Animal migration is a fascinating phenomenon in nature. Large groups of animals move great distances, for extended periods of time, overcoming challenging environments and circumstances. That sounds a lot like leading an organization, doesn’t it? In fact, five key characteristics of animal migration also serve as excellent guidance for leading an organization through change.
One of the greatest responsibilities of leadership is to move an organization through change, from one state of being to another. Leaders essentially fail if they allow their organization to stand still. The status quo is not an option when all around culture is adapting, the economy is cycling, and technology continues to evolve. The transition from what the organization is today to its future state involves changes of many kinds. It is a migration from what the organization is to what it will be.
Animal migration is said to involve five key characteristics1, 2:
- Prolonged movements outside familiar surroundings,
- Linear, not erratic movement,
- Special behavior for preparation and arrival,
- Dedicated allocation of energy, and
- Great attention to the larger mission.
Let’s explore how each of these five characteristics of animal migration provide guidance for leading change — organizational migration.
Prolonged Movement Outside Familiar Surroundings
Familiar surroundings, by definition, do not represent change. Unfamiliar surroundings encourage change and are ultimately the context for the future state of the organization. Quick forays into unfamiliar surrounds are not enough. Short journeys do not challenge changes in attitude, beliefs, or behaviors. Long-term exposure, or a permanent change in surroundings, encourages deep adjustments that facilitate an organizational migration of true change.
Linear, Not Erratic Movement
A leader’s path toward a future, changed state needs to be a rather straight line. Erratic course corrections in the change plan will undermine followers’ faith and confidence in the leader. Followers need to see a leader who stays focused on a goal and maintains a relatively straight path to that destination. There will certainly be roadblocks and challenges along the way that cause temporary and minor course alterations, but the overall direction of the organizational migration needs to be steady and straight.
Special Behavior for Preparation and Arrival
Prolonged journeys into unfamiliar territory require special preparation. Leaders understand that everyone in the organization needs to be involved in the preparation for this migration. Widespread involvement creates buy-in and commitment to what will be a difficult process. The specific type of preparation is dependent upon the goal of the change, but the greatest preparations are not outward, but inward. Special attention must be given to creating awareness, belief, and commitment for the organizational migration.
There are special behaviors upon arrival at the change destination, too. These behaviors are generally ceremonial and celebratory. Ceremony honors the difficult journey, perhaps those who were lost along the way, and even what was left behind. Celebration calls attention to great achievements, heroes who emerged during the migration, and the benefits of the new setting.
Dedicated Allocation of Energy
Successful migrations to a new organizational state require the specific commitment of resources. Leaders cannot expect followers to implement change, to embark on the journey of change, using only the resources they have for “normal” tasks. Resources need to be re-allocated and dedicated specifically to the migration. This often means that other activities need to stop and sacrifices must be made. In any case, special allocation of energy to the migration must be made.
Great Attention to the Larger Mission
Perhaps the leader’s most important responsibility in an organizational migration is the mission. The mission should underscore, be the very reason for the change effort. (A change effort not tied to the mission will most certainly fail.) Perhaps the words of David Quammen, in National Geographic Magazine, say it best: “Migrating animals maintain a fervid attentiveness to the greater mission, which keeps them undistracted by temptations and undeterred by challenges that would turn other animals aside.”1 The path of every change journey encounters temptations and challenges. Leaders must help followers stay focused on the mission, the organization’s purpose and reason for an organizational migration.
Perhaps, as you read these five characteristics of migration, you recalled events in your own change leadership story. How has your journey of change leadership been like a migration?
1: Quammen, David. “Great Migrations.” National Geographic Magazine, November, 2010. 31-51.
2: Dingle, Hugh. Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.