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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Implementing Organizational Change? Learn How to Grow a Desert

[Also available as a podcast] [YouTube webinar]

All projects are change projects. That is the nature of projects – to create something new, to improve processes or to introduce something new into the business – and all of this requires people to adapt to the change. To better learn how to approach change - especially organizational change, we need to take a trip to a place that seems timeless, but is constantly changing.

White Sands, New Mexico - home to the largest gypsum dune field in the world, covering 275 square miles (712 sq km).

The glistening dunes of the White Sands desert are one of the wonders of the world, rising from the Tularosa basin on the eastern edge of the San Andres mountain range. Every year they slowly advance eastward across the Tularosa basin towards Alamogordo.

Gypsum sand is not a "normal" sand. Usually a desert like this would not even exist - gypsum is highly soluble and usually washes out of the hills and works its way down to the sea through streams and rivers.

In fact, the Tularosa basin used to be part of an inland sea, created by a massive rift when the continental plates pulled apart - but now it is a land-locked desert basin. It is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, seeing only a few inches of rain a year with no rivers to carry moisture (or gypsum) away.

The desert basin is also very flat - really flat, as only the bottom of an old sea or lake can be. When driving up to White Sands from El Paso, I literally drove in a straight line at 70mph/113kph (yes the speed limit) for an hour or more. And it felt like I was crawling.

The White Sands dune field is a good model for looking at Organizational change - progress can often be slow and steady, with occasional bursts of movement. From a distance, change may not even be apparent at all over short periods of time. And with the "wrong" environmental factors, progress can be literally washed away. But with persistence and the right change agents working together, you can move mountains.

Recipe for Change: Growing a Desert, Step-by-Step

Interestingly enough, you need the some of the same basic ingredients to grow a gypsum desert as you do to grow plants.
  • Minerals
  • Water
  • Sunlight
  • Air

When you want to grow a plant, you need the seed and (1) minerals [in soil], (2) water, (3) sunlight, (4) air, all in balance. Too much (or too little) of any one of these four, and your seedling will die.

In the case of growing a gypsum desert, you need (1) the mineral gypsum - from the surrounding mountain ranges, and (2) water, (3) sunlight and (4) air - specifically, wind. You need some energy, a push to get things moving. Too much (or too little) of any one of these four, and you will not have your gypsum desert.
  • Too little water, and the gypsum won't dissolve out of the mountains
  • Too much water, and the gypsum will stay in solution in the lake water
  • Too little sun, and you can't precipitate the salts out of the water (less evaporation)
  • Too little wind, and you have no crystal erosion or movement of sand
  • Too much wind - and it all blows away!
There is of course one major difference between a desert and an organization. You would never ask a grain of sand if it wanted to be part of a sand dune. It is just part of being a grain of sand to be part of a beach or a dune - it is in its nature. All it takes is a bit of wind or wave action, and it moves.

However, in an organization, you have people, not sand - and people can provide disproportionate levels of resistance to change relative to their "size". It is just part of being a person - it is in our nature to resist change.

When planning for and implementing organizational change, you need to start with these basic ingredients:

  • Vision of the future
  • Reason for the change (why "there" will be better than "here")
  • Change Agents (people who buy-in and help introduce the change)
  • Energy and determination to persevere

Moving the Mountain

People simply don’t like change. If things are going along “well enough”, people will generally not want to change – they will stick with their ingrained habits and procedures. And not only will they not want to change – they will, either actively or passively, resist it. They want to remain part of the mountain.

We need to help start them on the journey to change. And it won't be a smooth road either - there will be stops and starts along the way.

Just Add Water

Infrequent seasonal rains dissolve gypsum from the light stratus layers in the mountains, bringing it to the low point near Lake Lucero. 

In projects, you need to prepare for change by looking at the current state and the desired future state. You also need to look at the organizational culture to see what approaches may or may not work, and look at what has worked in the past.

Generally, a "hit them hard and fast" approach never turns out well in the long term. If things have been pretty stable for a long time, you need to take a softer approach to start - you need to assess the lay of the land carefully, test the waters, talk to people in the different areas where you are trying to effect the change.

You will likely only find a few people that welcome change with open arms – these are the early adopters, and they can prove to be your greatest advocates. Ideally, you will be able to identify and bring advocates on board from each of the to-be-affected areas of the organization.

Then, you begin to craft your message. Your Communication Plan is a key component of any change management strategy, and can literally be the make-or-break factor for your project change efforts. Take the time to invest effort in it, and invest your efforts wisely. The form and size of the communication plan and your change management team (including the advocates) will vary depending upon the scale and strategic importance of your project.

I would even suggest creating a storyboard - laying out the overall message for what we are changing, why the change is needed, and setup a progressive strategy for different levels of detail in the messages for the different audiences as you go forward.

You may not be permitted a lot of time to invest in your change management plan up front before you have to start communicating to the end users. However, it is important to layout the overall strategy, with plans to adapt when things don't quite turn out the way you hoped. Design the initial communications in detail - with the big picture sketched out, to be filled in as you go.

Once you have crafted your initial messages, use your advocates and the appropriate communication channels to spread the word, to soften up people's attitudes and begin to dissolve initial resistance, like gypsum in rain water.

Turning up the Heat

Once in the lake and alkali flats, sunlight begins to evaporate the gypsum-rich water, forming columns of the soft crystal Selenite.

 Ok, so you have things started - the initial messages are out and circulating with your end user "audience".

"That's interesting" they say.

You got them loosened up a bit, noses above the cubicle walls, but then they settle back and go back to doing things the way they always did.

Almost.  They are not exactly as they were before - you moved them a bit, but without any further actions from you, they will simply go back to their old ways - re-crystalizing where they now stand.

Believe it or not, this is not a bad thing - you have at least got them used to the idea of change. And it didn't hurt too bad yet, did it?

But this is not quite good enough yet - we need to put a bit more pressure on, turn the heat up, and put some more effort and energy into the process.

Shaken, Not Stirred

As the lake dries up further, wind and friction from other gypsum chunks break the crystal columns apart, bashing the pieces together over and over again until they break down to the size of a grain of sand.

For most people there has to be a compelling need in order to adopt change – and this can either be to improve from a very negative condition, or to adopt something new that will make things much easier for them. And even in these cases, they will not embrace change with open arms – there will still be doubts and uncertainty. (The devil you know vs the devil you don't)

We need to introduce a bit of discomfort. (Humanely, of course). Oh, and some Hope too.

We need to shake things up!

If we truly want the change to be effective, we need to have people wanting to change. We can't actually make them change. They have to do it themselves. And the only way to do this is to make the future state look and be much more appealing than the current state. (The "carrot".)

We need to crank up the communications and story-writing (truthfully of course), painting pictures of how things will be better with [the new system, product, process, whatever].

"That's nice," they say "but I like it the way it is now. Sounds ok, but I'm not changing."

We also need to carefully and selectively apply the "stick" to help move things in the right direction. You need to make it clear that it will be quite uncomfortable to remain "as is" - perhaps the system is being replaced and decommissioned, so the old one can't be used anymore. Or perhaps the job descriptions are changing and you need to "tool up" if you want to remain employed. There are less drastic scenarios in the middle ground as well - but the point is, you want them to move. If they are nice and cozy right where they are - most people will simply not adopt the change, and you will languish as your project sputters out and eventually fails.

Again - use your advocates at the grass roots to help manage the change and have their ears and eyes monitoring the mood and reaction with their peers; you need a feedback loop to the project team. However, the main push for this phase needs to have official, higher level support and enforcement.

Build Momentum

When the wind reaches approximately 20pmh/32kph, it is strong enough to blow the individual grains eastward into the dunes, one grain at a time.

Ok, now you have people starting to go your way - the masses are starting to move. Slowly at first, but the momentum starts to build.

Don't give up on your efforts now, though - you need to keep the communications and monitoring efforts going, to make sure that progress is being made. If you let it lapse, the wind will die down and you will stop making forward progress.

And don't forget to publicize any successes and milestone achievements along the way ("1,000th PC upgraded/user migrated, etc), as this will also help keep up the forward momentum.

Success promotes success!

Handling Resistance

Some resistance is inevitable, but unless it is a big enough obstacle, it should not impede the overall progress of your efforts - if you are prepared, that is!

Resistors - You can’t avoid them; there will always be at least one, so you had better be prepared. There are three types of resistance –passive, active, and subversive.

  • Passive Resistors: These are by nature the hardest to spot. They will quietly resist your efforts, but it is unlikely that they will spread the word very far. You need to remember they are there, but don’t need to put much effort into handling them for the most part. It is likely that they will gradually become “reluctant adopters” and then “users” as their peers gradually adopt around them.
  • Active Dissenters: These people can seem to be your biggest headache. They are generally quite outspoken, even more than the advocates. Their tirades can bring many of the “undecided” over to their side of non-adoption, so you can end up with a steep slope to climb. The trick is to identify them early – and bring them into the fold. (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer – Sun-tzu). Yes, bring them onto the Project Team. Not only that – give them a job to do, and listen to their input.

    Many dissenters are simply people seeking to have their opinion valued – and if you can manage to “convert them” to the project’s goals while also demonstrating that you value their opinion, you can end up with some of your most influential advocates. At worst, if you are keeping close tabs on them, as part of the team they are less likely to be destructive as it will reflect badly on them too.

    So they won’t join “the dark side” of the project team? Still keep a watchful eye on them, and try to involve them. Don’t give up – you may still be able to bring them in line with the project.
  • Subversives: These are the ones that smile to your face and talk behind your back (or stab you in the back). We had one of these on one of my projects – he had built a "side" system that was to be decommissioned, and simply did not want to let it go.

    Even though there was a company-wide edict from the CEO to adopt the new system and close down the “old” internal one, he went around behind and whispered into key ears, which ended up interfering with the adoption of the new system in multiple locations. Not completely, but there were complications that delayed buy-in. 

    Sometimes it’s simply down to
    who you know, not what you know. Be careful of the subversives! You may not be able to diffuse them, but you can’t ignore them either. You will need to figure out ways to counter their back-door rebellion – likely on an ongoing basis, unfortunately.
Don't make the mistake of ignoring your resistors - they can quite easily hamstring your project and bring things to a complete halt.

In the worst-case scenario, they can set you back quite a bit in both progress and credibility as they undermine what you are trying to achieve. In White Sands, the equivalent would be a heavy downpour dissolving large quantities of gypsum sand, erasing progress and shrinking the dunes.

The Tipping Point

The wind lifts and rolls the individual grains up the windward side of the dune, until they collect at the crest. The gypsum sand grains build up into a sharp edge or overhang until gravity pulls them down the leeward face, moving the dune slowly forward, inch by inch. (Sometimes a helping boot may give it a little nudge, moving the dune forward just that small fraction faster).

And there we have it - progress may have seemed slow, always uphill - but eventually, we reach a critical mass on the path to change, and it eventually becomes self-sustaining; we have reached the point of collective buy-in.

Well, at least for the first key group of users, but the others are not far behind, and will be soon coming over the crest, a group at a time.

Again - don't stop your change management and communication efforts just yet - you still need to keep the message going, and advertise success stories.

But at this stage - you are not having to work quite as hard. The masses are moving together, following the advocates and their "peer leaders". All you need from the project team is the occasional "nudge of a boot" on the crest if gravity "seems a little slow taking over", and regular monitoring to make sure that things remain on track.

And then, suddenly we are there! It may have been a long process and a lot of effort, but you have grown your own desert. Well, implemented the organizational change you needed for your project, anyway.



Growing a desert has many parallels with driving cultural or organizational change on your projects. In fact, when trying to implement organizational change, you might feel like you are stranded out alone in the desert all by yourself.

But with the right conditions, the right ingredients, and energy/effort applied in the right places at the right points, you can literally move mountains.

And on a side note -  when you look really close, the desert is not a barren place at all. It is full of life - and hope.

Good luck with your projects and implementing change!


  1. Great article Gary. Very salient point about getting change to stick and set.

  2. Nice article Gary. I really like the basic ingredients part and reading about these evil resistors.