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Swan-Feeding and Organisational Status Junkies

Around thirty swans swimming in a pond. It is a sunny day, there are trees in the background. There is a concrete edge to the pond, it is clearly constructed (rather than being a natural lake). In the distance there is grass. The sky is blue.

At a park near where I live there’s a large pond which is inhabited by many swans.  The swan population varies depending on the time of year, but at the moment there’s somewhere between 40-80 there, including some juvenile (grey) swans.  If you’ve never sat and watched a community of swans, I’d highly recommend taking some time to do it.

One thing that I find particularly interesting is when somebody comes to feed the swans.  Generally, the swans will be unevenly distributed across the pond, and some will be on the land.  There’s plenty of weed in the pond for them to eat, and on the land there’s plenty of grass.  So each swan has to make a decision: go for the easy food, or not.

I’ve no idea the extent to which swans actually have decision making abilities (I’d suspect they have very little in the way of logical cognition) but it’s noticeable that those that are in easy swimming distance will float up to the person with the food, others won’t.  

Watching the feeding frenzy is fascinating.  The swans crowd in, and each swan (presumably) wants as much food as possible.  Observe this for long enough, and in my experience you’ll see that different swans appear to act differently:

  • Early opportunists: Some swans act quickly and try to get as close to the food, attract the attention of the person feeding them (a gentle peck on the leg has even been known).
  • Collaborators: You sometimes see a fluffed up ‘alpha’ swan patrol the perimeter, chasing others away other birds (presumably ensuring that its juvenile swans/cygnets get sufficient food). 
  • Status junkies:  Bizarrely, some tussle to the front and pick fights and peck the necks of others, chasing them far away in the process.  In doing so, they miss out on the opportunity of food altogether as by the time they get back they are at the back of the tussle. It’s literally lose/lose:  I can only assume that they get some kind of ‘swan status’ from doing this.  

Organisational Swan-Feeding: Get Beyond The Squabbling

I was watching this a few days ago and it struck me how some teams, individuals and organisations appear (to me) to follow similar patterns.  In particular, some individuals and teams spend so long fighting each other (or an external perceived enemy) that they miss out on the opportunity to get on and do some really cool stuff. There’s always another smart and witty rebuttal to send; another authority or “big box consultancy” report to cite.  An argument that is 99.9% sound can be picked apart and things can get delayed again..

These are the metaphorical ‘status junkie’ swans fighting each other for the food, vying for attention and prestige. Yet, while armchair commentators are squabbling and trying to dictate how work should be undertaken, in reality most practitioners are just quietly getting on with it. Like the swans that do get the food, they have tuned out the noise and are finding ways of collaborating. In our world this might involve finding new ways of working with stakeholders in the best way they can and getting stuff done.  Listening to others, sensing trends, trying stuff, repeating the stuff that works and adapting.  Cultivating new ways of engaging and participating with others, and sharing that knowledge with the wider community. Ignoring the ‘methodology wars’ and accepting there is no silver bullet and no “one size fits all” solution.  And frankly, there are many folks doing this in a pretty graceful swan-like way (even though the occasional aggressive ‘swan’ tries to derail them)

Of course, there should be conversations about how tools and techniques adapt, and analysis is as key as it’s ever been.  But surely we are in a world beyond where our opinions are solely shaped by whatever BigBoxInc™ is trying to sell us this quarter? Where our connectivity gives us the ability to create a global community of practice that isn’t centrally controlled by some unelected profit-making behemoth who wants to ‘sweat its assets’, and sell stuff to anyone who will buy?  Peer-to-peer exchanges and learning are surely often more current and relevant?

It’s an individual choice, and a lot depends on context. It’s by no means binary and there’s no absolute “right” and “wrong”.  But as change practitioners, in my view, we need to be those listening carefully and deliberately tuning out the noise, even when the noise seems unbearably loud.  In doing so, we help our organisations stay focussed and deliver.

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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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

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1 thought on “Swan-Feeding and Organisational Status Junkies”

  1. Is this not an argument for hybrid working? For the days that a worker is at home, there is nobody there telling him/her how they should be working; there is no politicking: just getting on with the work.

    On the in-the-office days, that is the time to be socialising and discussing how work should be done. The loudmouths must, in their heart of hearts, know that as soon as the person they are berating goes back home, whatever the loudmouth has said will be ignored. If Loudmouth is not around to inspect things, then it’s a case of mice playing.

    And apart from the tie when they are squabbling and enforcing territorial/female rights, swans are beautiful, graceful things. Office workers? Perhaps less so.

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