Agile Leader Learning for Sustainable Change: Steps through Sharp Rocks

You’ve probably experienced it, that uncomfortable feeling of letting go of something tried and formerly true without knowing what is coming next. Welcome to the Neutral Zone, coined by change writer William Bridges1 who helped us understand the human element in Change.

In the 21st century, it’s important to  “unlearn” what no longer meets the needs of your clients/customers. Creating a “quiet mind” to understand what will meet those needs is one the BEST things you could do to adapt, to become agile and to stay relevant in the business world today. Coaching with iterative practice and using fractals as a model for learning are a two ways to build an adaptive learning approach that also happens to be flexible, most likely far cheaper and is less prone to the scarcity and rigidity traps of conventional certification programs and training. More examples are listed below.

<This post is part two of a two-part series on William Bridge’s Transitions change approach, with related change models and business examples.>

Bridges clarified that Change is the What while Transition is the challenge of the How as distinguished by the formula:  Change + Human Beings  = Transition.   

>>>  The Bridges model is described in full via a download on the Tools page here.  

For now, consider that the middle state of letting go to enter the Neutral Zone includes building improved learning agility, a developmental process as we:

1) UnLearn, let go and prepare to accept something new,

2) Adapt, pilot and test new thinking and behaviors, and

3) Demonstrate New Learning (accept and refine new behaviors.)

A great metaphor for developing agility in learning can be found in rediscovering, and perhaps fully clarifying former misunderstanding of the classic change management research of Kurt Lewin. Lewin’s more nuanced, elegant original change work is diagrammed below, with credit and thanks to Dr. Ron Koller. His work has been oversimplified over the years as simply:  1) Unfreeze, 2) Moving (Change), and 3) Refreeze2 (into the new state.)

The original work by Lewin is better understood as documenting a group’s behavior before, during the change (unlearning, adapting), and after the change (demonstrating new behaviors) using an interrupted time series design.

From Lewin’s 1947 research, the average production of the group depicted below was 75 units for the two months before the intervention. Six months after the intervention, the average production for the group rose to 87 units.

Kurt Lewin's 1947 interrupted time series design, with labels Unfreezing, Refreezing and blue lines added for clarity.
Kurt Lewin’s 1947 interrupted time series design, with labels Unfreezing, Refreezing and blue lines added for clarity.

What is key from Lewin and other change research since then is this: the focus must be on understanding change readiness and the level of change commitment in order to accurately forecast desired behavior change.

Following a set of steps from a respected change model will NOT necessarily guarantee success. The persistent 70% failure rate of change practically guarantees, no matter what consulting firm’s process you use, that you will probably be on the WRONG side of that statistic UNLESS your continual focus throughout is on the learners,  the intended adopters of the change.  This includes clients, customers and employees.

For example, Ford’s Sync infotainment system is a cautionary tale of one of the auto industry’s weaknesses: repeatedly miscalculating the ability of consumers to understand and adapt to new feature that seemed to be designed by engineers for other engineers.3

In 1946, the famed Dr. Peter Drucker, a well known management consultant and professor, was unable to convince General Motors to be ready for change in customer preferences.  Drucker did not have any luck in influencing changes to GM’s highly bureaucratic culture either, which was also poorly suited to adapt to global competition and increasing automation.4


“Your own rate of change is determined less by the quality or price/performance of your offerings than the measurable readiness of your customers and clients.”  

~ Michael Schrage5


Sal Khan of the Khan Academy on education disruption. Photo by: Kevin Krejci, Flickr CC
Sal Khan of the Khan Academy on education disruption. Photo by: Kevin Krejci, Flickr CC

Unlearning, then, like Lewin’s model featuring  Unfreezing, is useful for conceptualizing how to build learning agility.  It includes letting go of traditional “training” thinking.  Instead, take a developmental, competency-based and performance based perspective. Developing ongoing learning agility helps to build strength for the type of change agility needed in a world full of disruptive change.

Education and learning itself continues to change.  Khan Academy and MOOCs (massive on-line courses) were once the new thing. Now Covid19’s new online necessity of Zoom meetings have sped up the creation of collections of ready access to video libraries of  useful content on demand, so “when the learner is ready, the teacher appears.”  

Companies as well as K-12 and higher education are no longer the exclusive walled gardens of learning they once were. Similarly, for any leader at any level, how can learning become more agile in order to foster transformative, agile change at the right time?

Companies as well as K-12 and higher education are no longer the exclusive walled gardens of learning they once were.

21st Century Learning

The chart attached, adapted from content from a blog post by by Mike Myatt6 highlights why leadership programs, which are training focused, “don’t even come close to accomplishing what they were designed to do – build better leaders.”  He calls out training mindset as the #1 for why reason leadership development fails. Myatt says, “Don’t train leaders, coach them, mentor them, disciple them, and develop them, but please don’t attempt to train them.”

21st Century Learning

Unlearning beliefs in systems that have outlived their usefulness, such as maintaining ossifed leadership training structures, is a good first step.  Giving developmental learning a spin, as well as repurposing money from the $170 Billion + dollars spent on leadership-based curriculum,5 is a bold move, yet one that can make a real difference in a VUCA world, one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

VUCA is a term coined by Bob Johansen, a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, a think-tank with high-profile clients and staying power.

Johansen discusses how we, as adults, now learn new skills from our kids, who are digital natives, defined as those under the age of 13.  This is reverse mentoring.   At conferences, Johansen has shown video clips of pre-language babies finding their way around an iPad, then showing confusion and frustration when they are handed a traditional magazine.

Johansen comments,


“In a VUCA world, the kind of strategy that works is to be very clear about where you’re going, but very flexible in how you get there.”7


Developing clarity accurately is the challenge for leaders today in the face of complexity and continuous change.   His caution includes this:

“One of the ugly things about the VUCA world is, clarity gets rewarded, even if it’s wrong, because people are so confused… …the best leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.

Some …classic, enduring leadership skills are still important. But in the VUCA world, they get reframed. For example, …in the VUCA world, it’s much harder to be clear without being simplistic. The best leaders are characterized by vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.  [It’s like] fast, staccato steps through sharp rocks.”7

This is when a concept like the Bridge’s “Neutral Zone” helps separate the old from the ever changing new.   Viewed from another perspective, a newer, robust change model, Theory U, which I have described in some depth in a blog post here, via Otto Scharmer, offers the space at the bottom of the “U”, between “letting go,” and “letting come” and “going to a place of silence, letting the inner knowing emerge.”11
Bob Johansen discusses how leaders can explore a wide range of alternative scenarios and practice how they might respond and speaks of Immersive Learning Ability. He also confirms that leaders cannot predict but they can prepare.

This sounds like mindfulness practice for leaders to me, which leadership program designers and executive coaches are now embracing as a newer, unconventional, yet necessary element in dealing with the daily pressures and complexities of executive work.

The challenges include how all organizations exists as groups of people who engage in change and transition in different ways, at different rates, times, intensities and places while striving to produce a clear, unified, positive result (via the William Bridges diagram below.)   For example, the Inventory for Work Attitude and Motivation (the iWam) describes change patterns that people exhibit.  Some prefer low change.  Others prefer more variety in their work, including having an appetite for positive change. Some prefer gradual changes, some need to “shake up their world on a regular basis to stay motivated.”8

People enter the middle space between old and new at different times, speeds and in different ways.
People enter the middle space between old and new at different times, speeds and in different ways.

In this complexity, a useful question by Peter Block is, “Is reflection an action step?”

Otto Scharmer, in Theory U writes of the practice to Go Slow to Go Fast and dealing with the Blind Spot.

From my own leadership coaching practice, clients have told me they appreciate the question, “Is there another perspective?

William Bridges describes seeking solitude as what many people naturally do when changes have so stirred up their feelings and thinking that, like muddy water, they need time—quiet time, alone and in some neutral, natural setting—for things to “settle.” He also describes the U.S. practice of going “on retreat.”

“The idea of going away alone to think things through …is…less the product of a religious tradition than of our common psychological heritage. It is something that people naturally do when they need a new perspective on their lives. “

“Your own stillness is accessible, not by denying your feelings or controlling your thoughts, but by finding the inner calmness at the core of your being.” “…one’s perception of reality and possibility start to loosen up and admit possibilities that would not be considered in the everyday world.”1

Retreats & reflection as an action step. Going slow to go fast.
Retreats & reflection as an action step. Going slow to go fast.

Research on enduring, visionary and transformational leadership describes how it occurs at all levels in the organization.  It is also rooted in an understanding of followers’ genuine needs.  This is the magic in connecting head, heart and hands to an inspiring vision based on those needs (which may be unspoken, but somehow known.)10

If you’d like to learn more, contact me about a “Neutral Zone” strategies to checklist help navigate through VUCA-style transitions with an eye to mindfulness-type practices.

“The illiterate of 21st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

~ Alvin Toffler, author of the classic, Future Shock

As always, I enjoy learning of your perspective via your comments.
Note: This article was originally published in 2012 and updated in 2018 and 2021 with references to fractal learning. For more on fractal learning, look for the next Reveln blog post series featuring examples from the the DPPE process, Data, Purpose, Plan, Evaluate which features iterative, collaborative learning.


1  Bridges, William.  Retreat and Renewal,

2  Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method, and reality in social science. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-42.

3 Maynard, Micheline. New Year’s Resolutions For The Auto Companies (And Car Buyers), Forbes, Auto, December 27, 2012

4  Mulla,Zubin R. Understanding visionary leadership. Godrej Magazine. Feb, 2008.

5  Schrage, Michael.  Are You Driving Too Much Change, Too Fast?, Harvard Business Review Blog Network, November 14, 2012.

6 Adapted from, Myatt, Mike.  The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails, Forbes  December 19, 2012.

7  Speed in a VUCA World: How leaders of the future will execute strategy, Forum interview of Bob Johansen, 2010.

8  Johansen, Bob.  Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World  (2nd Ed) Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

9  JobEQ and the Institute for Work Attitude & Motivation, Motivation and the “Clock”

10 Mulla, Zubin R. Understanding visionary leadership. Godrej Magazine. Feb, 2008.

11  Scharmer, C. Otto (2007) Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. The Society for Organizational Learning, Cambridge, USA. 7  Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license. The fractals tree photo is by Deb Nystrom, a monkey pod tree in Hawaii.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, organization development & team facilitation and retreats. Also REVELN Gardens for flowers and heirloom tomatoes. My LinkedIn profile:

13 thoughts on “Agile Leader Learning for Sustainable Change: Steps through Sharp Rocks

  1. Some discussion about meditation as a relaxation or a “quiet mind” practice is happening on a curation stream where this post is listed. Excerpted from a comment there: “The very effort to calm the mind only makes it appear much more important than it is. It’s not necessary!!”

    Add your own thoughts here or see the exchange here:


  2. Greetings from Florida! I’m bored to tears at
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    I really like the info you provide here and can’t wait
    to take a look when I get home. I’m surprised at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone ..
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