The Change Quadrant

The idea of change fitness didn’t just come out of nowhere. It has been shaped by the ideas of great thought leaders, including Lewin, Sternberg, McAdams, Maruna, Koltko-Rivera, Prochaska & DiClemente, Seligman, Gergan, Bruner, Frankl, Kegan, and many others.

In this article, I want to focus on one of these thinkers and show you how his work contributes to the change fitness concept.

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin is very well known by people in the organisational change space. He died about 70 years ago. Lewin is best known for two ideas – one is the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model and the other is called the Force Field Theory. The latter is a pretty cool name and it’s this theory I want to focus on.

Force Field Theory

Here’s the basic idea. When people want or need to change, there is a force pushing them forward. You could call it motivation or a directive from on high but whatever you call it, it’s a force trying to make things change. But, here’s the point, this force for change is usually met by a force resisting change. This is a force that wants things to stay the same. It could be fear or laziness or whatever.

According to Lewin, whether change succeeds or fails depends on which of these forces is stronger. This idea ‘feels right’. Can you think of times when change failed because it met with too much opposition, or people just weren’t ready to make it happen?

The Change Quadrant®

Okay. The Change Quadrant is based on Lewin’s idea, but we can take Lewin’s idea a little bit further. When we think of these two forces (driving forces and restraining forces) we can ask ourselves where these two forces are located. Some of them are located outside of us – in the environment. For example, the boss might tell us our jobs are going to change in some way (external driving force) and this idea might be met with workers complaining that they have never worked like that before and it’s not something they support (external restraining force).

Other forces come from inside us. For example, we may decide we need to change because there are things we want or there are issues we want to get rid of (internal driving forces). Yet, despite our motivation, we might have serious doubts about our ability to change or we might be plagued by memories of how we tried to change before and failed (internal restraining forces).

So, now we have 4 different types of forces – external driving forces, external restraining forces, internal driving forces, and internal restraining forces. We can make a simple graph like the one below to illustrate these forces.

image of The Change Quadrant

External forces

Let’s turn our attention to two important questions we can ask. The first question relates to the external forces – are the external forces ready to allow change to happen? People might have an agenda for change but is the external environment ready to facilitate the change? Let’s think of an example where these questions could be asked.

A clothing store has been doing business in a town for decades. They have a dedicated and stable workforce, and everyone knows what’s expected of them. Life is good. But workers gradually notice that fewer customers are coming to the store, and the accountants warn that profits are dropping. Something’s wrong.

They decide to survey customers they haven’t seen for a while. It seems that instead of buying clothes from the store, customers are shopping online. The store owners decide some changes are needed. This change is driven by changes in the commercial environment.

Forces against change

But there are also some strong forces working against change. Some come from the staff, who fear they might lose their jobs and aren’t keen on changing how they work. But there are also some structural forces working against change. It’s not easy for a small bricks and mortar store to compete against big online retailers like Amazon. They don’t have the buying power, the warehousing space, or the logistics to compete. These environmental realities make it very difficult to compete with online retailers.

Internal forces

The second question we can ask relates to the internal forces – do people have the capacity to make change happen? People might be motivated to change, but do they have the capacity to succeed at it? We would all like to say yes to that question, but sadly, the answer is often no. Consider this.

Heart patients

Professor Robert Kegan tells the story of researchers who met with heart patients who had just had a consultation with their specialists. Each one was told the same message – you will die if you don’t make lifestyle changes. The researchers found that each patient understood the message and said they were committed to change. They understood the seriousness of their condition. Yet, when these same people were interviewed 12 months later, only 1 in 7 had made the changes they promised.

These people had the right information to decide and they didn’t want to die. Their internal driving forces were motivated to live, so why didn’t they change? Because their internal restraining forces were too strong. What kind of forces would these have been? Giving up smoking is so hard. I would eat better food if I liked the taste of it. Tomorrow I’ll start exercising. I’ll go on a diet after the party. Do they sound familiar?

Hard to be consistent

People can easily decide, but it’s much harder to follow through on it. It’s hard to be consistent; hard to break old habits and develop new ones. It’s hard to change attitudes you’ve had for years. And it’s easy to forget and return to what feels normal.

These people failed to change because they lacked the capacity to meet all the demands of the change process. They might have been ready to start, but they weren’t ready to succeed. They lacked change fitness.

Lower left quadrant

When we look at The Change Quadrant, change fitness resides in the lower left quadrant. If that quadrant is weak, people find it hard to change. They lack the internal strength to succeed. When people engage in change fitness coaching, we are trying to build up their capacity to succeed at the change process. The stronger that quadrant becomes, the more likely it is that people will be successful around change.

Lewin’s Force Field Theory, with a few additions, helps us understand what change fitness is and why it is important. Coaches who understand how to identify and develop change fitness can help their clients in a very profound way. Developing the capacity for change helps clients in all areas of their lives and is a significant investment in their future. If you’re a coach and would like to learn how to get involved in change fitness coaching, contact Steve Barlow today.

Written by Steve Barlow

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at