Leading Change from the Back Door

The older, larger, or more “successful” your organization has been, the harder it will be to lead change. Systems work to maintain status quo and major change feels like a frontal assault to everything that has proven meaningful in the past. In fact, a head-on approach to major change is probably destined to fail.

That doesn’t mean change isn’t needed. It just means you need to approach the challenge of change differently. So, sit back and let me put it into the context of a true story.

Imagine a top secret gathering of the senior echelon of Navy Admirals during the years between WW1 and WW2. They know that there will be another global conflict soon and they must decide how to prepare our naval forces for that conflict. Simultaneously, technologies are changing at such speed they have to make decisions now that will affect naval readiness for twenty years even as new technologies are still unproven. Without a crystal ball, how do you prepare? On what do you spend your money?


Every one of those Admirals guiding the ship of naval strategy, grew up through a system where naval warfare operated under a simple strategy. Whoever builds the biggest ship that can fire its big guns from furthest away wins. It’s been that way since someone first figured out how to attach a cannon to a ship and use it effectively.

Through that lens of naval engagement, the battleship was king. If your battleship can hit its target from five miles away, but your enemy’s guns can only reach 4 miles, you just park your boat beyond their reach and hammer away. Battleships were so important the entire Navy was organized around Battleship groups. But, then came the airplane.

During WW1 airplanes were somewhat of a novelty. Famous fliers like the Red Baron flew colorful bi-planes in legendary dogfights across the skies of Europe. However, apart from a morale boost, those battles made little difference to the actual outcome of the war.


Visionary leaders saw the rapid evolution of the airplane and envisioned a different way forward. But, how do you convince a brain trust of battleship-weaned admirals that the future of the navy would be aircraft carriers? How do you convince these men to reallocate the money away from new battleships to fund the experimental frontier of the aircraft carrier?

A compelling slogan, a passionate speech, or a nice new logo aren't going to get the job done. This change was asking people to let go of all they had learned to trust and build a future around something they had never experienced. (By the way, that is how change feels to most people most of the time.)


If you were the one leading the conversation about the potential of and/or need for aircraft carriers, you would never get a hearing if you focused on the idea that their prized battleships are a thing of the past? If you charged head first into the fray with an argument that the tried and true is outdated, people would experience your proposal as a slap in the face. They won’t be very receptive to anything you have to say after that.

But, a few astute leaders knew that aircraft were the future. They knew that we had a lot to learn about how to conduct air-based warfare and that getting airplanes into the theatre of battle was the only way we would discover that learning.


So, in the face of such understandable skepticism, how did they get buy in on the need for aircraft carriers?


Billy Mitchell, the “father of the US Air Force,” and others like the lesser know, Kenneth Whiting, the “father of the the aircraft carrier,” began a campaign for change built around this promise. If you will give us aircraft carriers, we can protect your battleship groups for a radius of 100 miles or more.


Their argument wasn’t won in a day, but their strategy for change was brilliant. They made the case for how their proposal could help these naval leaders succeed at what they believed mattered most—the ability to use battleships successfully. These proponents of the aircraft carrier even used classic naval thinking to reinforce their argument—the role of distance (100miles) to secure naval victory.


You know the rest of the story. We did build aircraft carriers and they changed the course of naval warfare. Today, battleships serve as museums to that earlier era.

Take Home Principles:

  1. In proposing change, instead of attacking the old ways head on, come through the side door or even the back door. Demonstrate how the new thing will serve the deeply held priorities of the old thing. (e.g. Aircraft will keep your battleships safer.)

  2. The more you can connect with the shared values of current stakeholders the more you will create receptivity to the change. (e.g. Aircraft can extend the distance from which you can engage the enemy.)

  3. The more you own up to the reality that it will take time and experimentation before your organization knows how to maximize the potential of the change, the less pompous and less judgmental you will sound. The less you will sabotage your credibility. (e.g. WW2 was a constant learning curve on how to use aircraft and aircraft carriers effectively.)

  4. Create tangible experiences, demonstrations, or “field trips” that help people taste and see the potential of what the change will look like and provide. (e.g The military exercise that used aircraft to sink a ship.)

  5. Be ready, for the full implementation of the change to take considerable time before a new normal is established. (e.g. The first aircraft carriers, “flat-tops,” were built in the 20’s. It was late in WW2 when they began to taste their full potential.)

Unless you can help people see the change you propose as a way to advance or accelerate what they care deeply about, they will see your proposal as a criticism of what they trust. They will hear your grand plan as a slap in the face of how they have invested their life, time, and money. It’s hard to get people who feel insulted to support the initiative connected to that insult.

Your turn.

What makes sense? What ideas surface for you? What are you engaged in that you need to re-think?

For More:

Joel Barker wrote on the challenges of changing entrenched paradigms and systems thirty years ago in his book, Future Edge. Although old, his research based work is filled with profound insight.

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© 2020 by Gary Mayes