The goal of all organizational development interventions, including individual and team coaching, is ultimately to foster constructive change.  Whether that goal is about driving performance and results, fostering creativity and innovation or stimulating learning and capacity-development, the underling motivation is a desire for change and more importantly change that is SUSTAINABLE.  Yet often the assumptions about that change, including how change occurs, are an afterthought.  Recently I was interviewing a member of a team in preparation for an upcoming one-day offsite retreat as part of a larger team coaching process.  When I asked what a successful offsite would look like my interviewee remarked: “We did a retreat last year and I honestly can’t tell you what has changed in our team…I guess what I would really like to see is a concrete roadmap for how we are going to implement our vision moving forward.”  This sentiment is a common refrain that I hear when working with teams around team building retreats and offsites. Too often these well-intentioned “events” create a good feeling in the team yet fail to articulate a “process” of sustainable change afterwards.  The gap between our intentions to change and our ability to bring about that change indeed can be described as a “wicked problem.” In this post I’d like to explore how two frameworks can assist team coaches as well as team leaders to address this wicked problem when coaching groups through a process of change.

Theory of Change

While frameworks like Tuckman’s “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” model, Hackman’s “Theory of Team Coaching” or Katzenbach & Smith’s “Team Performance Curve” (mentioned in previous blog posts at help us gain a global perspective on the components of effective teams as well as the stages of team development, they tend to lack a more finely tuned articulation of what leads to sustainable change in teams.  In other words, what these frameworks lack is a clearly stated Theory of Change that helps us identify the linkages between these elements and stages and how the desired change a team is seeking can be achieved.  It can be helpful for team coaches to be guided by an understanding of how sustainable change actually unfolds.  Work recently done by Boyatzis (2006) and Kegan & Lahey (2009) provide two practical theories of change that can help ground team coaches in their practice.  These are summarized briefly below.

Intentional Change Theory

Boyatzis (2006, p. 607) writes: “For all the time, effort, and money invested in attempts to help individuals develop through education, training, and coaching, there are few theories that help us to understand the change process…the actual process of change is left like a mysterious black box.”  As a result many “change fads” come and go and yet few are put to the “empirical test of demonstrating sustainable results.”  In order to respond to this vacuum, Boyatzis and his colleagues developed “Intentional Change Theory” (ICT) and have been applying and testing it to multiple levels of analysis including to: individuals, groups, organizations, communities, nations, etc…  Rather than a neat step-by-step process of change, ICT is based on the premise that change is a nonlinear, dynamic and interactive process that happens within a larger context or system.  ICT suggests that change, whether at the individual level or at the team level, is fundamentally a self-directed learning process that progresses through a series of 5 iterative discoveries.  The first discovery focuses on tapping into the positive emotional energy of the parasympathetic nervous system and explores the “ideal self or image” of what we wish to become.  In the second discovery a dynamic tension is created by tapping into the sympathetic nervous system where a realistic appraisal of our “real self or current image” resides.  This often includes a discovery of one’s strengths and gaps aided by external feedback sources.  The positive energy of the first discovery creates a dynamic tension with the negative energy of the second discovery in order to create an engine of motivation for change.  In the third discovery a learning agenda is developed to build on strengths while reducing gaps.  In the fourth discovery, experimentation with new thoughts, feelings and behaviors are acted upon and practiced in order to begin creating new neural pathways, habits and norms.  Finally in the fifth discovery, key external support resources (e.g. reference groups, coaches, accountability partners, etc…) are leveraged to sustain change.  The fifth discovery, which Boyatzis calls “Resonant Relationships,” are integral throughout all the other five phases of change.  People and groups can only change through direct interaction with their environment and through key relationships.  And when we are talking about creating change in teams, team coaches can serve as one powerful “resonant relationship.”

Immunity to Change

In 2009 the renowned developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, and his colleague Lisa Lahey, published their ground-breaking work “Immunity to Change.”  This books gets at the “processes of dynamic equilibrium, which, like an immune system, powerfully and mysteriously tend to keep things pretty much as they are.”  The book helps to explain why only 1 in 7 people will actually follow a doctor’s prescription when presented with the prospect of mortality due to a life threatening cardiac condition, why most of us fail to deliver on our new year’s resolutions, or why we set lofty goals and aspirations in our team building retreats and yet fail to deliver on them afterwards.  The framework revolves around creating a practical “X-Ray” or “Immunity Map” that outlines the individual’s and/or team’s change equilibrium.  The X-Ray consists of 5 steps mapped out onto a five column worksheet.  In “Step 1: Identifying Your Collective Improvement Goal” two columns are filled out.  The first involves individual brainstorming of improvement goals and then a collective decision to select the most compelling one for the group’s work and commitment.  This goal is then entered into the second column and assessed for alignment on a number of criteria before proceeding to the second column.  In “Step 2: Taking a Fearless Inventory of Behaviors Contrary to the Improvement Goal” a similar process is conducted through which the individuals and then the group assess what things the group collectively does or fails to do that works against achieving that goal.  Note that this analysis focuses NOT ON WHAT WORK IT IS DOING to achieve the goal but more importantly ON WHAT WORK IT IS DOING AGAINST achieving that goal. The level of honesty in this stage is directly reflected in the power of the map and the payoff that will be attained.  While what the group does well is important, in this process the real action is going to be on working on the things that sabotage and undermine potential change.  At the end of this step the group completes the second column and assesses its quality based on criteria.  In “Step 3: Uncovering Your Collective Competing Commitments” each individual begins by identifying what he/she thinks the group would be most worried about if they tried to do the opposite of every second-column behavior.  In other words what fears or anxieties come to the surface if the group were actually to act towards achieving the collective goal.  These are then collectively shared and discussed, entered onto the third column of the map and again assessed against criteria.  The power of this step is getting at the mechanisms of “self-protection” that undermine our ability to change.  This helps us see why just focusing on eliminating column two behaviors won’t work.  And as Kegan and Lahey state:  “You can all see a coherent system that successfully manufactures nonchange…” and that leads to “How do we get out of this?”  In “Step 4: Uncovering Your Collective Big Assumptions” the adaptive means for overturning the immunity are discovered.  Through another round of individual and group reflection the areas or “danger zones” that the group has not yet ventured into are identified and the assumptions that inhibit that exploration are uncovered.  Finally in “Step 5: Preparing to Test Your Big Assumptions,” the group begins to brainstorm and identify thought experiments and action tests to explore the big assumptions. These are Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research-based, and an evaluation or a Test of the big assumptions (Note the spin on the old SMART goal-setting formula).  Through a series of these action learning tests the group begins to create the discipline of becoming a learning organization and getting change underway.

Team Coaching for Sustainable Change

The two frameworks on change summarized in this post provide a closer look into the psychological processes of change that occur at the individual and collective levels.  Team coaching practitioners will find that these two approaches help ground their work when coaching teams through a process of sustainable change.  I often hear organizational practitioners and bloggers write that people fundamentally don’t want to change.  I actually disagree. I think we all want to change and to experience the success that results when change is successful.  What we really fear is not the change itself but the fear of the unknown process that will take us there and the emotional risk of making that investment.  This really lies at the heart of what I think my interviewee, mentioned at the beginning of this post, was getting at when he said he needed a roadmap for change following the team building retreat.  In effect he was saying, “I want to change yet I need a sense of what that will look like, something to hold onto. If you can give me that I’m on board!”

Recently I stumbled across a powerful quote online which I will paraphrase: “The difference between successful and unsuccessful people lies in the difference in how they manage fear.”  As team coaches our work lies at the nexus of helping individuals and groups navigate and overcome this fear in order to unlock their full potential.   In the latest episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast (available on iTunes at  ) leading organizational team coach Felipe Paiva discusses examples of facilitating sustainable change in teams through team coaching.  He mentions how The Immunity to Change framework among others inform his practice.  Team coaching practitioners may find this episode inspiring and these change frameworks helpful in taking their team coaching game to the next level.

For more information and resources on team coaching visit and feel free to share your comments below.  Thanks for reading this post!


Boyatzis, R.E. (2006). An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 607-623.

Kegan, R. & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.


Get In The Zone!

Subscribe for the latest updates on our industry-leading Thought Leadership Resources, Products/Services, & Master Classes!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This