My favourite news story of the last week has been the ship stuck in the Suez Canal.
What is so magical about the boat as a metaphor, is its power for meaning- the stuck ship, now famous, has become a collective experience.
We have all been in that boat. We have worked at that organization, worked with that person. The ship has been change. We've been the lone excavator tasked with "turning the ship around"
If the ship represents organizational change, resistance is the collective weight of the barge. The expectations, the results needed. The unrelenting pressure. And slowly resistance builds, the muddy bottom of the Suez Canal pulling and grinding against the hull, until the boat comes to a shuddering halt, run aground. That boat is not going to move. Resistance has brought this journey to a standstill.
But what happens if we dont change? Pressure builds. We ask why aren't things changing. Thousands of ships await passage in the Red Sea and the Great Bitter Lake growing in number day by day.
Our normal reaction is to throw as much effort and "push" as we can at the resistance. Deploy a fleet of excavators to dig it out. Rally tugboats to pull. Get cranes to lift off the cargo and raise the bottom. Drain the ballast. But progress is minimal. We feel like we are getting nowhere. The.boat.is.stuck.
How we need to manage resistance is not to push and pull at it, try to engineer it with the force of all of our attention. Rather, keep a focus on the long term goal: we will traverse this canal. And sometimes, waiting for the right circumstance, a shift in the environment is what is needed to raise the boat off the murky bottom.
In the end, the most powerful part of this story is that all of the contrived human effort to free the boat was at best, ineffective. What made the difference was the ancient science of gravity, our solar system and the tides. A supermoon brought about a spring tide that raised the boat just enough to clear the bottom and get underway. A few nudges by a tugboat and at last, after a riveting 6 day ordeal, the Ever Given was underway again.
The most powerful lesson here for anyone in the business of change (and these days, that's everyone!) Is that it is often futile to fight resistance. Because it seems like something standing in our way, we seek to dismantle it, remove it, fight it. But the better way is to stop, listen, and take stock of the situation. Finding a way to move forward, collectively when the momentum of change and the environment provide the right circumstances, a rising tide that makes it possible for the resistance to dissolve.
In the old seafarer's saying, a rising tide lifts all boats, even the most resistant ones.
Traditional change management has a problem. I've seen this problem many times and it doesn't matter if the organization is big or small, old or new, change is difficult to sustain, when we're relying on authority to keep change in check. We're living in it now, in the pandemic world, when we talk about "going back to normal" it's a great illustration of how compelling the pull of comfort and nostalgia is. We know exactly what we're going to do the first day we're "allowed" to do it! Our current environment is an excellent illustration of how change that is required and controlled from the top, ends up being temporary.
All this to say, that the problem with traditional change management models is that they are exclusively top-down. They rely on traditional power (position, title and authority) in organizations and how much control leadership has over units of people in the organization. Authority pushes change. But if you want a change effort to be successful, you need to create an effortless sense of momentum or "pull". To harness this effortless feeling, you need to tap into influence.
When I'm assessing the pulse of the organization and figuring out how things work, I first look at the organization chart. Imagine that a CFO has just hired you to lead the implementation of a new finance IT system for a global organization. The example structure shows the CFO and three country directors. Authority and traditional power tell me that Director A (in blue) is the most important leader for the change plan. While the coaching, mentoring and preparation of leaders is a key part of successful change management, it assumes that each leader has the same aptitude, interest and natural ability to lead change. More importantly, it assumes that "pushing" change from the top down will get the job done. Operating under this assumption leads to change failure.
To tap into the effortless feeling of "pull" you need to find who has influence in the organization. Charthouse has an approach to discern how power and influence are distributed. We harness this power for change success. We look to find natural "power nodes" which are a concentration of traditional power, but importantly, a concentration of influence. Power and influence are the most valuable currency in change success. The below power map turns the traditional org chart on it's head. You can now see that it's Finance Director C (in yellow) who has the highest degree of influence both on their team and their colleagues.
Relationships are the determining factor in influence and when you illustrate a power map in this way, it brings those relationships into focus. Influence is the driver of the momentum and sustainability of change in organizations and is a powerful driver of change success.
Most importantly, influence can be used for or against the change effort, influence is a driving factor in change failure as much as it drives success. In fact, when I'm called in to revive stalled change efforts and help organizations move forward, I've found that power and influence is the top reason why change has failed.