Transformative Change: It Starts with You

Robert E. Quinn
Director of the Center for
Positive Organizational Scholarship

It does not work because transformation is an organic process that requires learning. I often refer to it as “Building the bridge as you walk on it.” Let’s say you want to make a big change. You know the exact spot on the far shore where you want to be after you cross the river. You know where the bridge should start and end. But you don’t know how to build it, so you put a post in the ground, and then another one. Some posts stay and some fall, and you learn to anchor them better as you add plank after plank. The process works because everyone knows the end spot and everyone is telling the truth about both the successes and the failures.

What holds the process together is integrity and authenticity. When people are making change happen together and don’t know how to do it, all they have is trust and learning. Hierarchy goes latent. The organization becomes an “adhocracy” where everyone becomes equal. Titles are checked at the door and everyone is on a first-name basis. They contribute as things become clear to them. The process becomes self-organizing.

These processes unfold all the time but we cannot see them. Our normal assumptions keep us from recognizing self-organization and self-leadership. Yet the job of the leader in the transformation process is to stimulate that very thing.

The Culture Piece

Whenever we talk to people about intervention to create transformative change, we tell leaders that they need to explore their company’s culture. Often, we get a response like, “We don’t want to waste a whole day doing a program on culture.”

Think about that for a moment. Picture a surgical suite, with two doctors preparing to operate on a patient’s brain. One says to the other, “I just went to the most interesting lecture. Did you know there’s something called a heart in the human body?”

It’s inexcusable for a highly paid senior person to pretend to run operations at a corporation and to be oblivious to culture. The ignorance that permeates the corporate world is stunning. We let people introduce change who should actually be sued for malpractice.

Change Comes from Within

This all comes down to the notion of making strategies comprehensible and visual, and then engaging people in conversations. When you create shared meaning and higher purpose, people self-organize and stuff happens! This is antithetical to the hierarchical model.

Change leaders have to be able to facilitate authentic conversations. If people at the top are fixed on control, their rigidity can kill the transformation processes.

The problem with many authority figures is that they say they are initiating change, but are actually only initiating the rhetoric of change. They cannot comprehend the bridge building process.

Four Fundamental Questions

If you want to start a transformation process for yourself or others, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What result do I want to create?
    If you really know this, it immediately changes you.
  2. Am I internally directed?
    If you are, and are operating with an authentic voice, you have all the power you need.
  3. Am I other-focused?
    If so, you’re on the path to being a servant-leader, and you can build a system where people are committed to a higher good.
  4. Am I externally open?
    If you answer yes, you can begin to build that bridge as you walk on it, and lead others to do the same.

Personal Transformative Change

At the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, we try to prepare people to lead change. We get people to look at themselves. We ask people what their purpose is, why they are on the planet, what their deepest values are. We ask them what it means to be an authentic person, and whether they’re “other-focused.” Finally, we ask them if they’re capable of learning in real time – whether they can go forward not knowing what comes next, learning their way into what needs to be done.

We’ve found that this kind of work has a profound impact on a person. People change themselves, and when they’ve done that, they can do much more courageous things. They go back to work and pump the boss on issues they once couldn’t deal with. They tell us that they suddenly get more things done and have more time for family, feel more courage and less fear, and can let go of things they once wanted to control. They start new processes and let people around them organize in new ways and begin to learn their own way into the future.

Robert E. Quinn holds the Margaret Elliot Tracey Collegiate Professorship at the University of Michigan and serves on the faculty of Organization and Management at the Ross Business School. His newest book is The Deep Change Field Guide (Jossey-Bass 2012), which presents his landmark book, Deep Change,
as a personal course.

He is one of the co-founders and the current Director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. The Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship studies what is positive in organizations and the people who comprise them. Its members conduct research, write, and create tools to help people improve their work life. Visit