Success factors for change

John Adams

John is Emeritus Professor at Saybrook University in Oakland, California, where he occupied the Chair of the Organizational Systems PhD Program.  His interests include: health and stress management, personal effectiveness as well as transformation, sustainability and the environment.

He has kindly offered to share his article summarizing his research findings on success factors for change (Adams, 2003).

If you are interested, please contact him at  

“These are all pretty intangible,” John explains of the ‘success factors for change’.  “They get talked about a lot, but are most often left out of change processes. I consider them to be necessary, but probably not sufficient, for ensuring successful change.” 

DM: Thank you very much, John.  It’s kind of you to share so freely and I like the material.  It’s great to be reminded of the rules of thumb for change agents (Shepherd, 1975), for example, although it sometimes seems we haven’t come very far.

At risk of appearing simplistic, here are my beliefs.  Managers can go either for control or engagement.  Ironically, engagement leads to better control but the pursuit of control destroys engagement.  

The more engaged people are, the greater the chance of success and I think that’s what most of the ideas you present are about.  Would you agree?  I hesitate a little over ‘clear accountability’ which carries some contamination from the ‘control’ paradigm.  (Perhaps just my own sensitivity.)  

My real concern is about after the miracle has happened.  The planets aligned, all the obstacles were overcome and the leadership team changed their way of thinking.  Real, profound change came about – not just superficial tinkering.  The people started to trust their leaders.  Accurate and relevant information started to flow more freely in all directions.  Better decisions were taken at all levels.  Every performance indicator improved: return, quality, morale, etc.  

All is wonderful until the leadership team moves on and new managers arrive.  For some reason (culture?  business schools?) the default setting for managers seems to be ‘control’.  At any rate, they are seldom equipped to understand and align themselves with what has been happening.  

It might be helpful if new managers spent their first few weeks asking, “What do you need from me to help you build on your success?”  This hasn’t been my experience.  

If that is the sort of sustainability you have written about, I’d be delighted to hear more.  

JA: Maybe I should have been clearer about how I use “control”. It comes originally from studies of those who thrived and those who had health difficulties as a result of the AT&T break up over 30 years ago. University of Chicago researchers found four elements predicted the eventual responses, which I came to call “The Four Cs”: challenge, control, commitment & clarity. 

Challenge and control were “appropriate level” variables — enough challenge and not too much and appropriate (to the individual’s temperament and the needs of the situation) balance of self-directed control and external control (i.e. by others). Appropriate levels of things like this are often referred to as appropriate flexibility or “versatility.” So — a long way of saying I agree with you completely. 

[John added some further thoughts on control in a later note.  See below.]

I also agree completely about the issue of management turnover. Other than including aspects of this in the selection process, I’m not sure what to do. It harks back to an earlier era, when the external environment was less turbulent and new incumbents could implement actions that reflected how they wanted to manage. In this day and age, external turbulence and rapid technology changes serve to drive the need for change from external to the organization — but many business schools still don’t incorporate this now longstanding reality.

Along these lines, and in response to your comment that we haven’t moved very far, I am offering another article that I published recently criticizing the field of Organization Development for being locked into first order change more than is effective.

Fortunately, each cause (e.g. Environmentalism) has been reinventing the skills and tools they need. All that’s missing is a “body” to serve as a coordinating body. And no one communicating discoveries and accomplishments.  Eric Trist was wonderful. He had a strong influence on me. His colleague Harold Bridger was a dear friend of mine.

DM: Thank you, John.  I have often wondered about that before: many different groups doing highly creative work.  What would we be capable of if we could generate some synergy? 

Further thoughts on control

JA: Perhaps a better term than “control” in my work would be “discretion”. What I look for is a balance between self-control and external control. My discretion or the boss’s? Some people want more guidance, while others just want to know the deliverables and then to be left alone. I.e., for these people, external control becomes a tedious nuisance / distraction. So self awareness and boss flexibility are called for.


Adams, J. (2003)  Successful Change, Paying attention to the intangibles, OD Practitioner, 35 (4)

Shepard, H. A. (1975). Rules of thumb for change agents. OD Practitioner 7(3), 1-5

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