Deep Change or Incremental Change? That Depends on How Easily You Adapt

By Robert E. Quinn

Most changes are incremental. We have an experience. We make an assumption about cause and effect. We have another experience. We make another assumption. We see change as a mechanical process, one that we can control. We think we know what adjustments must be made for the desired result to occur. Because we assume we are in control, we act upon others, directing them with a clear expectation of what the outcome will look like. We achieve incremental change.

Deep change is a fundamentally different process because it requires people to develop new expectations. As people experience deep change, they move from old assumptions to new ones. They start to see, feel, and think differently. Soon, they behave differently.

To get a child to put her bike away, for example, we can drag her outside and demand that she do it. This does not guarantee that the bike will be in the right place tomorrow night. We need her to see, feel, and think differently. When she does, we will no longer have to direct her. She will put her bike away because putting her bike away is a part of who she is.

As leaders in the deep change process, we surrender control as it is normally understood. It is tempting to say that we give up control. But that is not quite so. It is more accurate to say that we shift to another kind of control. We join with others in relationships of trust. As we do so, we extend that trust to create collective intelligence and capacity.

Instead of moving forward in stages, we move forward in a steady stream, experimenting, adapting, and paying attention to feedback in real time. We share with others everything we are learning, and they do the same.

As this collective learning process unfolds, we begin to accomplish things we could never have accomplished alone. We discover that excellence is a form of deviance, that we can only be excellent if we are not doing what is normal. We must be at the edge of where we feel comfortable, because the place of uncertainty is a place of learning.

Ultimately, learning is the engine of deep change: As we put ourselves into uncertain places, our assumptions change and we grow. We increase our capacity best by being fully challenged.

But challenge is not enough. For us to turn uncertainty into personal transformation, we must be supported and encouraged in the process of engagement and learning.

This kind of growth makes us into more effective versions of ourselves, allowing us to become empowered individuals and empowering members of our community.

Deep change requires us to recognize that we are not experts with superior logic. Leaders of deep change are visionaries with a driving desire to enact their given vision. But they do not act upon people—they act with them. Assumptions of hierarchy become dormant as people learn together in networks of equality.