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The Six Secrets of Change - Book Review

1 February 2011
Dr. Moria Levy

The author, Michael Fullan, well-known in certain circles, has been writing about management and change for years. His notable books include "Motion Leadership," "Leading in a Culture of Change," and more. "The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive" is not solely about change and change management but instead focuses on management and success in the new age in a complex and ever-changing environment.

The book develops a theory centered on six interdependent components of success. Fullan rejects merely analyzing successful companies and identifying common characteristics, as seen in Collins's famous book "Good to Great." Instead, he argues for developing a theory that is tested against successful companies in a second stage. Fullan emphasizes that success doesn't just come from implementing components in the organization but from their correct realization, following the secret or nuance—the "how" that defines the "what." Hence, he discusses secrets that he insists on the nature of, emphasizing that each company must adapt the implementation to achieve the long-awaited success.

Drawing insights from previous books on similar topics and various companies, notably Toyota, identified as successful over time, the book covers the following topics:

  • Love of employees

  • A link with value significance

  • Constructive feedback

  • Learning at work

  • Data Transparency

  • Learning as a system

  • Highlights

As always, this excerpt provides a taste but is not a substitute for reading the entire book. Happy reading.

Love of employees

Embrace your employees. It may seem simple, but it's an idea with depth. Love encompasses:

  • Concern for decent conditions

  • Concern for the development of their capabilities

  • Concern for setting conditions for their success

  • Concern for their satisfaction

  • Ensuring that while fulfilling the organization's missions and goals, they succeed in realizing their vision

  • And... Concern for friendship and camaraderie

The love of employees, seemingly straightforward, can sometimes conflict with the love of customers. According to Pollan, wisdom lies in navigating the inherent contradiction that sometimes two positive values clash, yet living with both in acceptance. While seeking the customer's best interests, it shouldn't come at the employee's expense. Creativity must be employed to achieve this balance, even if there are more straightforward alternatives. Treating employees as customers is likely a step in the right direction.

The love of employees is seemingly rooted in a meaningful relationship between managers and employees. Again, it’s not trivial.

A link with value significance

The second element of success is tied to the tension between the desire to concentrate, promoting efficient management and professionalism, and the inclination to decentralize, allowing every employee to unleash their creativity. Organizations aim to establish focused, precise goals with close measurement, yet the peril in such settings is the potential for passive or alienated workers. Conversely, total decentralization and creativity may lead to drift and apathy. The resolution to this dilemma, as Pollan defines it, lies in the second secret: creating an interface between colleagues and establishing a connection imbued with meaning among them.

A meaningful connection does not necessarily undermine authority and leadership from above but certainly influences its character. Pollan emphasizes connections within the organization, although they also extend beyond it—between colleagues within a team and among colleagues scattered throughout the organization.

When Pollan refers to meaning, he speaks of a shared purpose or intention among colleagues. However, more is needed for success. Pollan underscores that for meaningful connections to lead to a positive, effective, and successful outcome, three conditions must be met:

  1. Affinity between the values of the organization and the values of colleagues forming a subgroup within the organization.

  2. Open sharing of knowledge, experiences, and information within the team and organization.

  3. Regulated monitoring and control in the organization to identify conduct in ineffective directions and practical knowledge that contributes to success.

Pollan observes that various books exploring management in both business and public sectors assert that teamwork is more actively oriented than individual work, even if individuals are experts. To achieve this, organizations must alter their modus operandi, including how they create internal competition, where the success of one does not equate to the failure of another.

To realize this component, managers must create conditions that facilitate connections, define action directions, and intervene when employees are not progressing in the desired direction. Successful implementation yields three outcomes in the organization:

  1. Different stakeholders converge around higher meanings, transcending individual perspectives.

  2. Knowledge flows as people learn what works and enables success.

  3. The sense of belonging to a more significant entity than the individual also expands and empowers the individual.

It is crucial to note that groups can also exhibit adverse effects due to herd phenomena, and attention should be paid to avoid situations where harm outweighs benefit.

Constructive feedback

This component was initially referred to as Capacity Building and Capacity Development (before its translation).

The goal is to enhance an individual's abilities, which is precisely why regular assessment falls short. Evaluation is judgmental and does not necessarily contribute to capacity building.

Capacity building revolves around competence, resources, and motivation. Individuals and groups, whether employees or otherwise, exhibit high capacity when they possess knowledge and skills that are continually developed, utilize resources intelligently, and commit to investing their energies in joint and continuous efforts. It's a stringent and challenging requirement, but it must be noticed.

The initiation of capacity building lies with the leader. Those not set high aspirations will not extract much from their employees. The proper approach involves affirmative means, utilizing constructive and positive feedback rather than resorting to intimidation and irritation. Pollan believes that problems are resolved in our complex world when people feel they won't be penalized for taking risks while striving to advance the organization's needs. Fear, it is argued, leads to short-term focus, and financial measurement and rewards often promote undesired actions.

Though stating and understanding the concept of building competencies rather than passing judgment is straightforward, realizing it proves challenging. The process begins with recruiting talented individuals and fostering their continuous development individually and collaboratively. While some argue that starting with talented people is unnecessary and one should learn to work with ordinary individuals, assessing their learning ability and estimated potential in each case during recruitment is crucial. Capacity building revolves around people with potential, encouraging them to progress positively rather than focusing on their mistakes.

Learning at work

Learning on the job constitutes the fourth pillar of success—not the type confined to courses or classrooms, but rather the kind that originates in the field or is tailored to it.

On-the-job learning enhances the learner and, more importantly, elevates the quality of work and products, fostering precision, consistent performance, and continuous improvement.

Toyota serves as an exemplar in realizing on-the-job learning. Performance improvement is structured around the following:

  1. Identification of critical knowledge.

  2. Transfer of knowledge through the formulation and documentation of work instructions.

  3. Verification of learning to ensure success.

As elucidated earlier, this component reveals an inherent connection between consistency and innovation: consistency begets learning, which, in turn, fuels innovation repeatedly.

Examining Toyota's approach, it becomes evident that learning leads employees to a profound understanding of their roles. This doesn't advocate for automation and uniformity across all tasks; instead, it emphasizes identifying the best methods, thereby reducing variation in favor of more effective approaches that yield success.

Pursuing consistent, effective performance is a dynamic process; the only static element is the continuity of learning, which is the key to achieving desired performance levels. This form of learning is contextual, occurring within the work environment and natural conditions. The values, philosophy, and learning principles seamlessly integrate into practical application.

Beyond dedicated teams, following Toyota's example, Pollan suggests adopting the manager role as a coach. The defined goal is the trainee's (employee) success, offering a highly effective approach to on-the-job learning.

Data Transparency

Data transparency: Assess, share, and act on knowledge for success. Contrary to common assumptions, data transparency is a complex aspect. Experienced organizations understand that excess data, excessive transparency, and reports can lead to destruction rather than construction. Frequently, individuals need to compare and utilize data accurately, resulting in confusion and misinformation instead of contributing to success.

How can one establish data transparency that fosters advancement?

  1. Invest in data to enable comparisons against similar datasets tailored to individuals' characteristics, avoiding comparisons with populations that differ in size, pace, or other distracting parameters.

  2. Invest in organizational units that use data to progress relative to their previous performance rather than striving solely for absolute goals.

  3. Invest in creating focused tools that leverage data to make a meaningful impact.

  4. Focus on long-term changes; avoid overly crowded measurements.

  5. Establish a dedicated program for promotion for those who do not progress using conventional tools and mechanisms.

And... Remember to employ data in a positive, capacity-building, and non-judgmental manner (refer to the component – constructive feedback).

In organizations with data transparency, stakeholders, including customers, employees, and shareholders, trust the system and its managers more. According to Pollan, data transparency motivates employees to take action, and outstanding companies exhibit more information sharing compared to others.

Data transparency serves as a balancing force. Managers, aware that data is transparent, are inclined to treat it with greater care, knowing that others can observe it. Individuals naturally compare themselves to the environment, whether as individuals or work units, and data transparency facilitates this process. This is contingent upon the detailed approach outlined above, involving appropriate investment in preparation to ensure the data is genuinely beneficial and prevents errors.

Learning as a system

It is not enough for employees as individuals to learn; the sixth component delves into the organization's learning as an integrated system.

This component underscores the importance of integration, emphasizing that the organization's success should not rely solely on great leaders and their charisma, as leaders may come and go.

The realization of this component involves a dual approach:

  1. Developing numerous managers and leaders who function collaboratively like an integrated orchestra.

  2. Leading the organization with an awareness of the world's complexity and the environment, grounded in humility.

The key to fostering many managers and leaders lies in the collaborative synergy of the five previous components. The second part, which emphasizes understanding complexity and the manager's humble stance toward themselves, is pivotal. This humility and acknowledgment of the manager's limitations enable those under them to grow, contributing to the organization's overall development. Managers must learn to navigate the uncertainty prevalent in our world, fostering constant organizational learning.

This situation presents a paradox: while managers are expected to be knowledgeable, especially given the complexity, they are simultaneously required not to be overly confident of themselves. They must manage risks, acknowledge their limitations, and, accounting for these factors, act confidently in guiding the organization toward the future.

Such managers adopt an integrative mindset, challenging established models, remaining composed in the face of complexity, and maintaining confidence in their ability to generate effective solutions. They leverage learning opportunities, combining expertise with originality and precision with creativity.

Moreover, these managers recognize the importance of making way for others and avoiding solitary leadership. This collaborative approach ensures that the organization, as a system, can undergo continuous learning.


Towards the book's conclusion, Pollan presents six principles that facilitate the realization and sustainability of the abovementioned components.

These principles encompass:

  1. The synergy between ingredients—emphasizing not just some or every ingredient in isolation but the cohesive interaction among them.

  2. Defining the implementation method in a tailored manner suitable for the specific organization, recognizing the impossibility of a one-to-one replication from one organization to another.

  3. Realization through sharing—avoiding personal leadership by decentralizing control and providing space for managers and employees to contribute while facilitating their involvement.

  4. The belief that the world can change through the right action—encourages proactive engagement rather than settling for the status quo.

  5. Embracing complexity—acknowledging that there are no simple techniques for realizing the components, comprehending paradoxes and difficulties, and acting while navigating this complexity.

  6. Recognizing that happiness requires a blend of work and meaning.

In conclusion, the list of ingredients or secrets, as Pollan terms them, serves as food for thought. The provided tips on implementing each component and the principles outlined for their combined implementation make them practical. Their realization leads to success and greater employee satisfaction, rendering them even more valuable and beneficial—a worthwhile endeavor.

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