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Change Always Involves Strategic Conflict. Here’s How You Build Strategies To Win:

2024 April 7
by Greg Satell

Change is often a story told as a hero’s journey. We discover a cause, are called to set out on a mission and seek to bring about some alternative future state. If we are good and true, do all the right things in the right way, and our cause is righteous, we will prevail in the end. Like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, much of the struggle is internal.

Yet like Star Wars, that story is a fantasy. The true story of change is that of strategic conflict between that alternative future state and the status quo. There are always sources of power keeping the status quo in place and that’s where the battle lies. As long as those sources of power remain, nothing will ever change.

Once you internalize this story, however, you are ready to build an effective strategy. Power always lies in institutions and, by identifying and analyzing those forces at play, you can begin designing actions to influence them.. If you can remove—or even mitigate—the sources of power on which the status quo depends, you can make genuine transformation a reality.

The Status Quo Always Has Inertia On Its Side, And Never Cedes Power Gracefully

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas,” said the computing pioneer Howard Aiken. “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats,” and truer words were scarcely ever spoken. We tend to think that if an idea has merit, everybody will immediately recognize its value, but that’s almost never true.

Ignaz Semmelweis, quite famously, advocated for hand washing at hospitals, but was ostracized, not celebrated, for it and would himself die of an infection contracted under care before his idea caught on. William Coley discovered cancer immunotherapy over a century ago, but was considered by many in the medical establishment to be some sort of quack.

The truth is that good ideas fail all the time and they don’t fail on their own, they fail because people resist them. Sometimes that resistance has a rational basis, because of lack of trust, change fatigue, switching costs or competing incentives. Yet often resistance is irrational, related to identity, dignity and sense of self. We can ask people to change what they think or do, but we can’t ask them to stop being who they think they are.

That’s why, whenever we seek to bring about a genuine transformation, there will always be those who seek to undermine what we’re trying to achieve. As the physicist  Max Planck, pointed out, new truths do not triumph by convincing opponents, but rather because their opponents “eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Yet we usually don’t have that kind of time, so we need to be more proactive.

Identifying Sources Of Power

The status quo has sources of power keeping it in place. These sources of power have an institutional basis and form pillars supporting the current state. It is only through influencing these pillars that we can bring about genuine change. Without institutional support that status quo can no longer be maintained.

That’s why to build an effective transformation strategy we need to identify the institutions that support the status quo, those that support the future state and those that are still on the fence and as yet uncommitted.

These institutions can be divisions or functions within an organization, customer groups, government agencies, regulators, unions, professional and industry associations, media, educational institutions…the possibilities are almost endless. What’s important is that they have power and/or resources that can either hold things up or move them forward.

What’s crucially important to understand is that this is a highly contextual analysis and every situation is different. There is no simple formula to follow, you have to do the work yourself. We’ve done this analysis with similar firms in similar industries and come up with very different results, for lots of very good reasons that aren’t always immediately obvious.

That’s why efforts to borrow strategies that worked somewhere else so often fail, because the institutional context can be dramatically different, even if superficially the situations seem similar.

Building A Power Matrix

Once you have identified the institutions that form the pillars of support, you need to analyze each pillar in terms of its level or support and influence so that you can populate a power matrix that will inform your strategy.

In the upper-right hand corner you have the “Leaders” quadrant. These are institutions that are both supportive and influential. You want to leverage that influence. For example if a customer or regulator supports a particular initiative, that can be a powerful asset for gaining traction and driving change forward.

In the lower-right hand corner you have institutions that are supportive, but unfortunately not influential. These are “Collaborators.” While not influential, these institutions often have valuable resources you can leverage. Professional and industry associations often fall into this category. For example, setting up a keynote at the annual industry conference for an executive sponsor can often be an effective way to influence stakeholders.

In the upper-left quadrant are the “Blockers.” These are institutions that are influential, but unfortunately not supportive. You want to leverage shared values to move them into a more neutral position. They don’t have to support you, but if you can get them to not block you, that’s a win. In the lower-left you have the “Holdouts,” who are neither supportive nor influential. You might want to address their fears so they are not bomb-throwing, but no more than that.

That’s where you start. Once you’ve determined what your strategy needs to be targeted at, you can begin to design effective tactics.

Change Is About Power, Not Persuasion

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace it. That’s almost never true. If you intend to influence an entire organization, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you. You not only need to build support for an alternative vision of the future, you have to undermine the forces supporting the status quo.

That’s why we need to think about change as a strategic conflict between the present state and an alternative vision. The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. To bring about transformation we need to undermine the sources of power that underlie the present state while strengthening the forces that favor a different future.

To bring about transformational change we need to first identify the relevant institutions we need to target and then mobilize the constituencies to influence those institutions. We’re always mobilizing someone to influence something and those are the two questions we need to ask about every action we take: “Who are we mobilizing and to influence what?”

Your targets determine your tactics. You don’t start by deciding to, say, launch a social media campaign, design a training program or to hold a hackathon. To bring genuine transformation about you need to identify and analyze sources of power so that you can bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness.

The truth is that effective strategy is more of a journey than a destination, you can never be sure beforehand where exactly you will find it, but it will become clear once you’ve arrived

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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