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Transformation & Herd Mentality

People who know me well, know I'm a story teller who loves a good analogy…

I was recently having a conversation with one of my co-workers and very good friends (Matthew Smith) about the challenges of helping large enterprises get things done. Whether it’s opening a new digital channel, building a CRM, investing in process automation, going through a brand refresh, or any other type of transformation really, the foremost challenge is not the technology, the implementation, or even the strategy, it’s always human nature.

As I discussed this with Matthew, we touched on how people generally choose to go with the pre-set everyday flow of things and so they are hard to guide into a collective new direction. Matthew used a term I had never heard before (I think he coined it actually). He said ‘I guess people are just happy to ride the noise’. As I thought about it I envisioned how people tend to follow the course of the herd and therefore, the path of least resistance. It’s true, people are hard to direct towards a new course of action, but once a new idea builds up momentum and takes hold, and the noise from it starts to carry, the next thing you know the herd starts to change direction. Cloud Technology is a perfect example. Now, the naysayers have all become evangelists or at least stopped talking it down.

We know its common knowledge that people are adverse to change. And fair enough, change is sometimes managed very poorly and can be very scary. And, what if the grass isn’t green over there? Granted, sometimes a certain new course is a bad one, or at least not the right one. It’s hard to tell without hindsight. That’s why the herd waits to see what’s happening with new directions before they shift their course to new pastures.

So maybe a good way of conceptualising/enabling change in the corporate world is to think about it like being part of a herd. Any herd will typically move together or ‘ride the noise’ depending on an accumulation of noises about risk or opportunity. One or a few members will ‘make the noise’ about one of these risks or opportunities and after enough noise has been made, the others will eventually start to move in a new direction. Therefore, to ‘make the noise’ rather than to ‘ride the noise’ is to show leadership.

Now we all ride the noise on most things, that’s a given, otherwise you’d lose your voice! Indeed, many people never even make any noise. But ‘making the noise’ and protecting the herd is very important, and those who do so should be encouraged to continue to do so. Unfortunately few organisations (especially large ones) support these people’s show of leadership. Typically, the noise these people are making is about a risks or opportunities and what often happens is their noise is drowned out and ignored and the herd continues on in the same direction. That is why transformation is so hard. It’s essentially about changing the direction of an entire herd.

So the key question then is - How do we best harness the leadership being shown by those making the noise and how is that captured and filtered up to the Shepherd of your herd? Finding these leaders within the business and enabling them is the answer. I guess the main challenge to this is that few Shepherds have a healthy enough ego to listen and not be threatened by others showing leadership within their own organisation. Yet Good Shepherds don’t take individuals within the herd making noise as threats to themselves, rather they embrace and welcome it. On the other hand, a Shepherd with a weak ego will not support any of the herd showing leadership and the herd will suffer and dwindle as a result as they are picked off one by one or they go in search of greener pastures.

Ultimately, even the best of transformation organisations need to recognise when it’s time for their own transformations to begin. Hopefully those of you that are reading this are part of a strong herd with a good Shepherd that accepts those who make the noise and who show leadership. But if you’re not, just remember, there ARE plenty of other herds out there and the grass can be greener if you have the courage to look for it.

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