“The most powerful formula for creating long-term, high-impact organisational change” (McKinsey)

More than a hundred years ago, Leo Tolstoy wrote:

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Now this article in McKinsey Quarterly discusses how anyone who wants to change an organisation must first learn to look inside and change themselves.

Years of working in leadership and cultural transformation have convinced the authors that:

“… organizational change is inseparable from individual change. Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves… Organizations don’t change — people do.

To create lasting organisational impact, the authors say, it is therefore necessary to look both inward and outwards:

Integration of looking both inward and outward is the most powerful formula we know for creating long-term, high-impact organizational change.”

Inner Leadership agrees — this is why the book was written.

So how can we achieve this combination of inner and outer change?

The McKinsey authors recommend that people develop two new skills. They call the first skill ‘profile awareness’, which means becoming aware of our own habitual thoughts and emotions and the effects these have on other people. They call the second skill ‘state awareness’, by which they mean understanding the emotional states that are driving us when we take certain actions.

And they then suggest four ways that we can convert these two types of increased awareness into organisational change:

  1. Understand which archetypal role you are most comfortable in (CEO (inspirer), CFO (analyst), CHRO (enabler), or COO (implementer)) and learn to flex between all four roles at different times
  2. Use awareness of your own emotional state to reduce the times when you act in ways that are unhelpful 
  3. Translate this greater self-awareness into better understanding of other people in the organisation — and use that to shape change
  4. Realise that organisations don’t change, people do: so move forward one person at a time or one group of people at a time

This is where we disagree with McKinsey.

This analytical approach is exactly what we might expect from consultants. But not everybody thinks analytically  —  so making everyone in an organisation think this way is likely to be difficult and slow. And do we really need everyone to become experts at all four archetypal roles, rather than simply focusing on what they are good at and working with others who play the other roles?

In a time of change what we really need, surely, is not more analysis but more ways of taking better actions faster?

This is why the Inner Leadership approach to building lasting change has a different focus:

  1. Increase self-awareness, yes — but do this in ways that enable people to become more of who they are, not more like a McKinsey consultant.
    Don’t ask people to work out which of four roles they feel most comfortable in and then become better at the three roles they find difficult. Instead, give people the tools to understand more deeply who they are and what matters most to them. Help them to become clearer and more confident about their values, their purpose and priorities, expressed in their terms. And then help them find ways to apply that better, in ways that benefit and develop themselves and the organisation.
    .
  2. Give people the tools they need to become more aware of the assumptions they and others might be making during a time of change. Use this to improve communication and problem-solving, both individually and as a team.
    It is making these assumptions that causes the “habitual thoughts and emotions” the McKinsey authors talk about. So by showing people how to identify, test, and resolve their underlying assumptions we are also preventing the ‘unhelpful behaviours’ from arising.
    .
  3. Give people the tools they need: not to analyse what is happening but to find more opportunities in a crisis and be able to choose between them, even when data is scarce and outcomes are difficult to predict.
    And then… 
    .
  4. Help people to inspire themselves and each other to make the chosen way forward happen — better and faster.

This, surely, is the outcome we seek: not more analysis but better actions, implemented faster, with more energy and enthusiasm.

We think this is approach is more direct than McKinsey’s’. It doesn’t bog the organisation down in analysis. Instead it teaches people simply to see the situation more clearlyexpand the range of options for action, and build the inspiration and momentum that make those actions succeed. It doesn’t teach people to become more like McKinsey consultants. It teaches them to become more dynamic, more inspired-and-inspiring versions of themselves.

The outcome is then not people who know how to analyse change but people who know how to use change to become stronger, antifragile. And to create organisations that are antifragile.

We believe this is the true ‘most powerful formula for creating long-term, high-impact organisational change’.

Are you focused on changing the world or changing yourself or both? Is your focus on removing your weaknesses or building your ability to use change to become stronger?


Inner Leadership is a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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You can buy the book here and the workbook here.

(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)

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