Gulls, Shellfish and Change: The Change Profession Needs More Empathy

A few days ago I was walking around Canoe lake in Southsea, lost in my own thoughts.  I felt a sudden adrenaline rush as I involuntarily slowed down and swerved to avoid a small object that had dropped from above, followed by a bird (a gull) that swooped down to retrieve it.  I was taken aback; I’d probably walked past gulls doing this hundreds of times before but had never consciously thought about what they were doing and why.  It was only because I nearly collided with one of them that my attention was drawn to it!

Gull next to a shellfish
Gull eating a shellfish

I paused for a second and watched from the side-lines.  There are at least two varieties of gulls that swoop down into the water and retrieve shellfish (some sort of clam or muscle). The shellfish, understandably, aren’t keen on this encounter so tend to have their shells in the ‘closed’ protective position.  The gulls have figured out that the concrete besides the lake can be used as a tool for opening the shells.  A shell dropped from high enough will open or shatter, leaving a tasty morsel for the gull to enjoy.

Perspectives and Evaluation: Important for Change

What is considered a desirable outcome to this interaction is going to vary significantly from the gull vs the shellfish’s perspective. The gull (presumably) wants maximum calories with minimum effort.  The shellfish (presumably) wants to survive whilst expending minimum effort.  Of course, neither animal would understand or state it in these terms; it is presumably ‘wired in’ to their brains and I am sure there is a neuroscientist that could describe it.  There’s also a longer-term impact if either one has too much success.  If the shellfish becomes too successful at defending itself from predators, then the lake will fill up with shellfish (and they’ll over-consume the lake’s resources, threatening their viability).  If the gulls over-consume shellfish then the stocks will be depleted. 

As I watched nature play out in front of me, I thought back to a recent conversation I’d had where myself and a colleague had been discussing the importance of understanding efficacy, effectiveness and efficiency from the perspective of different stakeholder groups.  It has become fashionable for organisations to pretend that they exist in order to achieve a single ‘mission’ and that all of their staff are unanimously and single-mindedly aligned in the achievement of that mission.  That the organisation has a single purpose, defined by the managers.  Yet have you ever come across an organisation where that is actually true?  Where everyone in the organisation, truly, has just a single and unified view, and no personal opinions or agendas?  I don’t think I have.

Of course having a stated purpose is important, it helps organisations to evolve in a broad direction.  Yet it’s crucial that we understand that the actors within it likely have their own opinions, views and perspectives—some of which they’ll tell us, some of which they won’t.  Some they might not even consciously know (particularly if they relate to a need for a sense of community, stability or identity).

Let’s not be ‘gulls’

I suspect many people reading this blog will work in a ‘change’ of some description, whether a business analyst, project manager, consultant or similar role.  Think about what we do: We take part of an organisation and we break it open.  We change it and we then tend to walk away again.  Change programmes love to talk about “engagement” or “participative approaches” but in the same breath talk about “educating” those that “aren’t quite ready for the journey yet”.  I’m not sure any level of “education” or “engagement plan” is going to make the shellfish “buy in” to the plan that the gull has for it…

Change is an inherently human endeavour, yet it is often talked about in the language of business, or the jargon of management.  Yet the people involved might feel like metaphorical ‘shellfish’, having their worlds turned upside-down, broken open and now they are vulnerable.  They might fear the “gull” (in this case change projects) are going to automate them, make them redundant or negatively change their jobs.  Who can blame them?

Rather than “educating” we should listen, empathise and absorb the diversity of views.  Rather than “top down” we should look to co-create change that is better aligned with the range of stakeholder’s perspectives.  Understanding how those stakeholders would evaluate success is a crucial part of this.  A sponsor might talk about “ROI” or “IRR”.  A front-line worker might just want a set of processes that don’t inhibit their work.  A service-user might just want a service that works, staffed by people that treat them with empathy.  It can’t be beyond the wit of the ‘professional’ change profession to deliver this.  Can it?


Links & Further Reading

It would be remiss of me to discuss evaluation and topics such as efficacy without mentioning Checkland’s ‘5Es’ (Efficacy, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Ethicality & Elegance). If you’re not familiar with these, it is well worth taking a look at Checkland’s work or at one of the many papers available on Google Scholar

If this topic interest you, be sure to check out the video of Adrian speaking at the BA Conference Europe 2019. His presentation was entitled “Whose Perspective Is It Anyway: Practical Stakeholder Analysis Techniques”.


This article is kindly supported by the Building Business Capability Conference.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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4 thoughts on “Gulls, Shellfish and Change: The Change Profession Needs More Empathy”

  1. Love this story and analogy. What really resonates for me is ‘Rather than “educating” we should listen, empathise and absorb the diversity of views.’ I’m one of those consultants that walks away, so the co-creation is the key to lasting change. It means it’s more likely I leave a legacy when I leave, rather than a trail of debris although one can never guarantee those involved don’t feel like a shellfish at times.

    1. Thanks Sharon, I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article. The idea of a “legacy” is a really nice one too… Ensuring we’ve left a dent (in a positive way) by the time we walk away!

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