Canoe the Wilderness of Change
There we were. In the remote Canadian wilderness. Three adults, two guides and 14 junior high kids. Our destination? One hundred twenty miles away. Our mode of transportation? Canoes! The three adults were the “leaders” (read parents who had been caught in a weak moment and agreed to this madness). I know, I for one, had not been in a canoe for 10 years and had not pitched a tent since I was a Boy Scout. Yet, here I was, concerned (maybe even a little scared), unsure, and more than a little angry at myself for getting into this. The 14 kids? They were oblivious to anything but the adventure.
With us were two hired guides. While they had not navigated this particular river before, they had decades of wilderness experience between them. They knew how to canoe, read maps, prepare camp, and deal with the unexpected. Our very survival was in their hands. I was about to understand the difference between leading and guiding.
I find words to be powerful, therefore the choice of words is very important. The theme of this issue could have been “Leading Change”, or “Managing Change”, or even “Directing Change”, but instead Christina and her team chose “Guiding Change”. Aren’t leading, managing, directing and guiding all synonymous?
As leaders faced with implementing major change, it is important to understand the subtle differences of leading, managing, directing and guiding. Successful leaders do all of those at times, switching seemingly effortlessly. However, they also know that they can’t always do it themselves. The three adults on the canoe trip were the designated leaders, responsible for getting the kids home safely, yet we were in no position to do that without someone to guide us, to coach us, to teach us. At the same time, the guides could not get us to the takeout point on their own. They could not paddle the nine canoes themselves, they could not pitch ten tents each night, they could not prepare every meal for a week, they could not portage hundreds of pounds of gear around rapids too difficult to travel or waterfalls impossible to descend.
Navigating change can appear pretty straight-forward on the surface. First, you put together a change plan to address the communication of the change, then you prepare the team for dealing with the four phases of change (denial, resistance, exploration and commitment), and finally you the execute plan. However, guiding through change can be incredibly complex. Just as a river guide cannot simply jump in a canoe and paddle out in front down the river, a leader must be willing to immerse themselves with the team, to teach them the nuances of reading a river, help to line the canoes down a difficult stretch, be there to gather the gear when a canoe gets sideways and tips, and be there to celebrate in the calm waters below the rapids.
Accomplished guides know three important lessons to help their teams navigate change. Change comes in waves, sometimes in imperceptible and subtle ways. The banks of the river becoming just a little bit higher, perhaps just a little bit steeper. The water flows a bit faster. The sound in the distance becomes louder. You round a bend and there you are in the churning rapids of major change. Did your team recognize the signs? Were they prepared for the river ahead? Identifying the waves of change for your teams and teaching them the skills of seeing the changes and understanding their impacts will help them to navigate the rapids around them and prepare them for future change.
Change does not occur in a vacuum. Those on your team are dealing with change in their public life, in their private life, at home, at work, with their family. The changes there will impact their ability to navigate the change you are leading. The change you are leading will impact their ability to navigate the changes in the other parts of their lives. Were you empathetic? Did you help to understand the impacts? Taking the time to understand the external changes going on in the lives of your team will help you communicate the impacts of the change occurring within your organization and coach them through that change.
Navigating through change reorients relationships among your team. Leaders become followers, followers become leaders. Some will help guide others through change. Others may wrap their canoe around a boulder and need saving. Did you see the relationships shift? Did you identify new leaders in your team? Did your relationship with your team change? Recognizing the relationship changes within your team and using those changes to further develop your team will build an even stronger team.
By the very nature of the word, things will be different after a change. Your team will be different, you will be different. Our two guides may have thought they we taking a bunch of teenagers on a wilderness adventure. But little did they know they not only transformed me from a cursing-under-my-breath-as-to-what-the-hell-I-was-doing-with-a-canoe-on-my-shoulders-climbing-around-a-waterfall guy into a self-proclaimed river rat who is happier on the water than just about anyplace else, more importantly they also taught me skills that would help me navigate the many rivers of life.