The “Murmuration” of Change

I have to admit, I’m always a little surprised at the degree of confidence with which companies enter into change or realignment programs. The statistics clearly show that a huge proportion of change programs fail, either completely or at the very least partially. Despite this, most companies embark on change programs of one sort or another with very little regard to what will make them succeed. In New Zealand, especially, change programmes and restructurings are ubiquitous. They are everywhere, and all the time, and the stats are no different!

I have spent a great deal of time in my advisory capacity during change processes trying to get leaders to reassess the timeframes which they expect change to take place. I remember one change process but I was asked to do, where I was given a deadline of three months, over Christmas to completely realign an entire business – in fact, to merge two completely separate businesses and find them new offices. And fit out the new offices. And implement new logistics systems. And find a warehouse. And implement new warehousing software. And get rid of 40 people. When I spoke to the CEO about timeframes, he felt that he had assessed things correctly and that three months should be more than enough.

I promise you, this is true. I couldn’t dream this up.

Needless to say, 12 months later, and long after I left, the change process was still underway.

That’s just one example amongst many where the hubris of the executive team has been an important factor in the success or failure of business-critical transformation. I honestly believe that the two biggest success factors in any transformation process are the humility and patience of the CEO.

And by humility I don’t mean self-deprecation, or a lack of confidence. That’s not what humility is. Humility is, simply, seeing one’s self correctly. Neither underestimating one’s worth, nor over estimating one’s worth. And on the flipside of that neither underestimating the worth of others in relation to onesself, or over estimating the worth of others in relation to onesself. But a CEO or an executive team which remains distant from the change process is abdicating their critical role in its success. It’s not enough to deliver a resounding motivational speech about why, or to post up an impressive PowerPoint presentation on the process. Anyone can do that. Getting down and dirty will enable much clearer vision, much closer understandings and much better sensitivity to the fluidity of the process.

If you want to change your company, you can’t do it from the corner office.

And by patience, I mean the ability to move as fast as your slowest member, without losing inertia. We see this in nature all the time, and it’s surprising to me that we do not identify this dynamic as incredibly powerful in change management. Coming as I do from Africa, I have spent a great deal of time in the African wilderness, walking or driving near huge herds of animals – buffalo, elephant, wildebeest etc. Without fail the progress of the herd is determined by the speed and endurance of the youngest and the weakest. As a result, the journeys are planned for the safe arrival of the entire herd, not just the strong ones.

With elephants, the matriarch leads, but the second animal is always the young one. It’s for protection, and it’s for pace setting.


That is not to say that if we let the “slowest and weakest” in our corporate herd determine the pace, we will be doing a good thing. No doubt it is important to set a pace that will get the job done in a reasonable timeframe; and letting oneself be directed in that regard by outliers (whether weak, or strong!) is unacceptable. I would say that it is reasonable that in the change process there might be some casualties; or put another way, a process of culling, where people who are unwilling to change are presented with the ultimate choice – “come on board, or don’t come on board. Both choices will have consequences”. That is very OK, as not everyone HAS to make it through.

A leadership team invested in successful change will understand that they are trying to shift the direction of a large body of individuals. In a team made up of 150 employees for example, the change process should consider not just “the team”, but each individual member of the team. That is not to say that there will need to be 150 different change processes from companies point of view but without a doubt, there will not be just one. To some extent it’s possible to rely upon the dynamics of birds in flight (anyone remember the “murmuration of starlings” phenomenon?), where birds were described as behaving like “magnets in flight” – each bird affecting the behaviour of the 7 around it, to create an amazingly unified pattern of flight amongst many hundreds of birds.


But it is not possible to rely on this entirely, without making it a deliberate strategy, and that is a major factor in failed change processes. So in such a change process, I would suggest that the leadership team should understand that there might be 10-20 individual change processes that need to be deliberately embarked on in addition to the overall change process. These individual change processes would be targeted at key individuals who have high influence, both positive and negative, within the organisation. When they influence their immediate circle, the “murmuration” begins.

Like ants, who are trying to carry things that weigh many hundreds of times their weight, they work together to achieve the goal. They distribute the load, share the load, and get it done. The danger with hubris, is that a leader might believe that by decreeing change, or conducting a surface deep exercise, that they have done enough to initiate successful transformation. But the personality of a CEO is not sufficient to create change. Maybe for a Richard Branson or an Elon Musk, but most CEO’s are not them…

So it’s about paying attention, about getting help, about deliberately creating change agents whose influence one has nurtured and established in a positive way, or whose negative influence one has diminished or neutralized. About deliberately creating a “murmuration” using key influencers. And about making sure that the individual journeys of employees are respected and that resources are allocated to partner and assist.



About Vaughan Granier

Just Thinking...
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