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Look to the Sky for Change Management Inspiration

I recently completed an international speaking tour, during which I had the opportunity to chat with CEOs in a number of countries on issues impacting them, including: the business climate in their region, the opportunities they foresee, and the challenges on the horizon. Many responses were unique, reflecting the specific environment of the organization. One common chord was repeated in virtually every conversation however, and that was the challenge of change management. Senior leaders, regardless of the position they occupy on the map, recognize that to compete today the only constant is, ironically, change. All of the leaders I spoke with emphasized the imperatives of agility, swift reactions, and outmaneuvering their competition – all change-related endeavors.

Of course it's one thing to recognize the importance of mastering change to effectively compete, and another thing entirely to effectively manage a strategic transformation within the organization. While most organizations are quite adept at identifying change opportunities and launching new programs, the majority experience great difficulty in seeing the change through, in fact some pundits peg the failure rate of change programs at sixty percent or higher. The reasons for this dismal statistic are many and varied: lack of communication, a resistant workforce, ill-defined plans, and many other 'usual suspects' contributing to derail the change train before its able to muster sufficient momentum to produce any results.

There is certainly no shortage of books, articles, and advice in general on the topic of tackling and defeating 'The Change Monster,' but in this article I'd like to offer some guidance that looks to a new source of inspiration for taming the change beast – the sky. Specifically I'd like to introduce you to the remarkable Arctic Tern.

Do you think of yourself as a road warrior? Perhaps you crisscross the globe in the name of commerce, padding your frequent flyer account along the way, but you've got nothing on the Arctic Tern. These hardy creatures, many reaching thirty years of age, are famous for epic migrations from their Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back again each year, a journey of over 44,000 miles. During their lifetime, an average Arctic Tern will fly approximately 1.5 million miles – the equivalent of three round trips to the moon.

The birds' annual migration, both sophisticated and patterned, indicates premeditation, admirable willfulness, and an astonishing ability to delay gratification and immediate rewards. For example, an Arctic Tern flying over Northern California en route to Alaska will choose to ignore a tasty herring sitting in a bird-watcher's boat in Monterey Bay. The local bird population will eagerly dive such an alluring morsel but the Tern flies on because at that moment it's driven by an instinctive sense of larger purpose. Its drive to reach a rugged Arctic coastline overrules any desire to eat or rest.

The focus on a larger purpose is one of a number of fascinating characteristics identified by biologist Hugh Dingle in his study of animal migrations. I believe the principles, with some modification, apply equally well to organizations wishing to pursue a change initiative. In the paragraphs that follow I'll review each element of migrations identified by leading researchers and discuss how the concept may be considered during a change process.

Principle One – Migrations are prolonged movements that carry animals outside familiar habitats

By definition a migration is a movement from one place to another less familiar place, and the same can be said of a change program. Many organizations realize the status quo will no longer suffice and understand that in order to compete effectively they must begin their own movement to a new and better place that ensures improved results for all stakeholders. At the outset of the change this new place will be completely unknown and the path that must be traveled to reach it will often represent a threat or elicit fear in those who must make the change journey. Therefore, it's vital that leaders recognize their own migration will be a 'prolonged' one. Change does not occur overnight but must be nurtured day in and day out as new habits slowly replace fixed routines that caused the organization to become stuck in some way.

Principle Two – Migrations tend to be linear; not zigzaggy

The Tern flying to his Arctic breeding ground may make subtle course changes to ride favorable wind patterns but will not suddenly decide to alter his course for a week of sightseeing in Rio. The journey is imprinted on the bird and he instinctively sets forth on the most efficient route. This is an important principle for organizations to keep in mind as they face the inevitable obstacles that reveal themselves during a change program. When faced with a sudden challenge it's tempting to pull the easiest lever and change course to placate influential objectors of the change, or make things more palatable for change-weary employees. But these movements are distractions from the goal and ultimately demonstrate that senior leadership is not committed to real change, which relies upon a steadfast commitment to the chosen path.

Principle Three – Migrations involve special behaviors of preparation and arrival

Another species of migrating bird, the Sandhill Crane will travel approximately five-thousand miles during their annual migration from Southwestern Texas to summer breeding grounds in Northeastern Russia. To ensure their fitness for such an arduous voyage they will stop near the Platte River in Nebraska for two or three weeks to prepare for the long expedition that awaits them. During its stay along the Platte a six pound Sandhill will add about a pound and a half to its weight in preparation for the long flight ahead.

Organizations must also make careful preparations before embarking on a change journey, and as with our feathered friends, such preparations should supply their employees' basic needs. However, instead of food, companies can prepare for their change program by carefully considering the full spectrum of likely challenges and opportunities that may arise during the initiative and supplying responses to these and other conceivable queries from their staffs. Very common questions include: "Why are we launching the program now?" "How will this benefit our employees/customers, etc.?" "What do we expect from our employees as part of this change?" "What tools will we provide along the way to make the journey easier for employees?" Before embarking on a change you must consider these vital questions.

Principle Four: Migrations demand special allocations of energy

It should be apparent from the discussions above that migrations require extraordinary reserves of energy to ensure a safe passage for the animals to their ultimate destination. Change efforts also demand that we call upon every reserve of corporate energy at our disposal to meet the inevitable tests a change will supply. Sir Graham Day, former CEO of British Shipbuilders, British Aerospace, and Cadbury Schweppes recognized this demand when he noted: "One of the first things that hits you about turning around a company is the sheer energy it takes. In the beginning, all the energy is yours. It feels as if you're dragging the entire organization along, just trying to create some movement, some momentum." Leaders must be cognizant of this reality before launching a change program, and realistically assess their, and their team's, ability to expend the requisite energy needed to begin the initial surges of a change.

Principle Five: Migrating animals maintain fervid attentiveness to the greater mission, which keeps them undistracted by challenges that would turn other animals aside

As noted above, a migrating Tern en route to its breeding ground will ignore the temptation of a delicious herring it could easily fly away with, choosing instead to maintain a steadfast devotion to its goal. The herring represents a distraction, something that must be disregarded if the bird is to reach its ultimate destination. Resisting distractions is perhaps the greatest challenge an organization will face when attempting to implement a significant change.

Marcus Buckingham, author of "First, Break All The Rules" and other bestselling books once noted that we live in an era of 'excess access,' referring to the fact that in our global and connected world everything we desire is at our fingertips: information, entertainment, news, data of every conceivable sort, in other words, potential distractions. It's paramount that organizations pursuing a change agenda discipline themselves to ignore potential diversions and remain focused at all times on the overarching purpose of the change program. Creating a guiding rationale for the change (answering the all important question "Why are we doing this?") at the outset of the program and communicating it relentlessly is one way leadership teams can protect themselves from the dizzying array of potential distractions they'll face when attempting to move the needle on a substantial change program.

As you embark on a new program in your organization, and are filled with both great hope and perhaps a measure of trepidation at the daunting task that lies ahead, look to the sky for inspiration. Following the principles of the Arctic Tern, and many other migrating animals, will help you navigate the most challenging of change journeys.

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