Turn the Ship

Quick: what sunk the Titanic?  Obviously, the answer is an iceberg.  However, the more interesting question is why couldn’t the Titanic steer around it?  In short, because she was the largest ship of her kind at the time, and she was going too fast.  She simply wasn’t capable of making the turn as quickly as she came upon the iceberg.  What will it take to make the turn that your organization needs to avoid its own iceberg?

Mass and Velocity

It’s a physics problem, really.  Once you get a large mass in motion, it’s going to tend to keep going in the same direction.  Newton said it first, but we know that when something with a large mass is in motion, it takes more energy to stop or redirect it.  Large organizations are a lot of mass.  It’s people.  It’s policies.  It’s procedures.  If you want to change the direction, you’ll need to change the way people think and behave, and that means making some degree of impact on the tenor of the culture.  All of that is redirection, and it’s going to take energy.

The Titanic didn’t expect to need to make rapid changes in direction.  It wasn’t designed to navigate rivers or tight spaces.  It was meant to cruise across the Atlantic.  The rudder was therefore relatively small.  Even hard over (fully turning), it would take a long time to substantially change the direction of the ship.  The engines were workhorses of their era but were designed to counter the forces of friction and resistance at cruising speeds.  They weren’t designed to initiate any sort of rapid stopping maneuver.

There was a lot of mass and not a lot of energy to make changes – just like your organization.

Bigger Levers

In your organization’s change, you’ve got to find ways to get more leverage on the ability to change direction.  A little rudder, a little bit of influence, is likely not enough to stop your headlong cruise into your own iceberg.  Consider Borders bookstores, Blockbuster, or Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, or the dozens of other iconic organizations who couldn’t make the changes that the environment required of them.  Some of the brands that have survived are smoking hulks of what they used to be.

Here are four big levers that you can pull to help your organization make the changes necessary to survive and thrive:

  • Gather the data – You need to know that the iceberg is ahead – or at least that icebergs are in the area. You can sell a story or a vision, but you’ll need to be prepared to back it up, so do that first.
  • Build the story and vision – The data will be too unclear and complicated. We’ll listen to a story, and we’ll share a vision.  If the story is backed with data, it will be believable.
  • Gather the troops – Figure out who is willing to support the change – and the degree to which they’re willing to stick their neck out for it. Building a collection of people who are on board is essential to getting enough critical mass for the change.
  • Direct your efforts – Ultimately, you need to get the whole organization to change but many people are going to need bright spots to follow. That means getting some wins in and then publicizing them.  Rather than spreading your efforts out across the entire organization, focus on an appropriate part of the organization where the benefits of the change can be seen clearly.