After losing my publically traded company, I returned to a university to obtain a graduate degree in Organization Development. One of the first questions posed to us students (most of us out of undergraduate school for at least 10 years) was, “What is your theory for change?”

That’s a valid question for anyone running a company in the ever-increasing flux of today’s world. That day I begin to formulate what my own theory of change was, which became foundational for the success I have today, 25 years later, as an executive coach.

So what is your theory for change? Let me assist you by sharing my own path of discovery.

At times, to my chagrin and resignation, Lord Tennyson’s mandate, “Change is the great certainty,” became my baseline philosophy pertaining to transformational change. It was my starting point and, admittedly, with occasional adjournments and abjections, rings true to this day. From a literary perspective, I gained temperamental insights throughout the years. For instance, in a state of futility and humor, author Thomas McGuane admits, “ I consider the wonder of the things that befall me, convinced that my life was the best omelet you can make with a chain saw.”   Also, personally and spiritually, I have been counseled and mentored to embrace change. The corn parable espoused by Jesus Christ, that a seed must fall into the ground and die in order to bring forth fruit, and the Buddha koan, “die before you die,” resonate and encourage me.

I realized there is deeper meaning and purpose to transformation. There is an end game, both for oneself and one’s organization. Psychologically, I was grounded by behavioral science and personality theory, in order to receive a Master of Science degree. Psychologist Alfred Adler said, “Our behavior is determined by our perception of what we hope to achieve in the future, not what we have done … or what has been done to us in the past.”  Also, over the years I gradually discovered that most individuals committed to personal growth realize there is a decrease in their own egocentricity. Usually, humility and vulnerability are evidenced – attributes of servant leadership.

Shifting to a business paradigm, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and business author Noel M. Tichy exclaimed with deliberation, “control your destiny or someone else will.” Adapt or die is another battle cry purported by strategy experts, leveraging off the fearful consequences of doing nothing as opposed to calculated risk-taking.

PricewaterhouseCoopers annually publishes business survey results, predictably concluding that CEOs continue to struggle at balancing long- and short-term priorities. Usually, long-term planning/visioning gets the short end of the stick.

As a change consultant, once fully engaged, I assist the CEO in sorting out priorities and timelines. Focusing on the long term, invariably a change strategy is discussed, framed and adopted. I share a simple yet powerful formula created by David Gleicher and simplified by Kathleen Dannemiller and slightly modified and interpreted by myself. Kathie was the sponsor for my master’s degree at the American University, Washington, DC, and became a mentor and friend.

Gleicher – Dannemiller – Quinlan Change Framework: C=DxVxF>R

C= Change (Transformation: To replace one thing with another)

D= Dissatisfaction with the current state (discomfort, pain, crisis)

V= Vision for the future (what is preferred as opposed to predicted)

F= First steps (deliberate/cognitive actions to obtain the vision)

R= Resistance to change (obstacles, restraints, personal and organizational defensive routines)

Multiplying the three variables DxVxF creates the critical mass and momentum greater than (>) the resistance (R), propelling the organization to a new state or level (C). The art form is to utilize the variables (levers) deftly and with integrity. When and how to use them takes practice. Also required is incorporating external factors, such as industry trends, competitor analysis, and customers expectations, to combat insular thinking.

Going on three decades, I have found most CEOs and organizations are nudged or forced to change because of dissatisfaction (D). Also, I have learned to overcome personal and organizational resistance to change (R), the CEO has to be willing to move out of invincibility and a fixed mindset and into vulnerability and a growth mindset. In doing so, he or she becomes a co-learner – open to ideas and feedback – owns mistakes, and dialogues for betterment. Such behaviors begin to erode defensive routines and dilute the fear of failure. I have further concluded that a strong bias to forward prospective thinking (V) is a vital antidote to the resistance (R) and to change (C).

Many attempt first steps (F) and short-term fixes but these initiatives die out and usually go to the flavor of the month graveyard. Some companies are galvanized by a strategic vision (V) yet have not fully integrated dissatisfaction (D) and first steps (F).

When I was invited up to the remote Managalas Plateau of Oro Province, Papua New Guinea, the farmers were burning their coffee beans, protesting exorbitantly low or no payments received for their work. They demonstrated this not only in a fire but also a staged drama theater where the women were weeping for their husbands. So began a seven-year foray to help those 2,400 farmers. That dissatisfaction (D) brought them much pain. Integrating vision (V) and first steps (F) led them to changes (C), resulting in extraordinary increases in farm-gate prices for their coffee beans, besides creating brand awareness in the global marketplace. Ultimately, the inertia (loss of hope), obstacles (no vehicles and pulping machines) and restraints (corrupt politicians and terrible roads) comprising this Gordian knot, labeled resistance (R), were overcome.

What variable today is the driving force to propel change for you? What variable moves your organization off the status quo and propels itself to change? What would be the sequence of the variables for effective change to take place for yourself and your organization?

Take some time to think through your answers. Jot them down, and then predict what the responses would be for your executive team before you solicit their input. How accurate will you be? What is the formula for change for yourself and for your company today? Such a theory may expose your own personal and organizational blind spots.

Remember, transformational change is largely imperceptible when you are in it. Ask any caterpillar. A change theory could be the compass you need to guide you to the future and be a light on your path of discovery.


About John Quinlan

Management consultant John Quinlan, founder and president of Growth Strategies Global, provides leading-edge strategic planning and growth consulting services integrating Family Firm Advisory Services; Executive Development; Organizational Change Management, and Strategic Planning.  

Quinlan operates from a unique philosophy that balances his broad range of experiences in upper management with tested management consulting practices underpinned by behavioral science knowledge.

In his debut book, Tau Bada: The Quest and Memoir of a Vulnerable Man, he takes the reader on an extraordinary adventure promulgated by one motorcycle ride through a remote mountain valley in Colorado. It led to living in a secluded village nestled in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea and building a certified organic coffee business with over 2,400 tribal farmers.

Learn more about Quinlan’s consulting approach at, contact him at or 313-704-0059, follow him on @johnequinlan and check his blog at