Book Summary: Create Change by Attraction

7 Rules book cover

7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results

by Esther Derby

Change is usually difficult and often inevitable. What isn’t inevitable is people’s resistance to change. While it’s human nature to avoid change, resistance is frequently a consequence of how change is introduced and managed rather than the change itself.

7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change offers seven guidelines for “change by attraction.” It’s an approach that draws people into the process so that they embrace rather than resist change. Agile software developer turned organizational change expert Esther Derby offers an adaptive and responsive approach that engages people in learning, evolving, and owning the new way.

There are several things to know to understand the book better:

First, what Derby means by “complex” situations. Complex is one of the five domains or contexts of the Cynefin Framework, a conceptual framework designed at IBM to aid in decision-making.[i]

In complex situations, there’s no definitive “right” answer. There’s rarely a single cause and seldom a straight line between cause and effect. These are situations where “best practices” and off-the-shelf solutions don’t work; entirely new solutions need to be developed or discovered.

Second, Derby says the rules operate more like heuristics than rules. Heuristics are problem-solving guides and learning aids that assist us in determining what to do when the next step is not apparent.

Third, she cautions that the rules are not a step-by-step process but recommends beginning with Strive for Concurrence – Rule #1.

While the book says that this approach is best suited to large organizations, the rules are about people and how we deal with change, which has to do with human nature rather than organization size. Plus, there are plenty of nonprofits, particularly in the social services, that, irrespective of their size, work on wickedly complex social problems.

If your job involves initiating, managing, or helping to guide change, particularly in complex situations or environments where you’ve confronted a lot of resistance, this is a worthwhile read.

About this summary: It reflects my takeaways from a book I found useful and recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy of the book from your favorite bookseller. Available from Amazon: Ebook | Audiobook | Print (*Affiliate links)

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.


Change by Attraction

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed. — Peter Senge

Forced or mandated change results in resistance because people feel like they are losing control or don’t have a personal stake in the change. Change by attraction involves engaging with people, responding to them, and adapting to their needs rather than pushing and persuading them. There’s no need to push, persuade, cajole, or sanction; people naturally move toward something they understand and value. Resistance is eliminated or, at least, diminished.

Change by attraction assumes:

  • There is no single right way.
  • Often, new solutions must be discovered.
  • It’s usually best for groups to reach their own conclusions.
  • Experimentation and learning increase engagement.
  • There are possibilities we can’t foresee from here and now.

Our problems with change stem from mechanistic thinking and our deep desire for certainty and predictability, which influences how we think about and discuss change efforts.

That problem shows up in our metaphors for change. The most common metaphors are driving, installing, or evangelizing change. Driving implies someone is driving and someone/something else is being driven. Installing implies that change is as easy as swapping out parts. Evangelizing implies that people need to “see the light” or understand the truth. These simplistic notions often undermine the effectiveness of the change effort by masking the situation’s complexity and marginalizing those being asked to change.

The exact same change can be viewed as positive by some while negative by others. Change can affect people’s sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, thus influencing their behavior. It can affect how people engage with their work, view their jobs, and even affect their commitment to the organization. And, of course, how they view the change effort.

Change is a social process. Social interaction facilitates the communication and learning crucial to change. And how people respond influences those around them.

How power is used determines how people experience change — positively or negatively. John French and Bertram Raven identified six bases of power: coercive, reward, legitimate or positional, referent, expert, and informational. Referent, expert, and informational expressions of power are likely to foster people’s engagement and support. While positional, reward and coercive power plays have the opposite effect and result, at best, in compliance rather than commitment.

Lessons about complex change:

  • People’s will and skills aren’t always the issue.
  • Though training may be essential, it isn’t always enough.
  • Attempting to standardize non-standard work can make things worse.
  • Long feedback loops result in learning and improvement delays.
  • What we observe may result from many underlying factors.
  • People and their influences, reactions, and emotions are the central characters in any change process. (Although Derby doesn’t point this out as a “lesson,” it’s a thread throughout the book.)

Coercion, rewards, and positional authority lead to compliance, but not engagement.
— Esther Derby

RULE 1 – Strive for Congruence

Congruence is the foundation of integrity and open communication in times of change.

Congruence is fundamental to the process of change by attraction. It’s the basis for open communication, an essential ingredient in the change process. It also affects people’s ability to think clearly and creatively about change.

Congruence is an alignment between a person’s interior and exterior worlds. It involves balancing the needs, capabilities, and concerns of self and others.

  • Self – one’s interior world
  • Others – the immediate exterior world that one interacts with
  • Context – the environment or “expanded exterior” world inside the work setting (roles, relationships, projects, priorities, the organization) and the larger surrounding environment (the market, social culture, regulations, etc.)

Congruence (or lack of) shapes how people communicate. It affects how problems, issues, and emotions are discussed. It determines what crucial information we share and what we withhold.

Congruence allows for creativity and clear thinking. Although how you feel and perceive a situation won’t change the outcome, it will affect how you access the creative part of your brain.

Congruence isn’t a fixed state. Anyone can be thrown off balance. The key is to recognize and re-establish equilibrium.

Everyone has access to congruence. If you model congruence, other people will be more likely to respond congruently. Thus, the behavior of those in leadership roles is critical, as it is mirrored by others.

A sense of congruence doesn’t eliminate fear, anxiety, or anger but keeps you from getting sidetracked by them.

Congruence reinforces congruence in a powerful loop… “Without integrity, we cannot build trust; without trust, we don’t feel safe; without safety, we have a hard time being congruent.”

Congruence is a prerequisite for empathy. Empathy is seeing things from another person’s point of view, what they value, what challenges they face, and what they have to gain. The essence of empathy is respect. It’s a critical skill and tool for addressing emotions during the change process.

Empathy fosters a sense of connection and understanding that enables change. The more genuinely you listen to people’s experiences, the more likely they’ll listen to yours.

[Any] proposed solution that starts with “If we just…” is probably headed down the wrong path.
— Esther Derby

RULE 2 – Honor the Past, Present, and People

Paradoxically, honoring the past helps people let go of it.

Recognizing, keeping, and building on what’s already working well is essential. And honoring people’s concerns and helping them understand the context behind the change effort shows respect for them and their maturity and intelligence.

Honoring the past isn’t about nostalgia or deference to “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Instead, it’s essential human connection and respect for:

  • The challenges people have faced keeping things running
  • Their experience, knowledge, and belief systems
  • The fact they are doing the best they can, given their circumstances
  • That change means disruption for them

Change is an emotional as well as a logical process. While understanding the reasons for a change is essential, it is rarely enough to move the process forward. Change may involve a loss of competence, status, or meaning. This evokes feelings that must be considered. Persuasion, data, and logical arguments can be effective for simple changes that don’t threaten beliefs, status, or identity.

“They’re not resisting; they’re responding.” Much of what’s written about change management treat resistance as an unavoidable given. Derby suggests a better way: be curious. People’s reactions provide information that can improve proposed changes and shape implementation. They are more likely to listen to you if you listen to them, incorporate their advice, and involve them in the process. Labeling people as resistors cuts off a valuable source of information.

People have first-hand knowledge that could be essential to the change process. They know things that you don’t.

Choose words and communication tools carefully. Use the tools of transformation: inquiry, dialogue, conversation, and understanding. Avoid the tools of coercion and convincing: advocacy, debate, argument, and defending.

People want to improve but don’t want to hear that what they are doing is wrong, outdated, or backward, especially from an outsider.

Recognize the negative space. Negative space is the downside that people feel because of the change.

Build on what works. Often what’s working well gets ignored as we focus on the problems instead.

To keep something they value, people will change. When people are holding on tightly to the past, it’s because there is something they value, and they don’t know what might replace it in the future. When a change connects to value, people move toward it without being pushed.

RULE 3 – Assess What Is

People think change starts with a vision, but it really starts from where you are now.

A vision points people in a direction, but it doesn’t tell you about the challenges that must be overcome or the current system’s potential.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” In order to ensure that the change fits the context and improves the actual problem, the first step before making any changes is understanding the current system and what contributes to current outcomes.

Org charts and mechanistic thinking give people a false view of organizations, one that obscures complexity. An organization’s patterns and outcomes result from many entangled factors.

Map the invisible structures. Alongside the formal structure mapped on the org chart, there are informal, less visible structures that influence how work gets done. Containers, Differences, and Exchanges (CDE) is a mapping tool:

  • Containers — Groups and relationships
  • Differences — Distinctions among members and between groups
  • Exchanges — Information flow

Another mapping tool is the “SEEM” model — Steering, Enabling-Enhancing, and Making domains, which maps people’s concerns based on their place in the organization and responsibilities.

  • Steering — responsible for overall direction
  • Enabling-Enhancing — responsible for smooth workflow and functioning
  • Making — responsible for developing products and delivering services

Often the Making domain gets tinkered with first when the root of the problem is upstream in the Steering or Enabling-Enhancing domains.

You need more than one set of tools to understand problems and frame solutions in complex situations. Change in complex systems often requires more than traditional modes of analysis and change models. The more tools in your toolkit, the more likely you’ll have the right tools needed to analyze and influence the situation.

RULE 4 – Attend to Networks

Work and change happen through webs of relationships.

An organization’s informal social networks are conduits for ideas and influence. These networks shape behavior and filter ideas. They also aid in spreading ideas and innovations and in solving problems.

Informal networks are the organization’s central nervous system, while the formal organization forms the skeleton.

Value and work with these existing networks:

  • Information and new ideas can diffuse more rapidly and smoothly than through the formal hierarchy.
  • Make use of the trust and advice networks have to offer.
  • Identify and enlist the influencers – people who others seek advice from.

Don’t unnecessarily disrupt these critical networks. Rebuilding and re-creating relationships can take a year or more.

Informal networks are based on relationships, trust, and expertise. Use of traditional sources of organizational power – positional, reward, or coercive – is likely to be ignored or rejected, or result in compliance rather than commitment.

Create new networks to support the desired change. Participants who choose to be an active part of the process are more likely to react to roadblocks by resolving them rather than being cynical, apathetic, or resistant.

RULE 5 – Experiment

Small changes limit disruption and allow people to learn.

Big changes cause significant disruptions and raise considerable concerns. Small changes limit disruption and facilitate learning. Small, experimental changes make it easier for people to get their arms around the change, engage with it, shape it, own it, and learn from it. The effects of small changes can accumulate.

Treating changes as experiments empowers people to think and learn independently — they become change agents.

Make your experiments “FINE”: give fast feedback, be inexpensive, require no permission, and are easy to implement and manage.

Focus on influencing factors. Big problems are often better addressed by focusing on the underlying factors enabling or contributing to the situation.  

Find something you can act on now, without permission or a budget. Don’t sweat the failures — they won’t have a significant impact since they are small and contained.

Use “landing zones” to break down big hopes into advances that feel possible. Landing zones involve finding “near neighbor states” within a more significant change effort that provides people with a recognizable destination, and getting there feels doable to them.

Questions to help design experiments.

  1. What can we observe about the current situation?
  2. What may have contributed to things the way they are?
  3. Are there factors we can control or influence?
  4. How can we tell if the experiment is on or off track?
  5. If things get worse, what will we do?

Experiments don’t require capital “M” measurement. Instead, look for signs that the experiment has an effect, even a very subtle one.

Add double-loop learning. Single-loop learning asks, can we do what we are doing better? Double-loop learning asks, are we doing the right thing? Answering the latter involves scrutinizing thinking and assumptions.

RULE 6 — Guide and Allow for Variation

Empower reasonable deviation and new possibilities.

When the work is standardized and routine, best practices can be applied to ensure consistency and quality. But creative and knowledge work is rarely standardized or routine. Each product and project brings its challenges. Causes and solutions to problems often can’t be seen upfront. Change approaches must be varied to meet the unique challenges of the situation.

Standardization may or may not be appropriate. Standardization can be applied when there’s a known best way and little variation in the work. However, more nuanced approaches are needed in knowledge work and complex situations.

And who better to know those nuances than the people in that system. Thus, giving local groups the authority to decide how best to respond would be a better strategy. Give teams the freedom to develop solutions, but set limits for acceptable adjustments.

Use boundary stories in place of mandates. Mandates often result in “checkbox” behavior – people comply with the mandates without really understanding their value. Boundary stories provide examples of good outcomes (as well as bad) without over-specifying the means to achieve a good outcome. They clarify the need to be met, set boundaries, and give people the freedom to operate within those bounds.

Lasting change involves altering the narrative — how people think as individuals and as an organization. It involves changing the metaphors people use to make sense of the world around them and their narratives to define the future and explain the past.

Make peace with messiness. Complex change is unpredictable and messy. Accept the mess and move on. Keep trying things, observing, and adjusting, but move forward until the path becomes clear.

RULE 7 – Use Your Self

You are your most important tool for change.

Change is a social process, and relationships play a vital role. Connecting with others is crucial for good communication and information flow. Creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and curiosity are essential skills for tackling the problems that inevitably arise during a complex change. But what matters most is how you deploy those skills and “show up.”

Use of self, a term from organizational psychology and social work, refers to combining professional knowledge, values, and skills with aspects of ourselves, such as personality traits, belief systems, life experiences, and cultural heritage. It’s about bringing your “whole” self to bear in the situation.

“The mind can only see what it is prepared to see” is an excellent reason to expand your sense-making repertoire to include many models. Having just a few models limits our ability to see what is, imagine the possibilities, and envision the way forward.

Skillful use of questions is one of the best observation tools.

Avoid “why” questions unless they’re part of a “Five Whys” exercise or another structured process; why questions can make people feel defensive. They may feel unsure or on the spot to provide a justification or an answer even when there is none.

When observing systems, we tend to see parts without the whole and the present without the past. These phenomena have been referred to as spatial blindness and temporal blindness.

In your observations, assume no ill intent. Instead, ask yourself, what about this situation makes it seem that people are _____ (unmotivated, foolish, malicious)?

Testing observations helps prevent habitual thinking. And testing against multiple models reduces confirmation bias.

Pause and reflect between observation and interpretation. They are two different mental processes, but both are subject to influences.

Be a generous interpreter of motivations and results. Generous assumptions open different options for action.

Book details and where to buy it:

Buy the book on Amazon: Ebook | Audiobook | Print*
Amazon rating: 4.8 of 5 stars
GoodReads rating: 4.3 of 5 stars
Page count: 192 pages
Publication date: Aug. 26, 2019
Author website:
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[i] For more on Cynefin (Welsh for “habitat” and pronounced “kuh-NEV-in”), see