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Paddling Your Way through Organizational Change

Recently, I was talking to some colleagues about organizational change, particularly as it relates to data management and establishing the role of the executive data leader. For many, organizations do not fully appreciate the resistance that they will meet when they try to implement this kind of organizational change, so they consequently do not do the right things to ensure that the executive data leader is set up to succeed.


I find it helpful to describe organizational change as being similar to running white water rapids with a canoe versus a kayak. Yup, I know what you are thinking: where is this guy going? Let me explain the metaphor.


There are some basic differences between how you run a river in a white-water canoe versus a kayak. Kayaks have decks. That’s a boating term for a cover that protects the hull of the boat from taking on water. Decks help ensure that water stays out of the cockpit (where you sit) and that the paddler can steer the craft through rapids, over waterfalls, and other assorted river hazards while staying safe and dry. Putting it in plain terms, having a water-tight boat gives kayakers the ability to run the river in ways that are very different from how a canoer runs that same river. They do not, for example, have to be as careful when picking what routes they take. Why? Kayakers know that their boat’s structure will hold, letting them pretty much go straight through big rapids without filling up with water and losing control of their boat. Canoes, however, are different. Canoes do not have a deck, so if a canoer were to take the same route that a kayak takes, waves will crash over their bow and gunnels, causing them to take on water and lose control. If you are running Great Falls in Virginia, that is bad. So, what do you do?


Well, when you paddle white water canoes, there is something called “tacking”, which is a term also used in sailing. It refers to how you navigate using water and take advantage of obstacles like rocks and trees in order to take temporary refuge from the white water. In contrast to kayaks, when canoes run a set of rapids, they pay special attention to finding something called “eddies”, which are areas directly downstream from river obstacles (like rocks) where a canoer can enter calm water among raging rapids. This small sanctuary allows the canoer to take a look at the river and see what new obstacles the boater needs to successfully navigate. What ends up happening is that canoers navigate from eddy-to-eddy, going back and forth (tacking) down the river in order to better control their boats. Specifically, this means that canoes don’t go headlong down the river, risking taking on water, and crashing. Instead, canoers look just far enough downstream to find the next safe place to park their boats, adjust themselves, and head out for the next eddy. Canoers continue this process until they reach the end of the river. Then they celebrate.


The point of this story is that canoers have to have a plan for running the entire river. They need to make sure that they have paddles, flotation, helmets, and other resources to stay safe. They have to have backup, so if they get into trouble, they have help. For examples, if a canoer gets breached on rocks, they have to know how to prepare throw-lines and unpin boats. They have to have a rendezvous location, so that they can get back to their cars and drive home. Canoers have to plan their entire river trip, even though they will use eddies to tactically navigate tricky water. However, river conditions change daily. How they execute their plan will vary from day-to-day according to changing the river conditions. For example, more rain, less rain, downed trees, and crowded rivers affect how they navigate the river. What canoers rely on is knowing how to navigate the river in an incremental, controlled, and reproducible manner…in order to stay safe on the river.


So, like planning your river strategy, in order to affect sustainable organizational change—at scale—you need to have a plan that encompasses all the changes you want to make. Lewis Carroll said it more than 150 years ago: “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.” And in this way, implementing organizational change is just like white water canoeing.


Bottom line: don’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of changes you have to make in your organization. To be truly successful, you need to have a plan, but you also need to be ready to eddy out, take inventory of where you are, and be ready to adjust your tactics while remaining true to your overall strategy. If your company or agency needs help with this process, we would love to have a discussion with you about it.


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