Wheel of change

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Project management is not just about having the competencies to manage processes, it is also about having the competencies to manage the people who are being part of a project. To succeed with a project, managing people and human behavior in projects, whether it is a team or an organization, is seen as important as planning the process. [1]

According to Marshall Goldsmith, coach, and member of the 50 Thinkers Hall of Fame, an essential part of the work of how to manage people to ensure that they deliver the best results, is to provide them with feedback. Goldsmith refers to a kind of feedback as he calls feedforward. Feedforward is feedback focused on what changes can be beneficial to make one's future behavior even better, instead of focusing and dwelling on what has happened in the past. [2]

To help with this, Marshall Goldsmith has created a tool with the purpose to help improve one's future behavior, referred to as the Wheel of Change. It is a two-dimensional wheel consisting of pre-dominant axes: change or keep and positive or negative. The other dimension divides the wheel into even four additional quadrants: creating, eliminating, accepting, preserving. These quadrants help identify and plan future behavior changes to reach the desired state.

This article gives a brief insight into human behavior, as it plays an essential part in managing teams, just as it does when manging and planning processes. Further, the article will provide an overview of the general characteristics of the Wheel of Change and how managers can use it in project, program, and portfolio management, that mostly include teamwork and collaborations between stakeholders from different professions. Finally, the article will include a reflection on the use of The Wheel of Change as a tool for managing people and their behavior in projects by reflecting on the use compared to other existing tools, used in the same field.


Human Behavior

To outline why The Wheel of Change is used to manage people in projects, it is first essential to specify the impact of behavior. Behavior, or more specifically human behavior, is defined as a person’s actions and reactions in response to external and internal stimuli. In other words, one can say, that human behavior is being developed through experiences. Moreover, it is the unobservable and ingrained ways of responding to different actions and other behaviors, in a complex way that has been slowly defined throughout decades. Robert M. Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, California, describes the arising of human behavior in his book, Behave, as followed:

“A behavior has occurred – one that is reprehensible, or wonderful, or floating ambiguously in between. What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behavior? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? This is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously. What occurred in the prior hours to days to change the sensitivity of the nervous system to such stimuli? Acute actions of hormones. And so on, all the way back to the evolutionary pressures played out over the prior millions of years that started the ball rolling”.[3]

By this, it is made clear that the explanation of human behavior is complex and the reason for the way humans behave is not relying only on one simple thing. It should be understood as behavior is an outcome of culture, which marks the ingraining aspect of how ways of acting arise, e.g., how we communicate, how we schedule our day, how we eat, and simply just how we react to things.

Furthermore, behavior often apprehends other ‘selves’, why the way of responding to external stimuli turns into interactions between individuals, e.g., when communicating. The phenomenon is defined as social behavior and has for a long decade been highly perceived as beneficial for the greater. [4] [5] Hence behavior is highly ingrained ways of doing things, and habits we perform without really thinking and reflecting, these will unfortunately not always be desirable and for the best – both for individuals and in social contexts. It happens that an action contradicts the way a person might perceive the right response and the reaction becomes undesirable. [6] According to Marshall Goldsmith, such behaviors can be difficult to handle and to change. Goldsmith argues, why it is crucial to learn how to do so, with supporting methods to help reflect on the different aspects of one’s individual and social behavior.

The following part specifies the two dimensions and the quadrants of which the Wheel of Change is composed.

The Wheel of Change

Figure 1: Illustration of the Wheel of Change (own figure, based on)[7]

Marshall Goldsmith is an American executive educator. For four decades he has been coaching people in understanding how environmental triggers can lead to undesirable behavior, and how to perceive positive, long-lasting changes in behavior. A collection of tools to do so was published in 2015 in his book Triggers; Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be, whereas one of the tools for changing behavior is the Wheel of Change.

Goldsmith’s Wheel of Change is more specific a planning tool for planning how one’s behavior should be changed in the future, with the overall goal to become a better and more beneficial version of either yourself or a group of people. As he has stated, looking forward and reflecting on the future is a great advantage for a manager. And so does the Wheel of Change.

The Wheel of change was originally designed for individuals, but as cross-functional teams are becoming more and more used, the Wheel of Change has as well become a highly important tool to address behavioral changes for the wanted future, on a collaborative level.

When using the planning tool to address the changes needed, one should understand the two coherent levels; the two dimensions, first with the pre-dominant axes: change or keep and positive or negative. And furthermore, the other dimension that consists of four options; create, preserve, accept, and eliminate - also referred to as quadrants, each describing what to do with a specific behavior; what you are going to create, what you are going to keep, what you should just accept, and what you should focus on to eliminate.[7]

The following section is describing the separate levels and dimensions of the Wheel of Change.

The pre-dominant axis

The negative or positive axis defines the elements that can either be beneficial or hold us back. It can be seen as desirable and undesirable elements of behavior, that must be considered when planning how to behave in the future. The change or keep options clarify the elements of our behavior that we determine to either change or keep in the future. This axis is more ‘active’ and strives for action, compared to the negative or positive axis. These two axes of the Wheel of Change give four options composing the aforementioned quadrants. The quadrants make it possible to either change or keep the positive elements and to change or keep the negative elements. How exactly this should be done, to achieve the desired status-quo can be reflected on by coding the different behaviors in the four following options of actions:


Considering the Wheel of Change as a visual tool, Creating is the positive-change option. When focusing on this option of changes, the user(s) of the tool get the time to consider any new improving elements of behaviors to add when planning the future way of behaving. Which new behaviors should be implemented or created? What can be added to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and become a better version of the one that is present?


The opposite is the positive-keep or so-called Preserving. It gives the option of considering what elements of existing behavior should be maintained. It focuses on keeping the positive elements of behavior, instead of creating new ones. Even though the wheel is a tool for changing behavior, it is crucial to maintain the current elements that are highly useful and efficient for a positive outcome and success.


Eliminating is the third option. It is the negative-change and helps point out the elements that should be eliminated, reduced, or removed. As changing behavior can be incredibly difficult in some situations, this quadrant is crucial to reflect on, especially when it comes to the stage where one should execute the plan in practice. Generally, this option is made to eliminate the inefficient elements of behavior; what should be removed and what could be done less to give place for other more desirable elements of behavior.


As opposed to eliminating, the fourth option of planning what kind of behavior is needed, the wheel consists of the negative-keep: It is the elements of behavior that simply needs to be accepted. As for the elimination of elements, accepting can be extremely hard when performed, as it is the elements and ways of behaving one just needs to make peace with and continue on doing. As an individual or team, some elements must simply just be accepted to achieve one’s overall purpose.

Applying the Wheel of Change

The original idea of the Wheel of Change was to offer a self-reflecting tool for individuals to make them turn into better versions of themselves. Nowadays the tool is as well used in the management of project teams. It is transforming the complexity of conflicting behavior, into simple categories of behavior, that can easily be assessed and evaluated by the one’s affected by them.

Project management and the purpose of the Wheel of Change

Traditionally, the elements of Project Management was centered around tasks like defining a scope, making a schedule, ensuring a budget, doing a procurement, and handling potential risks. But people and their social behavior has taken their arrival in the area and is as well essential in Project Management to achieve desired goals and deliverables. Human behavior has become one of the key factors to manage when it comes to successful Project Management. [8] Since behavior is ingrained ways of acting and reacting, created over decades and formed by ones specific culture, conflicts may occur at any time when social behavior between stakeholders from different professions, habits and cultural backgrounds takes place. Hence, conflicts will occur when working on projects, programs, and portfolios, when stakeholders are forced to collaborate to achieve a certain goal. [9] Given a project with a composition of different stakeholders, managers must possess the competencies to overcome such potential conflicts, if a project shall succeed. [1]

To cope with such conflicts, project managers must implement management techniques to help them process and manage the behavioral aspects. If not implemented, behavioral conflicts within a project can result in a lack of motivation among the project team, delayed project deadlines, and decreased productivity - and in the end a failed project.

That is simply why The Wheel of Change is a proper tool to implement in processes, to counter these challenges before it escalates. It gives the opportunity to manage the challenges in a positive and constructive way, by ‘’feedforwarding’’ – giving people ideas and time to envision how they can become even more successful, by changing some parts of their behavior, instead of focusing on the failed past. Planning how the project team should behave in the future and not by focusing on the negative things in the past.[2]

When and how to apply the planning tool

Given a project is composed of stakeholders from different cultures and professions, and conflicts suddenly arise, the project manager must be quick to act to resolve these undesirable behaviors and internal conflicts. This is the step, where the project manager can advantageously apply the Wheel of Change to increase the success rate and ensure a well-functioned team able to achieve the goals within the set boundaries, for the rest of the process.

Considering the project process, it will be beneficial for the project manager to include the wheel at certain points, to make the most out of it. The most intuitive way is to apply it after finalizing a milestone, a sprint, or a delivery, to reflect on what to change to make the process ahead of the next milestone or delivery even better and more successful for the project team. The Project Manager should ensure that every project member participates in an evaluation of the specific part of the performed process. Under the facilitating of the meeting, it is an advantage to visualize the wheel, so that every team member follows the reflections and discussions.

To get started, the Project Manager should have each participating team member add at least one post-it note which defines an element of behavior that the specific member finds relevant, in each of the quadrants. Following the wheel, the Project Manager should have the team reflect on the specific elements that have so far been beneficial and helped the team during the process. These are to be clustered in the positive-keep area. This could for instance be elements like small breaks during the day, or a decision of working in sub-teams, to make the work more efficient. The same goes for the other quadrants, where the team members should reflect on what current elements they should eliminate, accept, or even create to become even better in the coming process. It is such reflections that need to be executed and facilitated by the project manager to create a successful process.

The Project Manager could easily allocate some time before the team starts adding, to let the team members reflect on existing behaviors, and envisage which future beneficial behaviors should be evaluated. The next step is the evaluation, where each team member gets specific about the added notes; is the note placed in the right quadrant? Should a specific action be accepted instead of eliminated, even it is a negative action? How should the added behaviors be changed or created? And how should the project team ensure that certain changes will be achieved? [10]

An advantage of using the Wheel of Change, the risk of team members getting directly accused of being the root of any undesirable behavior is eliminated. Instead, the team members are forced to reflect on how the added actions and behaviors can contribute, whether it is positive or negative, instead of the member who performed the action or behavior.


Goldsmith’s creation of the Wheel of Change is a great and efficient way to reflect, plan and change behavior to turn people into better versions of themselves, and to increase the rate of success. Further, it is an easy tool to apply with a broad range of people, due to its well-structured construction of axes and quadrants, as well as its simple application. Also, the fact that the tool is easy to adjust to specific settings and conditions - whether it is for individual self-reflection or for managing groups in projects, programs, or portfolios, reinforces its level of power as a helping tool.

However, when applying it to manage projects, programs, and portfolios other similar tools and approaches may as well be necessary to consider, to support the attempt of creating a well-functioned and collaborative project team, by decent behavior and actions. Even though the Wheel of Change is a highly useful tool for planning how one’s behavior should be changed in the future it is crucial for any Project Manager running projects to be aware that it contains some limitations, where other tools and methods used in the same field, can support or even substitute the wheel for a better result.

One shortcoming of the Wheel of Change is, that the tool is first applied during the process. If comparing the wheel with other standard tools used in project management, one like team agreement, is relevant to consider. As opposed to Goldsmith’s wheel team agreement is a tool where behavior and ways of acting are dealt with at the very beginning of a project, by collectively agreeing on a set of behavioral parameters and norms to adhere to. [11] By doing so, one can argue that possible conflicts are countered from the very beginning of a project kick-off. Another important aspect related to the Wheel of Change is Goldsmith’s statement that changes can be difficult to execute. Even though the wheel helps to clearly address how to plan changes, the plan can easily fail, if the Project Managers is not able to follow up and ensure that real changes are done among the project team. This can lead to continuing undesirable behaviors and team atmosphere.

Annotated bibliography

  • Goldsmith, M., & Reiter, M. (2015): Triggers: Creating behavior that lasts-- becoming the person you want to be.

In the book Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith explains how different triggers affect us as human beings, and stand as the reason of how we behave and react. Further, Goldsmith discusses how to control and change our reactions to these triggers. Change is difficult. In the book, Goldsmith gives different examples on how undesirable actions can be controlled through different tools.

  • Goldsmith, M. (2015): Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback:

This article reflects on the use of feedback, and how positive feedback can be provided by Project Managers and leaders through what Marshall Goldsmith defines as feed-forwarding. In the article Goldsmith highlights the problems within traditional feedback, where the focus is on the past and what has already occurred. Instead the article goes deeper in how to break with the traditional way of providing feedback and highlights the advantages of evaluating how an employee or a team should act or progress in the future. https://cphrbc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MGoldsmith-article-1.pdf


  1. 1.0 1.1 https://www.apm.org.uk/blog/people-and-behaviours-in-project-management/
  2. 2.0 2.1 Goldsmith, M. (2015): Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback: An article About feedback and how to use it in the best way https://cphrbc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MGoldsmith-article-1.pdf
  3. M. Sapolsky, Robert, (2017): Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Ch. 1, page 14.
  4. https://www.encyclopedia.com/earth-and-environment/ecology-and-environmentalism/environmental-studies/social-behaviour
  5. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13504620802148881?needAccess=true
  6. https://positivepsychology.com/behavior-change/
  7. 7.0 7.1 https://methodsof.com/using-wheel-of-change/
  8. https://www.projecttimes.com/articles/does-people-behavior-impact-projects-how-and-what-do-we-do-about-it/
  9. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/project-environment-eleven-project-conflicts-7348%20/
  10. https://agileforall.com/the-wheel-of-change-retrospective/
  11. Project Management Institute, Inc.(PMI),(2017): A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) – 7th Edition and The Standard for Project Management, p. 29
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