Learning Change From Meerkats

I thoroughly enjoyed John Kotter’s “That’s Not How We Do It Here!” — a fable about a clan of meerkats turning adversity into opportunity. The fable has been an enduring form of imparting wisdom and shedding light on greater truths since ancient times. As in a classic fable, key mistakes become great sources of learning that Nadia, the endearing meerkat protagonist, uses to guide her clan through a fast changing environment, filled with new and different predators, to effectively bypass the resistance of “that’s not how we do it here!” in order to reach “why haven’t we always done this?”

In the fable, the meerkat clan faces internal and external challenges — new problems for which existing rules and processes do not work. Internally, alphas are setting new procedures in meetings without communicating below, which leads to a lot of stress for meerkats, as each is looking to take care of himself or herself. As a result, an atmosphere of “survival of the fittest” emerges.

Similar to some large enterprises, the meerkat clans become process-driven, slow-moving and risk-averse, which leaves them vulnerable to predators and unable to react to increasing threats, see new opportunities to capitalize on, and learn new ways to grow.

As Nadia sets on her journey in search for answers, she encounters a clan run by the rule of “this is how we’ve always done it”. She knows that this clan is doomed. Continuing on her journey, she encounters a small, innovative clan run by Lena, an inspiring leader who broke out from a large, dysfunctional clan. As this entrepreneurial clan grows, new sets of challenges emerge, testing the limits of the entrepreneurial approach and revealing tensions between old meerkats and new arrivals, which they blame for their problems. How can Nadia avoid the problems of her original clan as well as those of Lena’s clan?

Without revealing the ending — except that the book has a happy ending — John Kotter, through this simple fable, imparts his insights garnered over decades of researching change and leadership and illustrates his “dual operating system” that simultaneously accelerates change and ignites the creativity and skills of employees across the company.

Kotter also explores the differences between management and leadership, between the benefits of structure inherent in large organizations and the agility of a successful startup, and how organizations need a balance of both to survive in the ever-changing business environment.

I recommend the book to “clans” everywhere, even if just as a starting point for a conversation that uses the same language and gets everyone on the same page.

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