Intentional Change Theory

Achieving Manageable, Meaningful Change

Intentional Change Theory - Achieving Manageable, Meaningful Change

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Show your true colors with intentional change theory.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. – Benjamin Franklin.

How many times have you tried to change something about yourself, only to find yourself slipping back into old habits?

Change is never easy, whether you're trying to change a behavior, an attitude, or your current circumstances. The process is likely to be more "stop, start, stop, start" than the smooth transition you'd like it to be, as willpower flags and as other priorities vie for your attention.

Change is especially tough if you haven't wholly bought into it – for example, if you're trying to make a change that, deep down, you don't want to make, or if you're making a change that was designed for someone else and that doesn't fully align with your aspirations.

This is why it's helpful to create a personalized change plan. In this article, we'll look at Intentional Change Theory, a framework that you can use to create a change plan that is tailored to you – with your own unique strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, dreams, and support networks.


This article focuses on career-related change. However, you can apply Intentional Change Theory to personal goals, too: for example, you can use it for a diet or fitness plan, for home interests or study, or for changing a habit or belief that's holding you back.

About the Tool

Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, developed Intentional Change Theory (ICT) as part of his work on individual and organizational change. He published it in 2006 in the Journal of Management Development.

The theory outlines five common-sense steps that you need to follow if you want to make a lasting change within yourself. These five steps are:

  1. Discover your ideal self.
  2. Discover your real self.
  3. Create your learning agenda.
  4. Experiment with and practice new habits.
  5. Get support.

From Boyatzis, R.E. (2006) 'An Overview of Intentional Change From a Complexity Perspective,' Journal of Management Development, Vol. 25, No. 7. Reproduced with permission of Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

These steps guide you through the process of mapping out your plans, putting them into practice, and making them part of your life.

Applying Intentional Change Theory

Let's look at each step in detail, and explore how to follow each one through.

1. Discover Your Ideal Self

There is often a gap between who we are and who we ultimately want to be. So, the first step in making an intentional change is to define your ideal self.

Start by forming a clear sense of what you'd like to achieve. Think about your hopes and aspirations, and clarify them into short- and long-term goals.

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Pay attention to what excites you during this process. Discard goals that you don't feel enthusiastic about, and keep exploring until you find ones that you'd truly like to achieve. Remember that they might be drastically different from what you're doing now.

Write down all of your dreams, however far-fetched they seem. At this stage of the process, it's helpful to see all of your hopes and aspirations, even if you later decide that some of them are not immediately achievable.

Next, think about what kind of person you'd like to be. Be specific: would you like to have more empathy? Arrive at work with more energy? Have more patience? Visualize the person that you'd like to become in detail, and write this down.

Tip 1:

One way to motivate yourself during your period of change is to create a Treasure Map of your goals. Alternatively, you may find that a personal mission and vision statement inspires you.

Tip 2:

Our Life Plan Workbook ($) gives you a comprehensive framework for exploring and clarifying your life goals.

2. Discover Your Real Self

Your next step is to define your real self – the person you are right now. This can be a challenging step, because many of us have trouble seeing our strengths and weaknesses clearly. However, it's essential to uncover both the good and the bad: you'll struggle to reach your goal if you are not clear about your starting point.

Start by defining your own strengths and weaknesses. Use tools such as the StrengthsFinder, Personal SWOT Analysis, and Myers-Briggs to uncover more about your real self.

Alternatively, start with a simple list. What do you like most about yourself? What needs to change? Explore your current attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and habits.

Also, ask for feedback from family, friends, colleagues, and your boss, explaining that you'd like their opinion on your strengths and weaknesses, so that you can work on these. Then use the Feedback Matrix to explore this feedback in more detail.

3. Create Your Learning Agenda

Now that you've defined who you are and who you'd like to be, you can create a "learning agenda" to align reality with the vision. Your learning agenda (also known as a personal development plan ) will also help you stay on track.

First, define what you need to do to move from your current self to your ideal self. Who can help you along this path? What resources do you need? Brainstorm the ways that you can access the information or training you need.

Then, identify your learning style. When you know this, you can learn more effectively – both on your own and in a group. For example, if you know that you prefer to learn by reflecting on information, schedule time to do this after a class or at the end of a study session.

Find a mentor or coach who can help you become your ideal self. This person might be a work colleague, friend, business associate, or professional coach.

Tip 1:

It's essential to do a reality check at this stage. There may be some changes that just aren't possible right now. Note these down on a "bigger picture" list of plans. You can work on these when your circumstances or resources change.

Tip 2:

You may be held back by a lack of time, or by conflicting demands. You can deal with this by focusing on a few changes at a time. Also, and where appropriate, embed your learning in your working life to help avoid frustration: our article on finding time for professional development outlines ways that you can fit learning into your schedule.

4. Experiment and Practice New Habits

Once you're heading in the right direction, it's time to practice. This will help you turn the changes you've made into new habits. Whether you're adopting a new skill, starting a micro-business, or changing an attitude or belief, do something – however small – every day that reinforces the changes you've made.

This step is also about experimenting – that is, finding stimulating ways to learn – and then testing your new knowledge, skills, or attitudes.


Quick wins are an important source of motivation and self-confidence. For example, imagine that you're trying to be more patient with others. Find a small way to build your patience with your team every day.

5. Get Support

None of us gets far alone. Friends, family, colleagues, and our community can encourage us and give support that propels us through challenging times.

As you're going through the intentional change process, draw on the support of the people around you. Tell people you trust about what you want to do, and why you want to do it. Share your learning agenda, and ask for their support as you move forward.


Remember, you're not the only person who's trying to change him- or herself positively. Build good work relationships by helping your colleagues with their own development: this way, you can give one another support.

Key Points

Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, created the Intentional Change Theory (ICT) and published it in the Journal of Management Development in 2006.

The model recommends that you use the following five steps to make a lasting change:

  1. Discover your ideal self.
  2. Discover your real self.
  3. Create your learning agenda.
  4. Experiment with and practice new habits.
  5. Get support.

You can use the framework to customize your change process to suit your own life, learning style, and environment. However, change will only happen if you build small changes into your life, practice them to build new habits, and ask for support when you need it.

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Comment (1)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    I recently took a course from Richard Boyatzis and Intentional Change Theory (ICT) was a key element of the course. What I like most about ICT is that the model is based on emotional intelligence and recent neuroscience research. Ours brains are "attracted" by positive emotions, which is why the beginning of the model is focused on identifying our ideal self. We are more likely to commit to a positive and hopeful vision of who we can be than follow a learning plan that someone tells us we ought to do.