The stampede analogy

“….once you start a company transformation, it’s like a stampede. If you try to lead from the front, you get trampled; if you try to lead from the back, you have no impact. Best to lead from the side by carefully nudging and turning the stampede to avoid everyone going over the cliff.”
Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, Shannon O’Donnell in their book, “Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader.

I’m currently reading Austin, Nolan and O’Donnell’s book and the passage above made me compare it’s context to OSS. Whilst the book is referring to organisational change, it clearly reflects the stampede effect of large OSS transformations too.

Executives who assume that OSS transformations are just another project may not realise that OSS transformations induce major organisational change until their herd is careering over the cliff. They may not realise how much of an organisational change they introduce – how many business units are touched, the pushback to change initiatives, or the cultural and training / learning programs that need to support the technical changes.

The quote also made me reflect on approaches to leading OSS transformation, specifically considering how to steer the herd from multiple levels within an organisation.

Clearly, the project sponsor/s or champion/s who steer from the side of the herd will need to be very senior within the transforming organisation so that they have enough influence to redirect a very large body of impacted stakeholders. They don’t lead from the front, but their role is absolutely essential and often underestimated.

The OSS project team lead from the front, to direct where the herd is travelling on a day-to-day basis, but they generally don’t have the context of the whole organisation or the ability to influence broadly. Transforming organisations have a tendency to place almost all change management responsibility in the hands of the project team, to their detriment in most cases. The corporate influence, vision and strategy have to be directed from higher up in the organisation.

Funnily enough, an OSS transformation needs to be led from the rear of the herd too. Once the herd has stampeded through the project’s change initiatives, operational leadership is needed to round up the stragglers and re-establish control of day-to-day functions (ie operationalising the functionality delivered by the project team). Ideally the operational team at the back of the herd will have maintained communications with the project team, providing their guidance and influence over where the herd is being steered. Sadly this is sometimes forgotten on OSS transformations too.

What do you think of Austin, Nolan and O’Donnell’s stampede analogy? Is it reflective of successful leadership you’ve experienced on OSS transformations? Or perhaps it highlights ways that leadership could’ve been provided differently on less successful projects?

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