Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, was touring the site during construction and asked three stonemasons what they were doing. “Cutting stone,” said one, “earning a wage,” said another, and the third replied, “I am building a great cathedral.”

Every leader can relate to this: you may have a clear vision in your head, but those working with you also have their own. You want everyone striving to build that cathedral and to have singular clarity of the collective mission.

Over our 20 years of experience, we’ve noticed a commonality between organizations that succeed and thrive in changing environments. We have brought together our learnings and distilled them into eight key principles, which we call The DNA of Change. The first common principle that we’ve found is clarity.


Any successful change, whether it’s in process, strategy, or vision, begins with clarity about the current state of the business, the future state where you’re headed, and the terrain that lies between the two.

Social psychologists have a different term for clarity: “shared mental models.” All of us walk around with models in our heads for how the world works. Clarity is the extent to which those models align. Change, social psychologists argue, occurs when an old mental model is replaced by a new one. In a fantastic summary of research on mental models and change Sally Maitlis and Scott Sonenshein write: “A fundamental aspect of strategic change is the breakdown of shared meanings around an organizational identity and the subsequent establishments of a new, different shared organizational identity.”

We intuitively know that clarity requires a clear vision of the future. However, many organizations forget it is just as important to clarify the current state. A recent McKinsey study showed that 73% of successful change initiatives included a clearly defined current state and assessment of the capabilities required to get to the future. 

So how do you get to clarity? Here are some starting points:

An honest current state 

Assess and align on your starting point and the case for change. Sometimes looking at your own situation can be difficult. But defining your current state demands an honest assessment and agreement on where your organization is. To overcome this, divide into mixed groups, draw out the elements of the current state and present back to each other. This will surface the diversity of mental models that live in your organization. Encourage discussion, practice empathizing with other people in your organization and most importantly be willing to listen to critics.

A clear vision 

Create a clear vision of the future state and what success will look like. Bring it to life visually with tangible examples and ensure everyone can see themselves in the picture. This new mental model must provide a clear bridge away from old mental models, so it’s important for the vision to mirror the simplicity or complexity of the old model so that people can readily supplant one with the other.

Don’t mistake a clear view for a short distance

Diagnose the factors and forces that will impact the journey. There are many organizational culture diagnostics, change readiness assessments, gap analysis tools, etc. Make use of them in getting clear on the distance between where you are and where you want to be.

By getting clear about your current state, future state, and the terrain that lies between the two, you will unify mental models across your organization. Nothing is more powerful for getting your organization headed in the same direction than building the same cathedral.

Stephanie Gioia is the Director of Consulting at XPLANE.


Clarity Worksheet No 1: Change Lever

The Change Lever is a simple way to map any organizational change. The Change Lever works like a real mechanical lever; there is a load that can be lifted if the right amount of force is applied to the lever. The amount of force depends on where the fulcrum is positioned.

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