All Articles Leadership Inspiration Chris McGoff, on using visual tools to help organizations successfully implement change

Chris McGoff, on using visual tools to help organizations successfully implement change

5 min read


Chris McGoff is author of  “The Primes — How Any Group Can Solve Any Problem.” He is the founder of The Clearing, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm and tweets at @thePrimesbook. Miri McDonald, a strategic communications consultant, recently spoke with Chris about the principles behind his book. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

What inspired you to write this book?

Over the past 30 years, I have helped leaders recast their organizations based on the significant external influences they were facing. I worked on some of these transformations with a colleague of mine, Michael Doyle. Part of our work with clients involved using visual tools to help organizations successfully implement change. Together, Michael and I realized we were both using a finite number of these visuals, or distinctions, over and over again with our clients. I wanted to create a scrapbook of them for our children so they could benefit from our years of discovery. So we worked our sharpies and drew our favorite napkin sketches: The ones we used over and over again.

Unfortunately, Michael died unexpectedly in the middle of our project. It was then that I realized it was up to me to complete it. And that it was much bigger than a scrapbook for our kids.

How would you define the Primes?

The Primes are essential insights into human relations that show up when people get together to change or transform the way their world — or the world — works. We did not invent them. This is not a methodology or training program we made up. Our contribution was to notice these dynamics, make them visible and, most importantly, to name them. As Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name[s].”

What were your criteria for including one of the napkin sketches as a Prime?

The distinctions had to pass three tests:

  1. We had to find evidence of them in antiquity, either in Greek writings or some other historical texts.
  2. We had to see them regularly in our current work with leaders who are taking their organizations through big changes.
  3. One thousand years from now, these phenomena would still be in control of what we could and couldn’t do. These would remain constant.

In summary, the Primes have to be enduring in the past, present and future.

How do you envision a leader using the book within his or her organization?

When the leader walks into a bookstore and opens up to one of the Primes, I want them to say, “Oh yeah, that explains it!” Dr. Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, called Primes the 32 blinding shocks of the obvious. Many executives have been haunted by these phenomena over the years. Left unaddressed, they have the power to take over their organizations. What we did was increase the fidelity of what leaders are already noticing and gave them a tool to shift how they handle these phenomena.

Walk me through how a leader might use a specific Prime.

Let’s look at how a leader could use the Core Prime. This Prime distinguishes five essential agreements people must make and maintain to achieve extraordinary results. The five Core agreements are:

  1. As Is — People must agree on the current situation as it really is.
  2. Environment — People must agree on what’s happening around them, which they’re unable to affect, but which will affect them.
  3. STAKE  — People must agree on what’s at stake if they stay where they are and don’t change.
  4. To Be — People must agree on a cogent vision of the future they desire.
  5. Strategy — Finally, people must agree on how to break out of the As Is and chart an irreversible course toward the To Be.

In less than three minutes, that leader should be able to say to himself, “People have not been committed, and I wasn’t sure why. Now I see that I haven’t made the ‘What’s at stake’ conversation. I have to fortify my narrative.” They will also see how important it is to do so because the Core Prime says that if you omit one of the five conversations, you don’t have four out of five — you have zero.

To be successful, do leaders have to master all 32 Primes?

Definitely not. They aren’t necessarily going to present themselves at the same time or in any particular order. A leader can take a couple that are relevant to their situation and act powerfully using just those two. The other 30 will patiently be waiting for the moment when they show up somewhere in the organization. The difference is that now the leader will see it immediately for what it is and can reshape the dynamics of the meeting. The Primes are once seen and instantly mastered.