English Cats and Organization Change Management [1]

By Jutha Debahastin Na Ayudha[2]

Long time ago when the Englishmen were sent sailing for a long patriotic as well as mercantile voyage, their women raised cats to keep company.  The feline warmness and wit made the loneliness bearable.  The pets did not only stay dormant at home, but also wandered around preying on rats.  They inadvertently helped control the pests and thus enhanced crop productivity.  Abundant yields fattened cattle as well.  Healthy livestock and their meat were put aboard the ships so that the valiant sailors could have nutritious food.  The sailors were physically fit due to the good food and mentally healthy knowing that the girls left behind were busy taking care of a pet.  For these reasons, the English navy was so formidable they once conquered the world.

Above was the gist of a TV animation I watched several years ago.   To me, the story sounds logical.    Please let me share with you the points I derived from the cat story and the way we can apply them.

First, number does matter.  You need a countless number of cats.  If the entire society had only one cat, the population of rats would not dwindle and many young women would have no access to the pet.  Having a bigger cat or other species would not help either.  Likewise, we need a network of change agents, a little seed of understanding and a group of well-intended people, throughout the system. 

Multiplicity of a single act requires the task to be simple – enjoyable actually.  You wouldn’t expect so many women to raise cats if they needed a three-month training or a book on cat-raising procedures, would you?  Some would be willing to do so, and they would raise cats so well.  We may need some enthusiasts, but, for the mass, simplicity is the rule.   Make a change easier, if not tastier, to swallow, and you can get more people onto the bandwagon.

Then you must be sure that the act is meaningful.  Going back to our story, what do you think Britain would have been if the ladies had concertedly chosen to keep goldfish instead of cats?    It might have helped control the mosquito population if the fish was fed with wigglers.  Then what?  Small things can matter only when they bring big results.  Cats are multi-purposed; so are change activities.  It will be a creative doom to have so many people contributing so much of uselessness. 

Finally, there must be something for everyone. In our cat story, the women thought of themselves when they raised a pet, but the cats also rendered public good.  The cats chased mice for their own purpose, but the controlled population of rats had a spiral effect.  Cattle raisers took care of their own business, but the well-bred and well-fed cattle contributed to a strong navy.  Can you imagine the British state forcing women to kill rats, grow wheat, and feed cows while their husbands were sent to fight abroad?  Would the result be the same?   Remove cats from the scene and, instead of a heroic empire, you would end up with another axis of evil.   We need cats.   I mean – for a change to have a massive result for the whole organization, you need a huge lot of people doing a small extra thing in their daily lives, a thing that they wouldn’t mind doing extra because it brings either joy or benefit or both. 

I believe anyone that starts an organizational change does not only want to start but to win it as well.   A change can be said to have reached the finish line only when the people involved have changed.  For this reason, it is essential to design the needed change in a form that is acceptable and doable for the public.

We all need change.  And we need it in a hurry.  So what do we do now?  If we want result within a short period, don’t waste time inaugurating glamorous change initiatives, just think ahead, plan well, implement well, and make the change winnable.

To summarise, let me suggest that a change well done should have the following components:

–          A critical mass: for a change to be called a success, many people must change. 

–          A manageable task for the mass: don’t tell people to change if you don’t know what they should do.  Make the change easy (and pleasant) enough to carry out such as “raise a cat”, or “use the intranet”, or “expedite the decision making process by bringing matters for discussion to the clearing house every Monday”. 

–          Meaningful and multipurpose activities:  Focus on only things that matter.  Do not bother to change the activities that affect nobody.  If you do only a few things, please do things that make many other people better off.  Change the way you service external and internal customers.  Unlock the bottleneck.   Keep a cat, not a gold fish or a hamster. 

–          A win for all:  let them have a positive reason to change.  If the change is imperative, we have to do it no matter what.  But leaders should try their best to make the change come out in the most bearable – if not enjoyable – form.  Say, a cat cannot take the place of a husband but it makes waiting bearable.  (After the war or the journey, she could have both.) 

We are amidst the wind of change both in the public arena and business field.  It is possible to go along with the wind, enjoy it and reap the fruit as well.  The best implemented change should have a human face, but public participation does not come automatically.   The hardest part is to make it easy for the people to change – and that is the responsibility of the leader.  


[1] This article was published in the ‘By Invitation’ column of the Bangkok Post on November 9, 2007. 

 [2] Khun Jutha is a partner at Signature Solutions Limited, a management consultancy company specializing in organization management and people development.

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