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The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive – Book Review – Wei-Chih (Vicki) Chen

by on November 10, 2008

The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive. Michael Fullan. John Wiley & Sons, 2008. 176 pp. $24.95. (ISBN: 978-0-7879-8882-1)

Facing such a complex environment, leaders in education and business have been seeking for secrets to help their organizations “survive and thrive” at change. In this book, Fullan provides six useful guidelines for leaders to follow by offering illustrative examples from a variety of businesses, organizations, and public education systems. He points out ways to take advantage of deep and enduring change to increase opportunities, and shows how risky it sometimes is to take advice from seemingly successful organizations.
The author states that the secrets are not secret in the sense that they are hidden from public view. Rather, they are secret because they’re complex, hard to grasp in their deep meaning, and challenging to act in combination (p. viii).
Before starting to talk about the secrets, Fullan spends some pages warning readers of the folly of believing in everything they read. “The world has become too complex for any theory to have certainty. There can never be a blueprint or silver bullet. Never take what you read (even the six secrets) at face value (p. 5),” he writes. Instead, readers should go deep to understand the meaning and knowledge behind his claims, and try to look for arguments and evidence behind the theory (p. 17). He also suggests that the six secrets should be used together, rather than implementing only one or two of them, to work best (p. 16). He feels that these six secrets, as a whole, can be applied to various industries or organizations, and that is exactly what he means by “travel” (p. 9).
The six secrets of change according to Michael Fullan are:
1. Love Your Employees
2. Connect Peers with Purpose
3. Capacity Building Prevails
4. Learning is Work
5. Transparency Rules
6. Systems Learn
Secret 1: Love your employees
In secret one, the author addresses the important point that leaders should love all of their stakeholders equally—employees, customers, investors or shareholders, partners, and society (p. 36). This is also a heart paradox of most of his secrets. He states that it’s critical for organizations to invest in their employees so that they can not only improve their skills, find meaning in their work, and achieve personal satisfaction, but also build connections with their organizations and co-workers.
In this chapter, Fullan also suggests that leaders can obtain a good result by integrating two contrasting theories of human motivation—Theory X and Theory Y (McGregor, 1960) — to motivate employees (p. 32). There’s no doubt that when managers encounter situations human nature may influence their motivation. Aligning Theory X and Y could be an aid in choosing how they motivate people. However, McGregor in his book points out that a command and control management style does not work well because it relies on lower needs (e.g. needs for oxygen, food, water, and sleep, etc.) for motivation (McGregor, 1960). This makes me wonder: now in modern society where those needs are mostly satisfied, could Theory X still be applied to motivate employees?
Secret 2: Connect Peers with Purpose
Fullan points out that large-scale reform often faces a “too tight-too loose” dilemma, in situation which leaders on the top focus and tighten the requirements while people under such actions feel constrained and tend to rebel (p. 41). To solve this, he believes that leaders should foster continuous and purposeful peer interaction (p. 45). By getting people to work together toward a higher purpose and making them share information and knowledge with each other, leaders can help them pursue and continuously learn what works best. Ideally, people will identify with an entity larger than themselves, which enables large organizations to cohere (p. 49). This idea can be combined with the first secret to work better: as organizations invest in their employees, their individual and collaborative commitment to their work increases, hence the organizations become more effective (p. 50).
Secret 3: Capacity Building Prevails
“Another way to love your employees is to select them well and then invest in their continuous development (p. 57),” Fullan contends. Leaders must invest in building capacity of individuals and groups to keep their significant improvements.
To build capacity, leaders need to concern competencies, resources, and motivation. He writes, “Individuals and groups are high in capacity if they possess and continue to develop knowledge and skills, if they attract and use resources (time, ideas, expertise, money) wisely, and if they are committed to putting in the energy to get important things done collectively and continuously (ever learning) (p. 57).”
Many theories suggest the use of fear, criticism and punitive accountability. However, here the author promotes “nonjudgmentalism (p. 58),” which avoids negative judgment and tries to find a better way to instill fear. He believes that people do not function well when they fear. In addition, fear and it’s consequences directly breach secret two—connect peers with purpose — in the way that they decrease the power and connectivity of positive peer interaction (p. 62). He suggests, leaders should hold a strong moral position and avoid self-righteousness and moral condemnation at the same time (p. 60). This idea makes me curious: if negative judgment has been proven to not work well, why are so many organizations still choosing this method when they attempt to produce positive change? Is it because the method is the path of least effort? Or is it because the idea of nonjudgmentalism is too difficult to realize?
In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of individuals and groups focusing on continuous knowledge and skills improvement to develop the ability to grow and adapt in new and complex environments, which I think is a very critical issue. However, it would be great if the author could address more thoroughly how leaders can help employees build capacity; also, how they can successfully help employees develop continuous improvement using a “nonjudgmentalism” method when implementing large-scale change.
Secret 4: Learning is Work
In this chapter, the author maintains a point that learning from outside workshops and courses can be a useful input; however, if it is not balanced with learning at work, the learning will be superficial. Toyota Motor Corporation is provided as an example to demonstrate what it takes to use the job itself as a subject of employee training (p. 78). The author, including ideas from Liker and Meyer’s book Toyota Talent (2007), indicates that Toyota retains its high performance by “spending five times as much time dealing work methods and developing talent in employees as any other company (p. 79).” The company defines the best methods of practices, identifies the few key practices that are crucial to success, and takes special care that employees do those tasks well using the best methods of doing so. By adopting such approach, Toyota realizes “learning is the job.”
Secret 5: Transparency Rules
Organizations need to provide a continuously and clear display of results (this is what the author means by “transparency”), as well as what has been done to obtain those results, to maintain continuous improvement. When they keep doing this, an aura of “positive pressure” will be created—pressure that is reasonable, actionable, and inescapable. To explain why organizations must embrace the transparency rules, the author presents four reasons (p. 100). First, it is an inevitable trend that “the flat-world access to information and the appetite for transparent accountability on the part of the public and various stakeholders and shareholders simply can no longer be thwarted.” Second, it is a good thing to balance reporting data publicly and keeping information private. To achieve this balance, it’s important to identify which transparency can be used simultaneously for both improvement and accountability. There is a general belief that people will not report problems if they know they’ll be punished. Here the author suggests organizations establish cultures that it is normal for them to encounter problems and solve them. Third, transparent information is used as a tool for achieving better results in any successful change. Organizations should develop a mechanism for employees to share open data collection. Finally, organizations sustain their credibility and long-term success by “external accountability (p. 102).” There is no way that organizations can review their overtime progress in achieving important goals without clear transparency.
Secret 6: Systems Learn
In secret six, the authors states that when the first five secrets are implemented, the system (organization) can learn (p. 107). However, even in the best system, continuous learning cannot be guaranteed. He argues that organizations cannot sustain learning because they focus on individual leaders: when individual leaders come and go, organizations go through ups and downs. The author uses Toyota as an example again to stress the importance of putting faith on individuals throughout the organization and organizational systems. He presents this idea by quoting Pfeffer and Sutton’s (2006) words:
“The fact that Toyota can succeed over decades…and that the company shows no leadership effects—or changes from succession—speaks to building a robust set of interrelated management practices and philosophies that provide advantage above and beyond the ideas or inspirations of single individuals (p. 211; italics in original)”
The author also talks about humility in this secret by saying that “the world is uncertain and, no matter what you do, you cannot guarantee a successful future.” Leaders should combine humility and confidence when they explore environmental complexity (p. 115). In addition, leaders should have an “opposable mind” which allows for “integrative thinking (p. 119).” I agree with this aspect but I feel it’s hard. Before adopting these secrets, it would be a critical issue for organizations either to find leaders with such ability or develop such ability internally.
Finally, the author provides six guidelines for keeping the secrets: 1) Seize the synergy; 2) Define your own traveling theory; 3) Share a secret, keep a secret; 4) The world is the only oyster you have; 5) Stay on the far side of complexity; 6) Happiness is not what some of us think. Keeping these guidelines in mind can help different types of leaders maintain the six secrets.
In conclusion, this book provides six great secrets for leaders to help their organizations survive and thrive in today’s complex environment. It contains a lot of practical examples from different industries, organizations and educational systems for readers to understand crucial concepts. Also, the author presents his theory using an easy-writing style, which allows readers to quickly and easily get the points that he intends to present. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to help his/her organization to grasp opportunities and succeed at change.

1. Liker, J., & Meyer, D. (2007). Toyota Talent: New York: McGraw-Hill.
2. McGregor, D. (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.
3. Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Hard facts, dangerous half-truths and total nonsense: Profiting from evidence-based management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
One Comment
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