Moving Mountains: Lessons Learned from Organizational Change

Today is May 18. It’s a date that I’ll never forget. The only time a mountain ever came to me was on a May 18.

Plan for moving a mountain.
Photo “Mt. Rainier and Olympic Range, Olympia, Washington (ca. 1916)” courtesy of the Library of Congress. (

Mountains aren’t made to be moved. They are made to sit in one place. They don’t look like they are up to much, but most of them are either slowly getting bigger or slowly getting smaller. The ones that aren’t doing it slowly are doing it rapidly.

When mountains change rapidly, by definition there’s a lot of chaos involved. Shaking, fire, things falling down… mountains that are changing rapidly can be very dangerous places.

The first part of my career I worked on mountains that were starting up and doing it rapidly. I invented systems and processes that didn’t yet exist. Sometimes I knew they were good. Sometimes I knew they weren’t so good, but they solved an immediate problem and I thought I’d make them better later. Unfortunately, there rarely was time to do it later.

Lesson One:
Shaping molten lava takes effort and asbestos gloves, but shaping hardened rock takes heavy machinery, dynamite, and lots of other people. Get it right the first time even if it an expedient shortcut seems faster and easier.

People used to disappear on these dangerous growing mountains regularly. One minute they’d be sitting at their desk in the middle of the lava field, but the next the chair was empty and their stuff was gone. Sometimes they were burnt by the fire, sometimes they were lured to other mountains, sometimes I never really knew what happened to them.

Lesson Two:
Never make anything dependent on any one person. Organizations that survive are built around roles, not around individuals.

I decided to take what I’d learned on young, growing mountains and bring it to older mountains with slower growth. Mountains that appeared to offer stability and peaceful vistas. I assumed old mountains looked at young mountains and wanted to be like them again, just with fewer eruptions and earthquakes.

The older mountains assumed they wanted this too. My first day at an established retailer, my boss told me my job was to change the way the company thought about online business. Later, at a public television station I was presented as a welcome change agent who could rethink the business model.

On both these mountains, assumptions quickly clashed with realities.

At the retailer, I climbed towards the goal through a field of talus, or loose fallen rock. As soon as I began my ascent, it started to slide and I made slow progress upwards through tumbling boulders, some of which I dodged and some of which hit me and knocked me backwards.

Lesson Three:
Organizations build automatic defenses against change that kick in even when individuals think they want the change to happen.

But I kept climbing. Others noticed I was making more progress to the goal than they were and began to climb with me. Soon we roped up as a team. We supported each other and together we made it. By not giving up, I achieved what I was hired to do. Then I left that mountain to go recover from my wounds in the valley below.

Lesson Four:
Sometimes getting your climbing partners to the goal is more important than getting there yourself.

At the public television station, I stood at the bottom of the talus slope, pointed upwards and said “The goal is up there!” I looked around at my potential climbing partners and saw they weren’t looking, but were still gathering equipment. They needed time to get ready. I knew the goal needed to be reached before a deadly storm moved in. So I began to climb alone.

I am climbing now, but slowly. I know one misstep will start the talus sliding and the boulders tumbling. One by one, others have begun to notice I am climbing. The farther up I go, the clearer it becomes to them what the goal I am going for is. It will be impossible to reach the goal without starting a rockslide. To survive I will need to be roped to a climbing team that shares my goal. The question now is whether that team can be assembled in time to reach the goal, or whether the storm will hit first and the ascent will be abandoned.

Lesson Five:
If the organization can’t define the goal, pick what you think it should be and move towards it anyway. But keep watching others — they may have picked a better ascent route and maybe you should join their team instead of them joining yours.

When you reach a goal, pause for a moment and take in the view. Notice how it’s different from the view you saw when you started. You might think that’s just because you’re looking from a different part of the mountain, but I think it’s also because organizational mountains respond to goals being reached. When you get where you’re going, the mountain does move in response and it will never go back to where it was before.

The mountain that came to me one May 18th wasn’t an organizational mountain. It was a literal mountain. But when it got to me it was volcanic ash falling from the sky. Half the mountain had gone away in an enormous explosion.

Lesson Six:
A mountain that is moved when people are allowed to set and achieve goals is more stable than a mountain that moves in response to pent up pressure.

Moving mountains is hard, it’s easy to get hurt, and even when you succeed the rewards often go to others. So why do it? Because they are there.

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