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Sailing Through Change

When “change initiatives” drag longer than they should (well, who defined “should”? That is a topic for another day), some well-meaning person will say something to the effect of, “Well, we have been on this path for awhile but it takes a lot of ocean to turn a big ship, you know…” And everyone nods their heads in agreement, as if they do indeed know.

Recently, we each had separate experiences that led us to question conventional wisdom: Robert was looking out at Elliott Bay in Seattle, watching a gigantic cruise ship approaching Pier 66, thinking, “There is no way this boat is going to make it. There just is not enough water left before the ship runs into SafeCo Field.” In just about the time it took him to form that thought, she perfectly executed a maritime u-turn and slipped into her dock – in less time and space than it takes him to parallel park a Jeep. At nearly the exact same moment, Sam was enjoying a fruity cocktail on board a cruise navigating Hick’s Cayes off the coast of Belize.

What gives? How can huge ocean liners actually be so nimble, and what does that mean for changing an organization?

 1.  For One Thing, the Captain and Crew Know What They Are Doing.

Looking at a huge vessel, it is easy to forget that there is someone in charge – and that someone is not trying to turn it around for the first time. Captains do not delegate complex navigation to interns.

While there is a first time for everything, and “change” by definition means something new, leaders should make sure everyone knows what is about to happen and why. The ability for change agents to establish trust with each other (and the passengers – that is, other employees) is essential to commit to the work ahead.

2.  Everyone Is Prepared.

The captain and crew have practiced – on smaller craft, in simulators, and in their own minds – long before thousands of people have trusted their lives to the maneuver. In advance of launching the operation, the captain reviews with the crew their responsibilities. Everyone knows what to look for, and how to react – both in potentially dangerous situations, and when, literally, the wind is in their sails. Passengers are told when conditions will be suboptimal, and what to expect.

When leading change initiatives, start small, or practice where there is little or no risk. Conduct Potential Problem Analyses to determine contingent actions and build agreement on how to identify the triggers to take them. Work with your entire team to visualize what needs to be done, by whom, and when. Drill, baby, drill. Conversely, Potential Opportunity Analysis ensures people are ready to align and identify when conditions are right, to reap benefits when things go better than expected

3.  A Captain Understands How the Ship, the Water, and Their Forces Interact.

Turning a ship is not quite as simple as spinning that big wooden wheel in a circle. Applying the rudder – say, to port side – changes the flow of water off the stern of the ship, which in turn creates inertia forces on the starboard side of the ship. The screw pushes forward, but the sway creates a surge velocity that pushes the ship across its drift angle. Boats also stop surprisingly fast, as the force of water off the bow is pretty powerful. Just as drivers slow down before turning a corner, the speed of a ship impacts its turning ability. (We can get into the “net hydrodynamic moment due to inertia forces” stuff here, but we won’t.)

A change agent knows there will be forces pushing against the effort. The trick is knowing that a turn of the rudder creates a moment that will cause a much larger shift. There will always be opposing forces; just as a good captain lets the rudder (and physics) do the work, do not try to fight the opposition. Instead, allow forces and moments to counteract each other and push your agenda where it needs to go.

4.  A Captain Knows When a Little Push Helps.

Using the rudder alone, a ship’s turning radius can be the equivalent of one to two lengths; with bow and stern thrusters creating “push” and “pull”, the boat can basically pivot on its center of gravity. Yes, tug boats do tug, but they can also do so much more. (Check the Port of Oakland’s website to watch the MSC Fabiola literally spin into dock.)

Sometimes a little additional power – in the right corner – can nudge an organization in the right direction. Align the effort with the right stakeholders – those with positional power and informal influence – to get that pivot when you need it. Properly Managing Involvement of human resources – knowing when and how to involve the team’s decision making – is helpful here. This includes recognizing when you do not have all the information you need (and then getting it), and understand how different conflicts need different resolution, e.g., conflict over goals should not be handled the same way as conflict over alternatives.

 5.  When In Unfamiliar Waters, a Captain Gets Help.

Harbor pilots are probably the highest paid civil servants in America, and with good reason. When a large ship approaches port, the harbor pilot hops on a tiny (by comparison) boat, shoots out to the ship and literally jumps onto a rope ladder and climbs aboard. From there, the pilot – who has intimate knowledge of the port, its depth, its currents and more – guides the ship. The captain never cedes control of the ship and yet relies on the pilot’s knowledge to dock safely.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. (In fact, we can recommend a good consultancy.) Look for people who have already been through what you are attempting, and leverage their experience. Benchmark against previous change efforts your own company has been through – what has worked well and why? Replicate that. What has failed and why? Don’t do that. It should never be a matter of who has control, but who has the right touch. Take a page from project management and ensure the right knowledge and experience – not just titles – are aligned with the effort.

None of this is to minimize what a herculean task managing change is (or steering a ship, for that matter). Even when seas are rough, a good captain can expertly and smoothly guide a ship into port in relatively short order and in narrow channels. Communicating with your team, understanding your environment and how it acts and reacts, and bringing in the right help at the right time will increase your ability to be effective and efficient. The goal is to ensure your passengers – employees, customers – enjoy as smooth and stress free a turn through “the change” as Sam did sailing through the Caribbean.


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