Nearly twenty years ago I heard a fable that forever changed the way I look at leading change.

Insights & Perspectives

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Rich Cary | View Posts by Rich Cary

Nearly twenty years ago I heard a fable that forever changed the way I look at leading change.

Nearly twenty years ago I heard a fable that forever changed the way I look at leading change.  I was working at my first manufacturing job as a supervisor for a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer, and had the benefit of a Japanese sensei that was assigned to teach me the ropes of manufacturing.  Many of these lessons were accompanied by a bruise on my sternum, as he thumped it with his pointer finger and asked questions like “Why do you stand and watch machine run?  Do you pull up chair at home and watch washing machine run?”  Good question.  The best lessons, though, often came in the form of stories.  I will never forget “the fable of the rowers” that he shared with me one day after I expressed frustration over my team’s resistance to change.

When leading change, you are the “captain” of a boat that is going somewhere new.  You are taking your team to a new place, and not everyone will be happy about it.  Some will pick up an oar immediately and start rowing with all their might.  They are the “rowers” of change.  Many more will go to the other end of the boat and take a seat.  They are the “watchers.”  They will be watching for where the boat is headed and waiting to see if it’s worth picking up an oar themselves.  Some others will immediately jump ship.  They won’t be content to just tread water and watch the boat move forward.  They’ll try to drag others into the water.  They’ll try to knock holes in the bottom of the boat.  As the captain of change, if you waste all your time dealing with the “resisters” in the water the boat will certainly be swamped.  Instead, you need to focus on helping the people in the boat.  Soon the boat will be moving so quickly in a new direction that the resisters in the water will have to make a decision to get in the boat or drown. 


At Definity Partners, we call this concept 10-80-10.  In a nutshell, in most organizations 10% of their team are typically “performers” (the rowers), 80% are “followers” (the watchers), and 10% are “draggers” (the resisters).  Most leaders spend far too much time bailing the water out of the bottom of the boat instead of working to get their teams to row together.  Think about it.  Is your ten page policy document that anticipates every possible loophole a tool for managing the 90% who never have issues, or is it focused on the 10% that are always looking to game the system?  When contemplating a process change, are you more motivated by how it will make your performers’ lives easier or the dread you feel as you anticipate grumbling from your draggers?  When your HR Director tells you that there’s an urgent matter that needs your attention, do you automatically assume it’s a “people problem” with a less than stellar member of the team?  These negative assumptions can drain all of the energy out of your leadership and leave your performers and followers wondering if they are really appreciated at all. 

A word of caution is needed here: don’t confuse the skepticism of a follower with the resistance of a dragger.  Skepticism is a common first reaction to any new idea, and agents of change need to engage it head-on.  At one Definity client, a front line supervisor was reluctant to move a team member to an area where he could better contribute to the business because he feared the employee would undermine the improvement efforts of the new team.  Just as he feared, the employee’s first contribution to the team’s huddle meeting was “This is crazy! I don’t know how you work inside those instrument consoles.  It’s so dark in there I can’t even read the wire labels!”  Rather than react with frustration, the supervisor took action by going to a local hardware store and purchasing several magnetic LED flashlights for the team to try.  That same skeptical employee spoke up in the next day’s team huddle “The lights work great!  I’ve never seen a supervisor act so quickly to fix an issue.”  This simple change became such a milestone in the company’s improvement journey that the CEO purchased magnetic LED flashlights imprinted with the company logo as a gift for every employee in the business!


Conventional wisdom states that as a leader you should “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  Leaders who are effective change agents know better.  Research by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro investigating the influence of relationship networks on the success of change initiatives reinforces the wisdom of the fable of the rowers. Focusing on relationship building with resisters always proved to be a double-edged sword.  Any social pressure you may be able to exert in favor of minor changes is more than off-set by the high emotional cost to the change agent, and only deepens resistance to more dramatic change.  A bit more surprising is the finding that while identifying champions and enlisting their support was important, efforts at deepening those relationships doesn’t affect the success of the change initiative at all.  If the champions believe in the idea, they will work for it regardless of the encouragement they receive from their relationship network.  In every case the key constituency to the success of change was the “fence sitters” (the watchers).  Take these key influencers to lunch.  Listen to them.  Express to them how much you value their ideas and input. Find areas of common ground that you can collectively commit to.  Help them discover what’s in it for them.  Change initiatives and new ideas will flourish when the watchers pick up the oars and row!

And those draggers still out in the water?  Keep them at arm’s length.  You won’t change their minds, but they just might change yours.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give them the opportunity to go knock holes in somebody else’s boat.


1 Credit for this title goes to country music legend Randy Travis, from his lyric “Sometimes love is a river of tears, so pick up your oars and row.”

2 Battilana and Casciaro. (2013, Jul-Aug). The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents. Harvard Business Review, 62-68

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