Book Review: Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time

Change is scary! We are not very good at change. According to Walter McFarland and Susan Goldsworthy, authors of Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time*, 75% of organizations fail when instituting a change initiative. I have seen the discussion of change becoming increasingly more prominent and urgent in a number of areas. This discussion has occurred in Extension, higher education, and ATD (formerly ASTD). Tony Bingham has introduced the last ASTD-ICE conferences with a focus on change and how training and development focus can assist. Choosing Change focuses on how to be part of the 25% and implement a successful change initiative. 

McFarland and Goldsworthy have two major focuses as part of thier book: individual change and organizational change. In each of these areas, they lead the reader through their Five Ds Framework. The Five Ds Framework consists of disruption, desire, discipline, determination, and development. The book has 10 chapters; five chapters devoted to each major part. There is also an introduction, bridge between parts, and final thoughts. I felt the book was a quick read at 238 pages. Within each chapter, the authors included examples of individuals and organizations as they experienced the different parts of the framework.

The authors also focused a significant amount of time addressing the science of the mind as it related to change and learning. This insight helped to explain why some strategies worked and why others do not. I will certainly take these observations into consideration as I pursue upcoming change initiatives.

Part I – Individual Change

The first part of the book focused on individual change or the “Change-focused Leader.” The authors believe that the two parts are interconnected and change must begin with the leader.

Disruption – A need for change begins with a disruption. A disruption is something that causes you to pause and reassess your current path. It may be looking in the mirror, visiting a doctor, being turned down for a position, or countless other examples. What you do with the disruption is important. “You can dismiss the disruptive event and ignore it, or you can decide to act upon it” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 24). The authors provide guidance on how to make better choices regarding the need to change, and support their discussion with a focus on the science. They also provide exercises for breaking patterned habits that interfere with making change decisions.

Desire – Basically, desire is the wish to react to a disruption and make a change. “The disruption shakes you, but you still have the ability to retreat from the discomfort back into the safety of a comfort zone” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 37). It is at this point that you make a choice. The authors talk about how the brain’s reaction to “pain” can prevent you from pursuing change, and they provide ideas for managing “pain.” They advocate focus on the the positives that the end result of change will bring rather than the difficult journey. If people only focused on the Oregon Trail journey, they would have never taken the journey; they were successful because they focused on the destination. McFarland and Goldsworthy also outlined how to manage your inner critic, how to control the little voice in your head that prevents you from moving forward. They also stress that to move forward, you will have to leave your comfort zone. One of the things I really liked was STAMINA goals, a spin on SMART goals. STAMINA goals are goals that are specific, time-stamped, achievable, measurable, inspiring, narratable, and actionable.

Discipline – When the going gets tough, the discipline keep going. According to the authors, “When change is involved, the essence of discipline lies in asking yourself the question: what can I commit to do on a daily basis to achieve my goals?” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 57) The authors emphasize the importance of breaking goals into small tasks and taking it one step at a time. As they note, you cannot prepare for a marathon and be success with only one day preparation. It requires months of preparation, one step at a time. They indicate that success is based on building habits. It is important to develop routines. They also stress the importance of taking care of your body—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Determination – Determination is your resolution to getting through a change to the end state. McFarland and Goldsworthy provided the science and exercises for developing resilience to help work through rough patches. They also emphasized the benefits of failure—an opportunity to learn. Hardship, failure, and recovery helps you develop as an individual. Naturally, they provided different exercises to help learn more about these different topics. One of the important lessons is that change takes time.

Development – “Adopting a mindset of continuous improvement is the best way to maximize your potential for continuous success” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 95). This is something I firmly believe in. I believe we should be continuously learning and developing our skills. As the authors note, if delving in a new area, you may have to return to the basics. The authors also note that learning is personal, and one size does not fit all. We may be adding to our skill set and knowledge or removing old habits. One topic, I thought was surprising but proved to be very useful during a coaching session I recently had, focused on perfection. They noted that perfection can actually get in the way of success. Software designers realize that there are always things to add or fix in a program, but waiting for a perfect program will result in no program. Finally, McFarland and Goldsworthy talk about the importance of feedback in the development process.

Part II – Organizational Change

When discussing organizational change, McFarland and Goldsworthy note that organizational change is very similar to individual change. It has some of the same problems such as pain and resistance. All of the Five Ds apply to organizational change.

Disruption – Again, some event occurs that the organization must decide if they will respond to. Personally, I think that Web 2.0 is a disruption that Extension must respond to. At one time, Extension was one of the go to agencies for information about agriculture; however, with Google, anyone can search for information. I believe Extension must adjust to this significant change and change or expire like so many other important services. The authors discuss characteristics of competitive disruptions and how they affect the organization. An important part of the chapter is actions the organization can take to begin reacting to the disruption through a change. Importantly, an organization must develop a plan, communicate the plan, and have a team leading the plan.

Desire – Just because there is a disruption does not automatically mean individuals want change. Leaders have to help develop this desire by presenting the opportunities as a result of change. The authors stress that the entire workforce must be participants in the change effort. Leaders must be totally on board with instituting change or it will not occur. Again, McFarland and Goldsworthy discuss the science behind building a desire for change; this is worth noting. They focus on five major elements: core motivation, working memory, long-term memory, error detection, and fear response. The authors focus on three recommendations for building the desire for change: create the right environment, develop people, and create organization-wide communications.   “Great communications are essential in any change effort, and they enable change efforts in important ways” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 147). I walked away with lots of useful ideas from this chapter.

Discipline – McFarland and Goldsworthy describe discipline as one of the most difficult tasks to master and the cause of most change failures. Without discipline, organizations like people go back to previous methods for doing business. The authors provide a number of reasons why organizations fail to stay disciplines. One of the primary reasons is poor leadership and a substandard change plan. In this chapter, they provide six actions to creating a great management structure for change. Establishing a change implementation team can help oversee the change plan and ensure that it stays on track. The authors provide details on creating a change implementation plan. The plan must be flexible but also help ensure the change is on schedule. Finally, McFarland and Goldsworthy talk about the qualities of a change leader. This was another chapter that provided useful detail.

Determination – Chapter 9 mirrored chapter 4 in its focus on determination. The authors began by discussing setbacks that will occur during a change initiative. They noted that setbacks “often occur just before the ‘tipping point’ of the change effort” (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 177). The authors outlined the two types of setbacks: typical setbacks and derailers. They also gave suggestions for mitigating each type of setback and keeping the change initiative on course. Most of the advice focused around planning for setbacks in the implementation plan and leading through the issue. The authors also discussed managing determination through various strategies.

Development – I personally thought this was one of the more important chapters because it does not focus on just the change initiative but something that should always be occurring. Members of an organization should be continuously learning and developing better skills. They should be looking for new opportunities. According to McFarland and Goldsworthy, if you want an organization that is agile and receptive to change, leaders should enable learning in people, enable learning in teams, and enable organization-wide learning (McFarland & Goldsworthy, 2014, p. 199). Create an environment where teams and the organization can learn by both consuming and creating content.

I found this book to be quite interesting, especially because I am trying to institute some changes in the organization. As I look at work and my volunteer activities as well as changes I want to implement, I will be referring to this book often. Many of the sections can be turned into checklists that should be referred to when initiating a change initiative. I believe it is a book that Extension educators and administrators will benefit from reading. The science alone helps to understand why we are not always successful helping others change behavior.


McFarland, W. (2014). Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

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