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3 April 2011

Diagnosing the change you want to make

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Maybe you’re a leader looking for one of your team members to change. Maybe she’s aloof, stand-offish, and offends people with her cryptic and occasionally scathing responses to their questions. Maybe he talks too much, a mush of ideas spouting forth with little action behind them. Maybe she confuses people, or his team lacks motivation or spark. You’d like this person to be more thoughtful, or perhaps more decisive, or maybe more inspirational. Maybe this person you’d like to change is even yourself.

The question I ask clients in this situation (using language from Ronald Heifetz) is whether this is a technical change, or whether this is an adaptive change you want. The difference is huge and shapes how you might go about moving toward that change.

A technical change in someone leads to their knowing more stuff. This is the kind of change you want if you have a luddite executive who won’t send email and can’t open an attachment. These are easy to fix: send her on a course and upgrade her laptop and all will be well with the world.


An adaptive change is a different story altogether. This is if you want someone to behave differently, not simply to use a new tool or a new piece of information, but to show up to meetings in a different way, give feedback to his colleagues in a different way, or think about solving problems in more expansive or creative ways. Sometimes my clients are wanting someone to be more strategic, more inspirational, more reflective. The key words for me in what they want aren’t the obvious ones (strategic, inspirational, reflective). The key word is be.

If you’re wanting you—or others—to be different, that’s an adaptive challenge. While we often treat it as a technical fix (sending the leader away for a 3-day workshop on strategic thinking or inspirational leadership), research and experience will all tell you that doesn’t work. What works, instead, is to figure out how to change not just what we know, but who we are.

Changing who we are is not effortless work, but it’s possible. The first step is knowing whether that’s what you want. If it is, you need an adaptive change plan. This is not a straightforward addition of a tool or piece of information. Rather, it’s a series of interconnected pieces because your behavior emerges from your thoughts and your thoughts emerge from your worldview–the sense you make of the world. Try to change just the behavior and you’ll fail (as do more than 90% of well-intentioned new year’s resolutions). In the heat of the moment, you won’t remember to be strategic or inspirational or reflective. You’ll just be, well, you. Instead, you actually have to change your worldview, and the thoughts that arise from your seeing the world the way you do. This sounds hard—and in some ways it is—but it’s never impossible.

Spend the first few days just noticing. When do I do the thing I’d like to stop doing (or when do I not do the thing I wish I were doing)? What was happening around me? In the quiet of my office afterwards, what did I wish I had done/ said/ thought? When you’ve collected some data about what you’re doing now, you’ll be ready to think about what you can do differently tomorrow.

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