In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific Ocean on a flimsy balsa-wood raft to help prove that South Americans had sailed to the Polynesian Islands in pre-Columbian times. Imagine those South Americans first setting off. They knew about the sea, weather, building rafts for local fishing, based on South American culture. But not beyond. I suggest that the changes facing us now are akin to that journey – seeking somewhere better, with a general sense of direction and a lot of uncertainty. Thinking about your organisation, consider what the following parallels might teach us about leading change.
This raft is flimsy
Is our vehicle structured and strong enough to reach that new world? We have no time or resources to build the cruise liner or battle-ship and we need to be nimble. What is sufficent?
We have a crude understanding of what we’ll face
We are used to orienting ourselves by seeing land. How do we spot cues, read them, make sense of them? How do we learn as we travel?
We have no shelter
On a raft for a day’s fishing is ok, but how do we shelter from rough seas and inclement weather? How do we keep ourselves safe and healthy? What resources, knowledge and skills can we amass, apply?
This might get scary
None of us has faced this before, how will we react and how sustain our integrity? What principles, standards, ground-rules do we follow? How do we provide support when things get tough, as they will?
The sail and a few paddles are a must
We are used to repairing equipment on dry land, not en route. What must remain operational and how do we ensure it stays so? What do we best invest in and create the time / opportunity for maintenance?
There are terrible forces out there
We know the damage that the elements can wreak close to shore. How do we even guess at the possibilities of external forces affecting us? What is the worst that can happen along the journey? What contingencies can we devise?
The crew must be strong
Who is best as crew and what part will each play? How do we balance challenge and support as people are tested and learn? How can we make failure ok, lift spirits, energy? How do we access capability and respect what each brings?
Someone has to be in charge
There is no benefit in fighting nor in taking too long over decisions. How do we develop decisiveness in uncertainty? How do we test options and implications? Who makes the decisions, on what bases? How do we ensure engagement?
Getting ‘there’ is vital
We cannot stay on this raft. We need a new location for the greater good. How do we decide direction? When do we change tack and on what basis? What can we achieve along the way to make us proud and fulfilled?
A slog or an adventure
We need an optimistic attitude. How do we develop ‘opportunist’ thinking? How do we deal with occasional ‘lows’, encourage and empower people to think laterally to improve our existence and progress? So what does this tell us about how we lead change? The metaphor of Kon-Tiki is relevant primarily in terms of the journey. Thor Heyerdahl’s reception and return to Norway is not how leading change ends for us. The journey is what we need to learn to enjoy, to relish, to optimise, albeit with wonderful moments of dry land along the way. Leading change is truly continuous.
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