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The 4 Columns Exercise

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Bridging Commitment & Action

Imagine a canvas, meticulously segmented into four distinctive parts, each revealing profound insights about your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and aspirations. This canvas is none other than the 4 Columns Exercise, a transformative tool born from the brilliant minds of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. This duo, known for their pioneering work in adult development and transformational learning, designed this exercise to help individuals demystify their reactions and unearth the deeply held beliefs driving them.

The Four Columns Exercise is a structured activity aimed at unveiling the underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs that drive behaviors within an organization. By bringing to light these often unseen yet influential forces, the exercise paves the way for meaningful dialogue, reflection, and potentially, transformative change. The Four Columns Exercise unfolds within a well-structured yet insightful framework:

  1. Column 1 (Identifying a Commitment): In this first step, individuals or groups articulate a commitment by completing the statement, "I am committed to the value or importance of..."

  2. Column 2 (Actions and Inactions): This column addresses the query, "What are you doing or not doing that prevent your commitment from being fully realized?" illuminating behaviors or lack thereof that are barriers to fulfilling the commitment.

  3. Column 3 (Competing Commitments): By posing the question, "What do you worry will happen if you stop doing the things you are doing in column 2, and start doing the things you are not doing in column 2?" this column helps unearth competing commitments that are at odds with the primary commitment.

  4. Column 4 (Big Assumption): Here, individuals or groups share their Big Assumption by responding to, "What is my biggest worry if all of the worries in Column 3 come true?" revealing the underlying fears or beliefs that may be hindering progress.

Upon completing the fourth column, you or your team have now formed a comprehensive "Immunity Map." It's an opportune moment to channel these new insights to your advantage, rather than allowing unexamined thoughts to work against you.

We often live our lives under the umbrella of big assumptions, many of which operate under the radar of our awareness. This exercise brings them into the light, revealing them as self-made shields crafted to maintain the status quo. These assumptions, reinforced over time, have nestled into our belief systems, often driving our actions and decisions. Taking steps toward sustainable transformation involves taking small, manageable steps. As a facilitator your goal is to direct focus towards a single big assumption and ask your client to propose a test, no matter how minor, to challenge it. Encourage a venture into the "what if?" scenario.

Step-by-step exploration of these columns allows individuals and groups to delve deeper into understanding the dynamics at play, facilitating more authentic interactions and adaptive responses. The genius of Kegan and Lahey's creation lies in its simplicity yet profound depth. It's like peeling back the layers of an onion, with each column taking you deeper into the core of your being, helping you understand your reactions and, more importantly, the beliefs and assumptions driving those reactions. By the time you reach the fourth column, you're not just understanding yourself better; you're envisioning a path of transformation and growth.

As you navigate through this guide, the transformative potential of the Four Columns Exercise will unveil itself, showcasing its applicability across various organizational scenarios, and its lasting impact on fostering a culture of reflection, learning, and growth. Are you ready to embark on this enlightening journey, crafted by the masterminds Kegan and Lahey? Let's delve deep into the world of the 4 Columns Exercise!

Uses & Benefits

The Four Columns Exercise is a versatile tool that can be employed in various organizational situations:

  1. Conflict Resolution: When interpersonal or team conflicts arise, this exercise helps in dissecting the underlying beliefs and assumptions fueling the conflict.

  2. Team Building: Enhancing understanding and communication within teams by exploring common behaviors and the underlying beliefs.

  3. Leadership Development: Assisting leaders in gaining insight into their actions, the beliefs driving them, and exploring alternative, more effective behaviors.

  4. Change Management: Supporting individuals and teams in understanding their reactions to change and exploring new, adaptive behaviors.

  5. Organizational Culture Assessment: Uncovering prevailing beliefs and values that shape the organizational culture, and exploring desired shifts.

The Four Columns Exercise unveils a treasure trove of benefits:

  • Increased Self-awareness: Encourages reflection on one’s behaviors and the underlying beliefs driving them.

  • Enhanced Communication: Promotes a culture of open, honest, and insightful communication.

  • Conflict Resolution: Provides a structured approach to exploring and resolving conflicts.

  • Adaptive Change: Fosters adaptive change by challenging old assumptions and encouraging new perspectives.

  • Team Cohesion: Builds stronger, more cohesive teams through mutual understanding and shared learning.


Case 1: Boosting Engagement in a Healthcare Setting

In a healthcare facility battling with low employee engagement, the ripple effects were seen on patient care and satisfaction. Looking to move beyond this stalemate, management adopted the Immunity to Change model, traditionally a personal transformation tool, to address this collective challenge.

  1. Identify a Goal: The common aim was to bolster employee engagement, thereby enhancing patient care and satisfaction.

  2. Behaviors Hindering the Goal:

    • Inadequate communication between staff and management.

    • No established pathways for feedback and suggestions.

    • Missing recognition for outstanding work.

  3. Competing Commitments:

    • Management’s worry of losing control by interacting more with staff.

    • Staff’s fear of backlash if they voiced concerns.

  4. Big Assumptions:

    • Engaging more with staff means management losing control.

    • Speaking up would lead to negative consequences for staff.

  5. Transformation Steps:

    • Set up clear communication channels.

    • Introduced a feedback and suggestion system.

    • Launched a recognition and reward scheme for good performance.

  6. Impact: The collective endeavor bore fruit as employee engagement soared, paving the way for improved patient care and satisfaction. This case unfolds the potential of applying personal transformation tools like the Four Columns Exercise to address organizational challenges.

Case 2: Streamlining Product Development in a Tech Firm

A tech firm found its product development cycle in a time crunch, impacting its market edge. The leadership, in a novel approach, utilized the Immunity to Change model, usually directed at individual transformation, to address this shared concern.

  1. Identify a Goal: The unified goal was to smoothen the product development processes, accelerating the journey to market.

  2. Behaviors Hindering the Goal:

    • Overly intricate approval processes.

    • Poor coordination among different departments.

    • Reluctance towards adopting agile methodologies.

  3. Competing Commitments:

    • Fear of losing control through simplified approval processes.

    • Departmental silos valuing individual goals over collective aims.

  4. Big Assumptions:

    • Simplicity in approval processes equals loss of control.

    • Departmental objectives outweigh organizational goals.

  5. Transformation Steps:

    • Simplified the approval process.

    • Encouraged better coordination among departments.

    • Embraced agile methodologies for quicker product development.

  6. Impact: The collaborative effort led to a more fluid product development process, trimming down the time to market and restoring the company’s competitive edge. This case underscores the versatility of the Four Columns Exercise in navigating shared organizational hurdles.

Case 3: Improving Service Delivery in a Non-Profit

Facing challenges in delivering services efficiently to beneficiaries, the management of a non-profit employed the Immunity to Change model, traditionally an individual change tool, to tackle this communal hurdle.

  1. Identify a Goal: The communal goal was to amplify service delivery, augmenting the impact on beneficiaries.

  2. Behaviors Hindering the Goal:

    • Unclear service delivery processes.

    • Insufficient training of field staff.

    • Resistance to adopting technological tools for monitoring and evaluation.

  3. Competing Commitments:

    • Fear of losing personal touch by utilizing technology.

    • Hesitation to invest in training due to budgetary constraints.

  4. Big Assumptions:

    • Technology adoption equals loss of personal interaction.

    • Staff training isn’t a priority due to budget issues.

  5. Transformation Steps:

    • Established clear service delivery protocols.

    • Invested in training for field staff.

    • Adopted technology for improved monitoring and evaluation.

  6. Impact: The communal actions spurred an upswing in service delivery, magnifying the positive impact on beneficiaries and hoisting the organization’s efficiency. This case showcases the expansive application of the Four Columns Exercise in addressing broader organizational issues.


OD Application

Dive into the world of Organization Development, and you'll soon encounter the Four Columns Exercise. It's a tool, simple in structure, yet profound in its impact. It's the kind of exercise that pries open the organizational narrative, laying bare its core beliefs, behaviors, and experiences.

Social Impact
  1. Revelation of Organizational Ethos The Four Columns Exercise is like a mirror. It reflects the current ethos of the organization. In this reflection, individuals and teams find a clearer image of where they stand amidst the organizational milieu. This clarity often brews a sense of belonging, a cornerstone for organizational well-being.

  2. Fostering a Culture of Open Dialogue At the heart of any thriving organization is the spirit of open dialogue. The Four Columns Exercise nurtures this spirit. It beckons a candid exchange of perspectives, paving the path for a stronger, more cohesive organizational fabric.

  3. Inclusivity and Ethical Compass When the light of the Four Columns Exercise shines on organizational practices, shadows of disparity often dissipate. It reveals the alignment, or lack thereof, with ethical and inclusive principles. This revelation is the first step towards nurturing a diverse and equitable work environment.

Technical Impact
  1. Strategic Realignment: A Compass in Disarray As organizations navigate through the turbulent waters of the business realm, the compass of strategic alignment is indispensable. The Four Columns Exercise serves as a tool to calibrate this compass, ensuring the organizational vessel is steered towards its destined shores of prosperity.

  2. Performance: The Heartbeat of Prosperity The rhythm of organizational performance often resonates with the behaviors entrenched within its realm. The Four Columns Exercise is a catalyst that can synchronize this rhythm with the melody of efficiency and productivity.

  3. Innovation: The Harbinger of Resilience In the ever-evolving business landscape, the wings of innovation are vital. They empower organizations to soar above the storm of competition and change. The Four Columns Exercise is a wind beneath these wings, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and adaptation.

Is it the Right OD Approach?

In the realm of organizational development, selecting the right intervention is paramount. The Four Columns Exercise can be a suitable choice under certain circumstances.

  • Ambiguity: Organizations often face ambiguity around goals, roles, and processes. This exercise can provide much-needed clarity, aiding in defining and aligning organizational elements.

  • Discontent: Discontent within an organization can hinder progress. The Four Columns Exercise may help in identifying and addressing the root causes of such discontent.

  • Alignment Requirement: When there's a need to align individual or team goals with the organizational strategy, this exercise can be beneficial.


How to Introduce

The customization of the Four Columns Exercise is crucial to ensure it aligns well with the specific organizational culture and challenges.

  1. Understanding the Organization: A deep understanding of the organization’s culture, challenges, and goals is crucial. This knowledge will aid in adapting the Four Columns Exercise to meet the specific needs of the organization.

  2. Engagement across Levels: Engaging with various teams and departments is important to ensure the exercise is relevant and resonates with all stakeholders.

  3. Facilitating Effective Dialogue: The dialogues initiated through this exercise are essential. They should be facilitated in a way that encourages open communication, reflection, and learning.

Facilitator Script "Today, we are embarking on a crucial exercise known as the Four Columns Exercise. This is a reflective and interactive exercise designed to help us understand and map out our current organizational practices, and envision a structured plan for our desired future.

The essence of this exercise lies in its simplicity and the powerful conversations it triggers among us. It will require us to be open, honest, and collaborative.

The Four Columns Exercise comprises four stages:

  1. Current Practice: We start by listing our current organizational practices. This is the space to be honest about what we do, how we do it, and perhaps why we do it.

  2. Concerns: We then delve into our concerns related to these current practices. What's not working? What are the bottlenecks? What's causing disengagement or inefficiency?

  3. Desired Outcomes: Having laid out our concerns, we then shift to articulating our desired outcomes. What do we want instead? What does our ideal scenario look like?

  4. First Steps: Lastly, we outline the first steps towards achieving these desired outcomes. This is about moving from discussion to action, from where we are to where we want to be.

I will be facilitating this process, ensuring that our discussions remain focused, and that every voice is heard. We’ll work together in smaller groups, and later share our insights with everyone. This exercise is a chance for us to collectively shape the future of our organization. While engaging in this exercise, I encourage each one of you to:

  • Be open and honest with your reflections and ideas.

  • Respect the diversity of experiences and perspectives among us.

  • Engage actively, listen attentively, and be willing to explore new possibilities.

Remember, the richness of this exercise comes from our collective insights and discussions. Together, we have the opportunity to create a shared vision and a roadmap to a more effective and cohesive organization.

Now, let’s divide into our small groups and begin with the first column - listing our current practices. I’ll be moving among the groups to assist and ensure that we are on track. If you have any questions or need clarification at any point, feel free to reach out.

Thank you for your participation and engagement in advance. Let's make the most out of this exercise!"

Helpful Questions

As you facilitate this activity you may find the following quesitons to be helpful:

  1. Can you describe the event in detail? How did it unfold?

  2. What emotions surged within you during this event?

  3. Are there patterns you observe in your reactions across different events?

  4. Which past experiences might be influencing these deeply held beliefs?

  5. How do these beliefs align or clash with your broader life values?

  6. How do you aspire to react in future similar situations?

  7. What steps or strategies might propel you towards your desired response?

  8. How have these beliefs shaped your life so far?

  9. What external perspectives or feedback can provide more clarity on your reactions?

  10. How do these insights align with your vision for personal growth?

Anticipating Challenges

When facilitating the Four Columns Exercise, a variety of challenges and resistance may surface. One common challenge is skepticism and resistance to change, which may emerge from individuals or groups within the organization. They might view the exercise as an unnecessary endeavor or a threat to established routines and power structures. Transparent communication about the objectives, benefits, and the process of the exercise can help alleviate fears and resistance. Including skeptics in the planning and execution of the exercise can foster ownership and alleviate concerns. It's also important to actively listen to and address the concerns of those resistant to the exercise, providing a safe space for voicing concerns.

Another hurdle could be a lack of clarity or understanding regarding the exercise, its objectives, or its process, which can hinder active participation. Providing clear, succinct instructions and ensuring that the objectives of the exercise are well-understood can be beneficial. Utilizing visual aids and examples, as well as holding Q&A sessions, can also enhance understanding and clarify doubts.

In some instances, certain individuals or groups may dominate the exercise, overshadowing the contributions of others. Neutral facilitation, encouraging participation from all individuals and acknowledging diverse opinions, can be a remedy. Utilizing smaller breakout groups ensures everyone has an opportunity to contribute. Offering avenues for anonymous contributions ensures that all voices can be heard, regardless of organizational hierarchy.

Time constraints are another challenge that can limit the depth of discussions and reflections during the exercise. Maintaining a well-structured agenda and ensuring that discussions are focused and on track can be beneficial. Prioritizing key issues and concerns ensures that the most critical topics are addressed within the available time frame.

Lastly, insufficient follow-up can lead to a loss of momentum and can undermine the sustainable impact of the exercise. Developing clear action plans during the exercise and allocating responsibilities for follow-up can be beneficial. Scheduling regular review meetings to assess progress and address any emerging challenges can also be highly effective. Through anticipation of these challenges and preparation with strategies to address them, facilitators can significantly enhance the effectiveness and impact of the Four Columns Exercise.

Sustaining Change

For the change to be sustainable, the ownership of the change process should be transferred to the client. The Four Columns Exercise is not just a one-time intervention but a process that the organization can continue to utilize.

  1. Empowering the Organization Empower the organization to continue using the Four Columns Exercise for ongoing reflection and improvement. This will aid in making the change sustainable and in fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

  2. Continuous Reflection and Adaptation The essence of the Four Columns Exercise lies in its ability to instigate reflection and adaptation. The iterative nature of this exercise encourages organizations to continuously reflect on their strategies, processes, and roles, enabling them to adapt to evolving circumstances. This iterative reflection and adaptation are imperative for achieving sustainable change and ensuring the organization remains agile and resilient in the face of challenges.

  3. Engaging Stakeholders Engagement of stakeholders is a pivotal aspect of this intervention. It's not merely about executing an exercise but about fostering a culture of open dialogue, reflection, and collaborative problem-solving. Engaging stakeholders across various levels ensures diverse perspectives are considered, which enriches the process and the outcomes.

  4. Collaborative Facilitation Facilitating the Four Columns Exercise in a collaborative manner ensures that the process is inclusive and engages a broad spectrum of stakeholders. This collaborative facilitation fosters a sense of ownership among participants, making the change more likely to be embraced and sustained.

  5. Feedback Loops Establishing feedback loops is vital. It ensures that learnings from the exercise are captured, discussed, and used for further refinement. This feedback-driven approach promotes a learning culture within the organization, essential for continuous improvement and adaptation.