Whatever your view of the “Lord of the Rings” books and movies, we can all agree on one thing: they don’t have anything to say about change management.

Or do they? I think any scholar in Middle-Earth who happened to ask the Mirror of Galadriel for some thoughts about managing change would find two powerful insights that show us contrasting approaches to change.

The first of these is the temptation to adopt what I think of as a “Hobbits-to-Mordor” approach to strategic change. For those who need reminding, in LOTR a programme team (or fellowship) devises a strategy to deliver change (or destroy the forces of evil) by sending two hobbits on a dangerous secret mission whose nature will only be understood once they have completed it.

Many programme teams are tempted to try something similar. They might think, “Let’s not tell anyone what we’re doing until it’s too late for them to stop us.” Teams generally have plausible reasons for this approach: change fatigue in the organisation, unwillingness to trigger consultation, or complex political environments. Whatever the reason, in pretty much every case, the Hobbits-to-Mordor approach is a temptation to be avoided:

  • Even if you can run your programme without anybody knowing about it, nobody reacts well when surprised with a done deal.
  • When you choose to keep a change secret, all people hear are rumours which won’t be flattering or accurate. When this happens, you lose your chance to manage the message.
  • Most people would prefer to contribute to a change rather than have it imposed on them.
  • Secret programmes destroy the trust between leaders and the people they need to follow them.

It’s said of new technologies that we overestimate their impact in the short term but underestimate it in the long term. The same mostly holds true of people’s reaction to change. When we engage openly and early with our colleagues, they will certainly be more positive than when we surprise them late in the day.

LOTR’s second insight into managing change offers more positive lessons. It shows a positive vision of that essential skill of change leaders everywhere – coalition building. When the fellowship of the ring first meets, none of them have any real power. The most that can be said is that they are well networked and influential.

As the story proceeds, the surviving members of the fellowship are able to turn their influence and connections into power, to persuade armies and kingdoms to join them, and to drive their change strategy against the forces of evil.

So, avoid perilous quests into Mordor – they’re always a long shot, and unlike the hobbits, you have to live with the people you’ve surprised. Save your energy for building coalitions of the willing. It’s the only way to bring people with you, whether you’re destroying ancestral evils or upgrading your ERP system.

Contact us. We’re good at building coalitions.