Did Chicken Little Have It All Wrong?

Disney's Chicken Little: Ace in Action cover art

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As an advocate of the early warning, Chicken Little had it all wrong.

Lacking facts (the sky was not falling) and the type of receptive audience that Paul Revere had, running around warning people was a poor tact to take.

Rational thought, after all, has limits. Sometimes the best way to move something important forward is to change your normal MO (modus operandi). Do something significantly different such as blow yourself up (metaphorically, never literally), or less dramatic, bail and move aside.

Here’s why and how.

Like the urban legend claiming that a frog placed in water gradually brought to a boil won’t budge, people’s ability to anticipate and respond to change is pretty mixed. Many, many people won’t change until required; the obesity epidemic in the United States – where over 33% of adults are considered obese with a body mass index about 30 – is Exhibit A of our ability to change when change is seriously needed.

For change makers and would-be change leaders the rational thing to do – sound the alert clearly and forcefully – just doesn’t frequently work. Change management – both changing and being changed – are skills that few people learn, and fewer master. As the Nike ad claims, “practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect.” And most people and the organizations they inhabit have little if any perfect practice under their belt.

If the goal is to make a change or oppose the ill-informed change someone is trying to make – think shift the course of the Titanic to miss that large block of ice, for example – then you need to take a tact that will likely succeed. Using old methods that don’t frequently work to impact change is simple foolish, if not just plain stupid.

Unless you’ve got an organization willing and able to change, denial is too powerful of a force to attempt traditional Chicken Little early alert warnings. If it doesn’t work for global warming, economic recovery, and losing a needed 20-100 pounds, it’s not going to work in most places where the stakes, albeit important, are not as significant.

William Bridges, the guru of change management theory and practical take-action steps, notes that change and transition is hard. And even with the best of  first steps – such as “magnifying the plagues” – a listening audience is required.

The options? Stick with the organization and hope that divine guidance will open people’s ears and turn minds on? Not so likely.

There are other choices, but only if you’re committed to a cause and willing to be selfless to advance it. I don’t believe in an “ends justifies means” approach, but the type of sacrifice that Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon 1963 to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime, demonstrates the power that one person can have to make change.

You don’t have to physically burn yourself up, nor should you; there are ways to have similar impact within organizations but it means taking the hard stand rather than the courteous out.

Sometimes, though you have to quit or even be fired – to “step aside” in the polite parlance of organizations –  because you want to move the change agenda forward, and can’t tolerate the organization’s inability to change or unwillingness to take the steps to address the problem or opportunity ahead of it.

It’s selfless; advancing a cause that’s important and potentially sacrificing your involvement in the ultimate resolution because quitting – “blowing yourself up” might be another way to describe it – is the only way to get the problem solved or greater attention thrown at the issue.

What does that look look like in real life? Dutch firm KPN’s CFO Carla Smits-Nusteling‘s decision this week to quit from her role in disagreement over a reorganization that quadrupled the size of the governing executive committee of the firm is one such example.  Smits-Nusteling, the first woman to be appointed as a CFO of a large Dutch firm, thought the move was a bad one. I assume those disagreements were aired; rather than stay in the role and be paid well, she took a position and quit to make her point.

In the 2011 movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon  the Decepticons have finally defeated the Autobots and gained a humbled Earth as their prize. As the Autobots leave the planet, the Decepticons shoot their ship down, believing that they had killed all of the Autobots onboard. The Autobots, willing to be blown up, sneak out of the ship before it’s blown up and end up returning to earth to preserve the existence of their human allies by defeating the Decepticons.

It’s Hollywood, but it works. Mr. Magorium, another creature of Hollywood, notes “Unlikely adventures require unlikely tools.” When you’re faced with something that appears unchangeable, it’s time to try new rules, not old approaches, in order to reach the outcome you seek.

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”  noted Seneca. No doubt he anticipated another saying of Mr. Magorium – “Your life is an occasion, rise to it.”

Chicken Little had it wrong. When you think the sky is falling the way to lead people is not just to tell them, it’s to demonstrate that you care enough about the issue to sacrifice yourself to show them a way forward.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.
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