Imagine medieval times. You are living a quiet life in a happy little town, when you receive word an army is amassing two days march away. Your people know nothing more. Will the army simply pass through or conquer your people—destroying your idyllic way of life. The army’s intentions are unclear. What you do know is you live on the bank of a river—if only you can get to the other side, you and your family will be safe. This is when you discover there are three kinds of villagers…
Some can swim. They are aware of the present danger, desire to get away from it and the knowledge and ability to help themselves – they dive in the water and immediately escape to the safety of the far bank.
Some can’t swim, but are willing and able to build a raft. With a little encouragement, a few branches and twine, they can craft a way to float.
Some can’t swim and nor want to build a raft, instead the will wait for someone to build a bridge for them or worse stay and be slaughtered.
The reality is, for those who cannot swim or won’t build the raft do not have the desire or knowledge required to get them to safety. For many, the fear of water is far greater than the awareness of the marching army coming at them. The river is the clear and present danger. There is no way they will cross. These villagers will wait it out, hiding in their homes, hoping the army never arrives. They will not make it to the other side—they will resist.
This reinforces that fact that even when we have built awareness, created desire and addressed gaps in knowledge, our people may have very real limits in their ability to adopt a given change. There may be physiological, emotional or physical limitations that prevent them from surviving the transition. They may not know how to “swim”.
So, thinking about a change you are currently leading, do you know who your swimmers are? Do you know who has a mortal fear of water? Remember, just because you learned to swim as a child, practiced swimming and had fun doing it doesn’t mean that everyone has that ability. Keep in mind, ability is about capability—knowing how and being able aren’t the same things.
Once you have assessed the ability of each member of your team, you can better consider where to invest your efforts as a change leader. Direct your energy to the raft builders—they will need and accept your help in getting to the other side. Just as importantly, give yourself permission to evaluate those in your team that might not survive the change. As leaders, we all strive to leave no person behind, but for some it is a very real possibility. In some cases, a person may need to be moved to another role, another department or released from the organization.
So are you ready to answer the question? Can your people swim?