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Ideas & Debate

Firms grow with systems, vision and inspiration

Leaders can learn from Kotter’s meerkat clan
Leaders can learn from Kotter’s meerkat clan fable on how to transform their organisations. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Some years ago I wrote enthusiastically about John Kotter’s “eight steps to change” that many, including here in Kenya, have followed as a guide to transforming their organisations.

Kotter laid these out in his 1996 book, Leading Change, and then 10 years later, together with Holger Rathberger, he published Our Iceberg Is Melting, that brought the eight steps together as a fable in the style of Who Moved My Cheese?.

The iceberg that Harvard guru Kotter wrote about was in Antarctica, home for many years to a colony of penguins. Then one day, a curious bird discovered a worrying crack under the ice.

But at first no one seemed interested. Gradually though, he persuaded penguins of greater emotional intelligence and influence to help the colony overcome its resistance to change — following Kotter’s eight steps.

So its leaders were eventually persuaded that the iceberg was under such threat that if they were to survive they would have to migrate to another location.

I have recommended the book to many people and now, a decade after their penguin fable, I was delighted to see that Kotter has again collaborated with Rathbeger to produce another one, about a large meerkat clan in the Kalahari Desert.

Following years of easy growth, managed through well-defined command-and-control hierarchies and strict job descriptions, with supporting systems and rules, the meerkats were threatened first by a drought and then by deadly vulture attacks.

As things got worse the clan’s harmony disintegrated and the blame game erupted.

The “Alpha” executive team quarreled about possible solutions, and doubted whether they even needed to change their rigid systems.

Suggestions from front-line workers were met with the classic change-averse response: “That’s not how we do it here!” Hence the title of the book.

Nadia, a bright and adventurous meerkat who had been identified as an emerging leader, was so fed up that she left the clan and went in search of new ideas to help her troubled folk.

She discovered a much smaller group that operated with wonderfully participative teamwork and agility.

The meerkats here had developed innovative ways of finding food and evading the vultures, as a result of which their numbers started growing rapidly.

But the more new meerkats arrived to join them the more difficult it became to sustain the informal approach that had worked so well when they were fewer.

While the leadership style remained great, they lacked the robust management systems needed to deal with issues in a disciplined way, and so coordination became impossible and morale and motivation levels collapsed. Things fell apart.

Nadia began thinking about how to combine the best of both worlds: the benefits of the systems that handled the large, disciplined, well-managed clan, along with those of the agile, creative leadership that drove the smaller, informal one.

She returned to her original clan, where she set out to convince its traditional leaders to adopt more of the agility and innovativeness of where she had just come from.

And despite initial resistance, with the expected reasons-why-not mindset, eventually complacency and conservatism declined among enough of them, the organisational pyramid flattened, and with new energy and confidence they succeed in growing and flourishing again despite the ongoing challenges.

The moral of the story is straightforward: as organisations face uncertainty and the increasing complexity that comes with scale, both the disciplined systems of management (without the commonplace stultifying bureaucracy) and the vision and inspiration of leadership are essential.

It need not and should not be either/or: as I have always believed, any good manager must be a good leader and vice versa.

This book, this fable, has spelt it out more clearly and vividly than I have ever seen it attempted before. It concludes with a chapter suggesting how to approach having the cake and eating it, in which we are advised to follow Kotter’s original eight steps to change: create a sense of urgency; build a guiding coalition; form a strategic vision; enlist a volunteer army; remove barriers; generate quick wins; sustain acceleration; and institutionalise the change.

All this must take place without killing off the founding fast, entrepreneurial culture that needs to remain egalitarian, fluid and innovative.

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