Book Review: Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan

I just finished reading Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan. This is one of those books I simultaneously can’t believe is a bestselling book and also somehow keep going back to over and over again.

This is because, on one hand, it feels like a mashup of different lists pieced together to make a book (or make a buck). There are six practices for new leadership (p. 141), nine tips for becoming change savvy (p. 46), five learning anxieties in the face of change (p. 17), and plenty more. I forgot most of the things on these lists almost as fast as I read them.

But then, on the other hand, wow, there are a few insights sprinkled in that I know I’ll be thinking about and referencing for a long time. Below is a quick list of five quotes and ideas that stood out to me as worth remembering:

Change Leadership Takeaways

  1. “When people contemplate change, what is being lost is palpable and immediate; the gains are theoretical and in the future” (p. 17). This is a pretty clear and concise way of explaining why the status quo is so persistent, and why effective change leadership is so hard, and so important.

  2. “Gallup’s main finding was that the single biggest factor in your organization’s long term success is the quality of the managers and team leaders” (p. 29). Fullan seems to love this Gallup study. At Outside Angle, our experience is that organizations are not investing enough in the support and development of their middle managers and team leaders individually, but especially as a unit. We are finding in so many different contexts that the middle management layer of the organization really is the fulcrum for change.

  3. “Understanding change means understanding people – not people in general but people in specific (i.e., the ones you are leading right now)” (p. 45). So good! I love this quote. Fullan talks about context a lot. Effective leaders become deeply “contextually literate”. (p. 49, 147). This is part of the reason why the onboarding period is so important. It’s a time to build credibility and establish momentum, but the most important outcome should be deep learning. It is also why every change process needs to be tailored to its unique context – especially the people and culture.

  4. “If you ask someone in a successful enterprise what caused the success, the answer almost always is ‘It’s the people.’ But that’s only partially true: It is actually the relationships that make the difference” (p.63). YES! Thank you. This is a core belief behind the work we do at Outside Angle and I love this way of saying it.

  5. “Learning is the work”, and leadership for change means “Being a lead learner from Day 1” (p. 141 and throughout). This is a big theme of the book and maybe the newest and most thought provoking for me. From “knowledge sharing” to “deepening learning,” Fullan conceives change processes fundamentally as major experiences in group learning. “In successful organizations, the culture is based on daily learning built into daily interaction” (p. 70).

Numbers 1-4 on this list are sticking with me mostly because they square so fully with our beliefs and the work we are doing at Outside Angle. They are concise and compelling ways of saying what we already know.

Number 5 is deeper, and I am finding it very resonant so far. It’s why the culture, process, and relationships matter so much. They create the conditions for shared learning, and shared learning = change. The implications of this way of thinking about change seem big. How differently would we approach most change efforts if we thought about it from the beginning as a big exercise in shared learning, with lead learners leading the way?

Fullan offers some good anecdotes in the book too. One in particular stuck with me. He describes US Army’s After Action Reviews (AARs) as an example of leveraging knowledge within a team. The Army’s guidelines for these sessions? No sugar coating, Discover ground truth, No thin skins, Take notes, and Call it like you see it (p. 102). I found that so powerful, and SO different from the unspoken guidelines most organizations seem to follow in meetings like these. Every project is an opportunity to learn, and learn together.

And there you have it. Five quotes and one particularly memorable anecdote. All of them helpful, all likely to be useful in working with teams experiencing change, and one deeply thought provoking. I guess in the end for a 150-page quick read, that is not a bad bottom line.