Deep Change: A book review by Bob Morris

Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within
Robert E. Quinn
Jossey-Bass (1996)

Note: The review that follows was posted more than ten years ago. I recently re-read the book and think more highly of it now than I did then.

By chance rather than by choice, I read this book (at the insistence of a corporate client) before reading others written by Quinn, notably Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change in 2004 and Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation in 2009. Deep Change provides an appropriate introduction to any one of them. I value his books so highly because they make substantial contributions to our understanding of how to achieve and then sustain meaningful change, both in our personal lives and in our organizations. That may well be the most difficult work/lifed balance that most of us ever attempt to achieve.

According to Quinn, “Incremental change is usually the result of a rational analysis and planning process. There is a desired goal with a specific set of steps for reaching it. Incremental change is usually limited in scope and often reversible. If the change does not work out, we can always return to the old way. Incremental change usually does not disrupt our past patterns — it is an extension of the past. Most important, during incremental change, we feel we are in control.” Does all this sound familiar? Has Quinn described accurately how change occurs within your organization?

Now consider a second brief excerpt: “This book explores a much more difficult change process, the process of deep change. Deep change differs from incremental change in that it requires new ways of thinking and behaving. It is change that is major in scope, discontinuous with the past and generally irreversible. The deep change effort distorts existing patterns of action and involves taking risks. Deep change means surrendering control.” Decades ago, David Riesman made the helpful distinction between “inner-directed” and “other-directed” people. The same can also be said of organizations (communities of people) when determining the nature, extent, and location of control. Quinn believes that “one person can change the larger system or organization in which he or she exists.” If I understand Quinn correctly, his central assertion is this: If and only if enough individuals achieve deep change individually can their shared organization then achieve deep change.

This is a very dangerous concept. Unlike incremental change, deep change poses a very serious threat to the status quo of an organization and, especially, to those who (you can be certain) will steadfastly defend it. There will also be perils for those who seek to achieve deep change in their individual lives. Cherished assumptions, premises, values, and beliefs will all be called into question and many of them will be found inadequate, if not false. As Quinn describes it, those undergoing deep change will feel as if they are “walking naked into the land of uncertainty.” He acknowledges “This is usually a terrifying choice, often involving a ‘dark night of the soul.'” In Riesman’s view, that person becomes inner-directed. For Quinn, that person is “internally driven…more capable of leading under conditions of continuous change…more organic.”

What is the alternative? Quinn’s answer: “slow death.” I am reminded of a relevant insight expressed by Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death. He acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another death that anyone can deny: the death that occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. A slow death indeed. If you wish to achieve deep change in your life, and are now involved in an organization which can only tolerate incremental change (if any change at all), I urge you to find another organization.


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