Look Before You Leap – Ten Conditions For Successfully Motivating For Change


It may be a true that change is inevitable. However, this does not mean that those who motivate people to change – change agents – have the insight and skill to direct and manage such change in an efficient, timely, and compassionate manner.

Often, well-meaning motivation-for-change processes either fail, or cause more problems than they solve. More distressing is when a motivation method that worked well in one situation, fails in another. This article is based upon Spiral Dynamics, and is intended to inspire change agents to look a bit more carefully before they leap enthusiastically into the chasm of motivating for change.

This article is a brief description of ten basic requirements for motivation to translate into actual change, whether for an individual, a community, or an organization. When all ten conditions are satisfied – not necessarily entirely, but at least sufficiently – change is most likely to occur. At other times, it is sufficient to identify exactly where the organization (or individual) is not ready for change – and what can be done about it – and communicate this to the appropriate entity. If you attempt to motivate for change when the ten conditions are not met, then you stand a good chance of wasting your time, or – at worst – making things worse.

It will be apparent that some conditions have greater weight than others, and that all conditions are dependent to some degree upon the other conditions.

The ten factors (conditions) discussed below are primarily based upon The Six Conditions for vMeme Change by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan (Spiral Dynamics 2006). The expansion of Beck and Cowan’s six conditions into ten is intended to make these critical change factors more explicit for practical application.

When is change necessary?

The existence and nature of a problem is defined by two factors: The external life conditions of the person or group or organisation, and the dominant method of coping with those life conditions. When these two factors don’t match, we can say that there is a problem. Typically, this involves a change in life conditions (e.g., economic changes, drops in productivity, loss of an important relationship, health changes, technology changes) that require a more complex coping method. Conversely, stability and contentment is defined by a match between the two factors.

Condition 1: The perception exists that the problem is real

What problem? How is this a problem for me/us?

A problem can originate from within the person/group, or from a change in external life conditions. For example:

• Relationship problems 
• Diagnosis of a serious illness 
• Increases in crime 
• Retrenchments in local factories 
• Drops in sales 
• Lower productivity 
• Economic downturn

It is not enough that a problem factually exists: A person, community or organization needs to be aware that it exists. The problem also needs to be perceived to directly or indirectly affect the person, community or organization. If this does not occur, the problem is perceived to be someone else’s problem, and any internal motivation to utilize resources to change the situation is weak or non-existent.

The more aspects of a person’s life that is affected by the problem (e.g., health, relationships, income), or the more members or sections of a community or organization that are aware of the problem, the more likely change will be viewed as necessary. When leaders within these systems are aware and affected as well, then the chances for change are much higher.

It is often the role of the activist, consultant, teacher, parents, and media to make people aware of problems before they get too serious. Sometimes, when the problem does not affect the person or persons in any obvious or tangible manner, the problem needs to be presented in a manner that has psychological impact, such as questioning a person’s or communities’ sensibilities, identity, and values.

A problem does not even have to be real or physically present: It simply needs to be believed to exist, or imagined to threaten the present situation. Governments, mass media and channels of trusted communication can both conceal and create a problem, through generalization, deletion and distortions of information.

Condition 2: The person or group is open-minded about the problem

The presence of an open mind is a make-or-break condition: If the person, community or organisation is closed-minded, he/she/it is not likely to change, unless the change agent is extraordinarily skilled in persuasion and reframing, or life conditions change dramatically to force the issue.

The concept of a closed, reluctant or open mind is typically focused upon a specific issue: A person can be closed-minded in one area of their life, and open-minded or reluctant-minded in another area. 
Various factors are involved in determining the degree of open- or closed-mindedness: Historical traumas and perceived injustices, socialization, social and economic forces, rigid identities and values, and personal coping styles (e.g., stubbornness). I.e., external life conditions or internal personal experiences can cause such states.

A closed-minded individual, community or organization believes that there is no need for them to change. They may believe that there is no problem. Anyone who claims otherwise is labeled a heretic, deviant, enemy, dangerous, or trouble-maker. Regardless of the realities, they force facts to fit their existing world-view. Contrary information is actively denied or suppressed. Reactions to pressure and stresses are extreme and disproportionate to the problem itself. There is little potential for change.

An open-minded individual, community or organization is quite aware that there is a problem, and that change is required. There is also a willingness to consider different views, and differences in opinions are tolerated and even encouraged. Most important, there is a willingness to examine and critique the fundamental assumptions of the prevailing world-view and coping methods. Potential for change is high.

Between these two extremes lies the partially
-open-minded person, group or organization. In this situation there is awareness that there is indeed a problem, unlike the closed-minded entity. However, unlike the open-minded entity, the person, community or company is not willing to examine the fundamental assumptions governing their situation and coping methods, but are instead willing to tweak, modify, and refine existing coping methods. Concepts of ‘working smarter, not harder’ are signs of such a change context. There is also often an attitude of needing to tolerate and live with some problematic realities, instead of trying to change them. Due to the fact that the fundamental problem is not addressed, there is often a high level of classic stress. The potential for change exists, in limited amounts.

Condition 3: Other important problems are resolved

What other problems exist? Which problem(s) are more important to solve?

A person, community or organization is not likely to change in response to the new problem if an older, more basic, problem is not resolved first. It is important to satisfy more important – in the view of the person or community or organization – needs and problems before they will consider newer problems.

For example, a company that is operating at a narrow profit margin in a difficult economic climate is unlikely to be convinced to spend a significant amount of money on a program for staff development that is perceived to have no direct link to productivity and profit margins. Similarly, someone is unlikely to disclose their HIV-status if they feel this would result in physical safety problems.

Conversely, it is possible to successfully motivate for change relating to the new problem if this is perceived to potentially solve all or part of older, more basic problems. This is referred to as embedding change: Creating a link between the motivation to resolve one problem to the (usually stronger) motivation to resolve another pressing problem.

It is not unusual to encounter resistance to change due to secondary gain: Where keeping the problem in place results in achieving something more important than resolving the problem, whether this is attention, support, funding, or a desirable identity.

A final caveat: Physical needs and survival are not always considered more important than protecting ideals, identities and values, particularly in closed-minded entities.

Condition 4: The necessary resources to change exist

Do I/we have the energy and resources to make the change?

Does the individual or group have the energy and resources to change? This could refer to the physical vitality and energy (versus fatigue and illness), finances, time, technology, personnel, transportation, knowledge, skills, and structures necessary to actually implement the desired changes.

Particular attention needs to be paid to the possibility – real or imagined – that allocating resources to resolve the new problem does not reduce the resources required to resolve other more (factually or perceived) important problems.

For example, a government is not going to increase its health or education budget when it needs the money for an ongoing security problem with a neighboring country; A company is going to be very reluctant to release floor personnel for ‘soft skills’ training when it is in the middle of its busiest period of production; A mother is not going to leave small children unattended at home to attend a community workshop; An income generating program involving food security (home gardens) is not going to appeal to many people when they barely have enough water for drinking purposes.

Condition 5: Insight into current situation

How did I (or we) land up in this situation? What exactly has changed in my/our life conditions? Why are my/our existing coping styles not adequate for dealing with this problem?

The more accurate the answers to these questions, the more likely any change process will be sustainable, even when difficult. When people do not have insight into these questions, they often revert to previous methods of coping that worked for less complex life conditions, and which they hope will work for the current life condition, which it cannot.

Many factors affect this critical condition, including: Emotional intelligence, the presence of an open mind (refer condition 2), access to and availability of accurate information and feedback (verbal, printed, reports, assessments, counseling), the perceived credibility of the sources of information and feedback, the language and metaphor of materials presented (appropriateness) and the degree of perceived safety to engage in social and organizational soul-searching and dialogue concerning the problem.

The ability to receive objective or alternative feedback and information that is contrary to what is believed or desired, is a major factor into developing insight into a problem. In emotional intelligence terms, this concerns the gap between the ideal and real self. The presence or absence of an open or closed mind is once again a key factor.

Condition 6: The barriers to change are identified

What or who is preventing change? What or who is making it difficult to change?

Typically, a person, community or organization first blames an external force for the change in life conditions: ‘They did it to me/us’. However, upon closer analysis, other factors are identified – including internal ones – such as inappropriate coping methods or ignoring constructive feedback. Only once the actual barriers are identified – internal and external – can solutions be found (refer Condition 7) for overcoming these barriers.

It may be emotionally more satisfying to blame external forces and factors, but this emphasis does not increase the probability of effective change initiated by the person or group. It is difficult to motivate self-identified victims to improve their life conditions or coping methods, as they expect such changes to emerge from external sources.

Instead, examining the role of the person or group in facilitating or enabling the problem simultaneously creates the potential for empowered and proactive remedies and solutions, as required in Condition 7.

Condition 7: Strategies to overcome barriers exist

How do I/we overcome obstacles to change?

Once barriers to change are identified, ways to overcome them need to be found. The following examples illustrate four different strategies, namely eliminating, bypassing, neutralizing, and reframing the barrier to change.

Problem 1: Obesity and dangerously high blood pressure. Barrier to change: Craves food all the time. “I can’t help it” 
Problem 2: Recurrent job-related accidents. Barrier to change: Manager refuses to commit departmental resources to comply with new safety regulations.
Problem 3: Malnutrition in a community. Barrier to change: No municipal or other reliable sources of water for growing food crops.

• Eliminating barriers: Removing all fattening foods from the refrigerator; Transferring or retrenching the manager who refuses to implement changes in safety procedures; Sinking a borehole to ensure a reliable and adequate water supply. 
• Bypassing a barrier: Gastric-bypass surgery; Shift decision-making for safety issues higher up (or lower down) the managerial hierarchy; Supply the community with food parcels. 
• Neutralizing a barrier: Stocking the refrigerator with only sugar-free foods and snacks; Shift responsibility and budget for implementing safety measures to a different department and manager; Encourage eco-tourism to generate income for the community. 
• Reframing a barrier: Redirect the obese person to examine the underlying craving for food, such as comfort eating; Link the manager’s performance bonus directly to job-related accident levels; Implement dry-land (low-water requirements, typically recycled household water) gardening methods.

The process of generating an effective and sustainable strategy is not simple, and often requires either direct intervention from an authoritative source (e.g., community leader, senior management, parent), or creative bypass solutions, or reframing the situation so that the problem still exists, but is no longer a problem. Sometimes bridges need to be built, other times they need to be burned, and occasionally, they need to be replaced with a tunnel.

Condition 8: The change method matches the problem

What kind of change is needed? How much change do I/we need?

For many problems, it is important to ensure that the methods are compatible with the individual’s (or community’s, or organization’s) identity and core value system, referred to a fine-tuning horizontal change, or to expand such identities and values into greater complexity, referred to as an expand-out horizontal change. For example, a predominantly religious individual or community is unlikely to respond to a technological solution that is not compatible with some important religious precept. Promoting condoms where procreation is an article of faith, is one such example.

In some urgent problem situations, it may be necessary to reach to previous – less complex – coping methods temporarily (stretch-down oblique change), or to select (again, temporarily) a coping method from a more complex system (stretch-up oblique change).

When the problems are wide-spread and affect many areas of life, more radical change is called for: Situations of revolution and radical evolution (vertical change) may be called for, where such identities and core values are the focus of the change itself.

Condition 9: Vision of the future

What will my/our life look like after the change? Will my/our life be better than before?

Before people are willing to change, they need an idea of what they are changing towards. It is not enough that decision-makers know the ‘plan’ – the person(s) who are expected to go through the process need to have some idea of where they are heading. It is not enough to simply know what the problem is: What will replace the old situation or coping style?

Condition 10: Support and safety

Will I/we be safe and okay?

Change is not easy: Mistakes get made, there is confusion, and there may be back-lashes from various sources. It is therefore important that the person(s) undergoing change have some form of support and stability during this process.


There are few, if any, individuals, communities, or organizations that are not being subjected to rapidly evolving life conditions. The degree of change varies, from the speed of data transfer, to new disease pathogens, to economic uncertainty, to planetary climate change. It is therefore of great importance to examine energy-effective methods to both manage and motivate for change.

It is apparent that several important variables determine the potential, degree, and direction of change. Probably the most influential factor is whether a closed or open mindedness exists within the individual or group. For this reason alone, the ability to establish a trusting relationship with the person(s) involved is crucial.

The ten conditions for change illustrate that change is not a random process: There are specific key issues to be considered, and where such issues are problematic, there are usually remedies to facilitate change, for those who are willing to be flexible enough to step out of their preferred methodology.

It is also clear that there is also no such thing as one-size-fits-all in the realm of change management. Instead, change management is a process of careful and insightful examination of the prevailing life conditions, coping methods, and listening to the people whom we seek to assist.