Throw stones or befriend the King – how to get things changed!

Candle in the dark


I am involved in a wonderful international network of people, some work in companies, others NGOs, others in policy and others academics or consultants of various sorts, all united in trying to make a better, more sustainable world.

Debate is ongoing about the urgent need for transformative change, the inertia of organisations of all types and the soul sapping difficulties of trying to trying to inspire and motivate people to do things differently.

Those in large businesses in particular seem to suffer from angst about their usefulness, whilst also being seen by some as tainted by their association with big brand names and lacking in the ‘purity’ of those who observe from the outside on how things ‘should’ be.  It’s not easy being on the inside or the outside it seems to me.

I’ve been looking at our own purpose and ability to make a difference in the world recently and checking out the thinking of Simon Sinek (thoroughly recommend his TED talk (the third most watched of all time!) on How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

In his writing, Sinek suggests “If you want change, don’t stand outside the palace throwing stones against the walls, befriend the King”.

I liked that, it made sense to my collaborative way of thinking – get stuck in, collaborate,  go to the top to get things done. But then I remembered some research I did for my Masters thesis which showed that organisations don’t really make dramatic changes without a large and usually negative experience. So unless someone is chucking stuff at him, (ideally personally, not just at the palace walls!) the King probably won’t be remotely interested in what you have to say. In fact he’ll probably think you are a nutter and lock you up in the dungeon.

But then let’s say you do become the his trusted buddy, and he is open to your ideas and even willing to act. Do you have a clear and compelling view of what the problem is, what the changes need to be and what he and others should do? A clarity of vision and a clear path to action is by no means the easy bit.

OK, let’s say the King is your pal, you have a compelling vision, a clear plan, which he thinks is brilliant, how are you going to implement it? These changes can’t be imposed on the populace by dictat.   The people themselves have to see the need to do things differently and embrace these new ideas. After all, they are the ones who are going to have to make and live with most of these changes – they take the risk, and bear the cost; for a purpose which often seems too complex, abstract, distant and with the proposed solutions invented by people unconnected with their lives and experience.

Add to that the fact that the human brain is naturally wired to shun change and favour the status quo – the King’s new buddy has a job on her hands.

Though you have the ear of the King, brilliant ideas and a clear plan – they count for nothing if the people don’t want to do things your way. Which is where those outside the palace walls come in. People toiling away, in organisations large and small, who in their own way are gradually changing how others think and the way things are done. These are the ones creating a different, more open, responsive culture, where values count, new thinking is possible and new ideas try-able.

So to get back to all those trying to make a difference in Sustainability. Like those in this little tableau, everyone is chipping away at the foundations of the old way of doing things and playing their part in building the many new ways. Perhaps the old model will crash to the ground leaving a cloud of smoke & rubble, or perhaps it’ll be dismantled more slowly, brick by brick and reformed in another way. But we are all in this together and we all have a critical part to play.

So, if you are in a large organisation feeling like you are holding a tiny candle in a big dark cavern, or someone with a large pile of rocks and a catapult; someone creating new ideas, or whispering into the King’s ear, or indeed if you are a ‘King’ – your part is totally essential and we can’t do it without you.   Keep up the good work!

2 thoughts on “Throw stones or befriend the King – how to get things changed!

  1. Thanks Hilary – I remember this frustration from working in central government. The quote that still inspires me is this one by William James, I like to think of us as being like the capillary network he refers to

    I am done with great things and big plans,
    Great institutions and big success and
    I am for those tiny invisible, loving human forces
    That work from individual to individual
    Creeping through the crannies of the world
    Like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary
    Oozing of water, yet which, if given time
    Will rend the hardest monuments of pride.

    1. Absolutely lovely, thanks Charlotte! Some people really can write. This beautifully encapsulates was thinking of when challenging the ‘zero incrementalism’ ideas a while back.

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