation for folks.

We expect that when we attack others, they’re likely to attack back. It’s human nature to defend yourself. However, when you find ways to not perceive anger as an attack, you show that it’s safe for others to share their feelings without retaliation.

Technical and Adaptive Change

Some of the changes that an organization undertakes are well known. Instead of doing X, you’ll do Y. These changes Heifetz and Linsky call “technical changes.” They’re straightforward, because the answers and outcomes are all known. The other kind of change – the kind of change that we face when dealing with complex organizations and individuals – are adaptive changes. These kinds of changes require adaptation and experimentation.

For adaptive changes, there’s no one known way to do it right or, in many cases, even a pattern for what “right” looks like. Instead, we must set out in a general direction and work our way through the challenges and opportunities to find an answer that works.

Adaptive changes are therefore more challenging and require more preparation and energy. They’re often worth the extra effort because of the transformational effects that can be realized when the changes are implemented.

Evolutionary not Revolutionary

Successful change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. In adaptive changes, we evolve to one change, then adapt and make another push forward. Often, there’s no one defining moment where we move from one space to another. Instead, there’s a gradual progression to more changed thinking and more of the newer, more desirable behaviors.

Leading in these environments, where change is continuous and evolutionary, requires a greater level of manager than was needed fifty years ago. It’s the state of constant change that puts Leadership on the Line.

Book Review-A Dynamic Theory of Personality (Selected Papers of Kurt Lewin)

It’s hard to work in learning and motivation, or even remotely care about how people work, without stumbling into Kurt Lewin’s work. Most of the time, people quote the high level and don’t go back to read his writing directly. They think about force fields and behavior functions and stop there. However, I was recently intrigued by a subtle difference between the way some authors referred to his behavior equation and decided the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery was to read his work directly. That’s what led me to A Dynamic Theory of Personality and therein some of Lewin’s writings.

Behavior is a Function of Person and Environment

It’s a simple formula – B = f(P,E). However, it is profound. It says that both person and environment influence behavior but that their interactions are opaque. We don’t know precisely how they interact – and the implication is that we may not be able to know. The mystery that started the journey was that some people wrote the function with the word “situation” instead of “environment.” Indeed, most of the places surrounding the actual equation use situation instead of environment. However, what is most likely happening is an artifact of the translation process, since the original work was written in German.

Whether the text was using the word situation or environment, the intent was the same. The things around us, from cultural norms to the kind of lighting and how warm or cold it is, influence our behaviors in subtle – and sometimes not subtle – ways. The situation we find ourselves in influences our behavior. If we’re in a stressful situation (or environment), we’ll behave differently.

What started out as a question about whether the original intent was situation or environment led to another fascinating observation about Lewin’s research.

Mentally Retarded Children

What I realized that much of Lewin’s work was with mentally retarded children – his words are “feeble-minded” and “moron.” (Perhaps I’m showing my own bias by not using the NIH preferred terms, but I prefer to think of these children as held back or limited instead of disabled.) His studies included comparing the behavior patterns of these children to those who were more normal and investigating the differences in their behavior patterns, particularly their persistence. This reminded me of The Marshmallow Test and Grit – how persistence and patience pay off. However, the data was interesting because it showed that mentally retarded children seemed to have a greater degree of persistence – and a lower distractibility. This is also interesting from the perspective that the task put in front of the mentally retarded children might have put them in the challenge-skills ratio to support them entering flow. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more on the psychological state of flow.)

It also reminded me of Einstein and his self-admission that he wasn’t the brightest student – but that he was more persistent. (See Raise Your Line for one mention of this.) It’s also been claimed that Thomas Edison was removed from school and educated by his mother, because he wasn’t a good student. Whether this is true or is simply a myth, it’s interesting to me that Lewin’s research showed a tendency for mentally retarded people to work on something for longer. We know from Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset and Anders Ericcson’s work on Peak that people can radically change their capacity if they’re willing to work on it.

The First Force Fields

Science fiction has become enamored with force fields. It’s a chosen device for protecting the good guys from the bad guys – and vice versa. In their science fiction form, they’re impenetrable fields that can protect against projectiles, lasers, and anything else the opponent might come up with. Lewin’s force fields are more akin to physical science than science fiction. The force lines that magnets generate and the vector equations of physics are more like the force fields that Lewin used to understand and describe the behavior he was seeing.

It’s not like it’s impossible to push through Lewin’s force fields. It just takes some effort. There are a set of normal forces that hold things in their relative state. Even if the state is oscillating, there is some relative balance that things fall into. The planets orbit the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth in a relative stable environment, where the forces of gravity are balanced with the centrifugal force exerted as the heavenly bodies try to continue along their straight paths. However, a force can be exerted that will knock things completely out of balance – and can snap one or more of the force fields being applied to something.

That’s why when we teach change managers about implementing change, we recommend that they look for opportunities to change the forces that are present rather than directly exerting force against them. If you ever find yourself trapped near a black hole, accelerating your orbit around the black hole will be much more effective than trying to directly pull against it. (See how we teach change management in our Confident Change Management course.)

Quenching and Satiating

There’s another way that we teach to shut down the forces that are holding you back. It’s quenching. Forces are exerted only when the need or drive is active. When you satiate the need, you quench it. The key, then, becomes what does satiating mean, and how do you satiate to the point where the force being generated is quenched?

It may be easiest to think in terms of hunger. A very hungry person will do almost anything to get food. The forces that propel them are very powerful. However, after a big meal, there is almost no force to get food – there might even be a small push against food if their belly is already stuffed, like after a feast.

If someone has a drive for position, it can be that their drive is quenched – at least temporarily if not permanently – by a promotion to the next level. Sometimes, this means giving in on smaller and less important issues to neutralize the disproportionally high forces they exert on people. In my experience, many people are happy to do the same or more work with a simple change of title – even if it doesn’t change their responsibilities or authority.

The Choice of Punishment

Perhaps the most interesting observation was the observation that sometimes-threatened punishments are considered as choices rather than being considered as unacceptable alternatives. When presented as “You do X, or I’ll punish you with Y,” some children decide that Y is better than X, so they specifically state that they’d like that alternative.

The problem is we rarely enumerate all the consequences of failing to do the desired behavior. Thus, the equation that is being evaluated is incomplete. The expectation is still that the child completes the requested activity – even with the punishment.

Observations like these make it important to dig into Kurt Lewin’s work, and one good place to start is A Dynamic Theory of Personality.

Book Review-Real Time Strategic Change

In the game of buzzword bingo, this book has it all. Real Time Strategic Change has all the words that people want. They want the change to happen now (or in real time), and they want it to be strategic. Wouldn’t it be nice if all change could be that way? However, there’s a big commitment that’s required to make this work – and it’s one that most organizations aren’t willing to make.

The Event

Real Time Strategic Change is based around the idea of an event where you gather a substantial portion of the organization and you engage them in the change design process. It can be the entire organization, an entire plant, or an entire division, but the whole point is that it’s a substantial percentage of the people impacted by the change. Even when it’s not practical to bring literally everyone in, the recommendation is to bring in many people.

The sessions are planned, but more than that, they’re designed as facilitated sessions, where the conversations are supported and guided but not scripted. The result is, after the event, everyone feels like they’re on the same page, the leadership has listened, and everyone is in it together. I have no doubts that the results of the approach are impressive. When you make that sort of an investment, people are quite clear that you’re serious, and they’re clear that something different is happening. That means the organization is going to see some degree of positive results from the change.


Most people who write about change are clear that executive leadership is key. They must be bought in. They must support the change with both their words and their deeds. Equally important is the ability for the leadership to listen to the needs of the people. Jim Collins in Good to Great highlights this ability to listen and to stay the course as the Stockdale Paradox.

While changes are easier when there is leadership support, it’s not the only way to get change done. It’s just the easiest way. Of course, that means the likelihood of success goes up. When your organization makes a commitment to a real time strategic change, even the commitment is big, the risk is high, and the results are more likely to be positive. While the event itself may be effective, the signal that the investment in the event makes may be a more powerful message to the organization that “this time, we’re serious.”

Everett Rogers explained in Diffusion of Innovations that once you get past the innovators, everyone else needs proof – and progressively more of it. The event provides a great deal of proof, very rapidly.

Not Invented Here

One of the key things that is addressed by the event is the tendency towards not invented here (NIH). This is the natural tendency of people to resist things that they weren’t consulted on, or at least informed of, ahead of time. It has been talked about in business books for decades. By engaging everyone in the process of designing the new strategies and change, they necessarily feel like they’re a part of it, and this side-steps the NIH problem.


Solving NIH fits neatly into the communications problem that is often cited as the second most important aspect of a change endeavor. Solving NIH solves both the understanding of where things are going and the conversation about what the impact will be to the employee. The conversations and concerns about the person’s role in the new organization are most frequently addressed, because they feel like they’ve already been a part of the change, so they’ll continue to be a part of it. That’s good news, since the conversations about whether they will be a part of the new structure often require a substantial amount of trust.

Above or Below the Line

In my work on adoption and change over the past few decades, one subtle difference has stood out as being powerful for whether the change would be successful or not. If the required change was inside the person’s normal scope of work, the change would normally take hold. If, on the other hand, the change was something that required additional effort for the person, it rarely worked.

Said differently, if the changes were above the line of requirements – thus not required – they’d be ignored or deferred. If they couldn’t get their job done without it, well, obviously it worked. In information management projects, getting users to enter metadata is always challenging. However, when entering the metadata is a natural part of the work that someone does, it just happens. If on the other hand, you’re asking them to go back later and do something different, special, or additional, it rarely happens.

The required change needs to be seen as a part of the person’s “real work.” If it’s not seen this way, if it’s perceived to be something they do only when they have time, then it’s not likely to get done. Getting folks to accept changed behaviors as a part of their real work is more than changing a job description or telling them, it’s about how they perceive the work.

Change is Personal

All change is personal. All change happens at an organizational level through individual changes at a personal level, and sometimes those changes are hard. Consider the truths from Change or Die, which exposes us to the fact that few people change their eating habits even after a heart attack. Or perhaps you’d prefer to consider The Power of Habit or addiction via Chasing the Scream. Change is hard, because individually changing is hard.

Most executives have come to their level in the organization through a string of successes. Their skills, intuition, and capabilities have led them thus far. The idea of changing them to get better is hard. However, as Marshal Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. It isn’t always easy to convince folks of this simple truth. They may need to change (and become uncomfortable) to reach the next level.

Putting Things Together in Different Ways

If you consider innovation and transformation back from the Renaissance (see The Medici Effect) to the current age, you’ll find that the key to change was in the ability to connect different ideas. (See Creative Confidence, The Innovator’s DNA, Extraordinary Minds, Beyond Genius, and Group Genius for more on current innovation.) One of the benefits of having a large number of people working on things is that you get extra time for lots of potential combinations and approaches. You can sometimes leverage The Wisdom of Crowds to get to a better answer than would be possible with the leadership alone.

All Effective Strategy Degenerates into Work

One of the largest challenges I see in organizations with their grand strategies is the conversion of those strategies into a series of tactics and, ultimately, actions and behaviors. A strategy that’s beautifully printed and placed in a binder is useless. It’s true that the devil is in the details, and the conversion of the strategy into tactics and tactics into behaviors is hard, grueling work. However, it’s also true that the strategy is useless without it.

The event engages people into practical answers that degenerate more easily into the work that needs to be done, and there are fewer of those “and then the magic happens” spots in the plans. Real people doing real work are really engaged with converting the idea into a reality.

Constant Corrections

No matter how great the strategy work is and regardless of the skill at which it is degenerated into tactics, because the future is unknowable, there will be a need to make constant course corrections and adjustments. What we know about real time strategic change is that it doesn’t end when the event ends. Change needs to become a part of the ethos of the organization. Maybe it’s time to start by reading Real Time Strategic Change.

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