Cats and Can Openers


A model for managing complex change

‘It’s hard to herd the cats until they hear the sound of the can opener.’ I heard this expression for the first time this week at a seed industry meeting – the last in a series of stakeholder consultations about the potential merger of six organizations. While generally complementary in their roles, the groups are developing a shared vision for their ideal future, including whether they could be more efficient if they realigned or merged in some form or another. I was quizzing people over lunch on what they thought would be the most practical and clear path forward. The ‘cats and can opener’ comment was the first response. The whole table chuckled, but it has stuck with me as a perfect analogy. For anyone who has fed livestock (or cats) you know how food brings everyone to attention and focus.

What it really refers to is incentive. What the commentator was suggesting is that it will be hard for these six organizations to make any real choices until the stakeholders can see a detailed plan that measures the gains and savings (the incentive). But it’s not that simple.

For any complex change, you need more than just an incentive like decreased cost “synergies” or increased market share. I came across the following chart a while ago; it’s is a great way to explain the ingredients needed for making a complex change. The model was developed by Dr. Mary Lippitt with a copyright in 1987, so it’s not a new “flavour of the month” management tip. This is a simple, clear and proven model for managing a complex change.

The theory is bang on…in order for a big change to take place, you need to have five components:

  • Vision
  • Skills
  • Incentives
  • Resources
  • And an action plan

Think about the math: Vision + skills + incentives + resources + action plan = change. If one of these aspects is weak, you will not be successful. The end results will likely to be confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration or a false start.

Managing Complex ChangeSource: The Managing Complex Change model by Dr. Mary Lippitt, Enterprise Management Ltd. 1987

At Synthesis, we get the chance to work with many client groups across the country who are considering major changes such as this. It’s common for groups to spend a lot of their time on the vision (which is great), but at some point in the process the group needs to get down to the details that make it real. If the incentives are just high-level concepts and not specific, then only the visionaries and theorists will ‘get it’ and the rest of us will be resistant. But similarly, without a clear and shared vision you will get mostly confusion.

For the seed sector, the process is well underway to line up each of these ingredients required to make a complex change. But it will take more than just a can opener.

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