If the horse is dead…

The mindset with which we approach change is the main determining factor which decides whether we will fail or succeed. But embracing innovation as and when it happens is easier said than done. Innovation usually happens through a series of failing efforts, it produces clumsy prototypes with lots of defects and often only decades later in a historical perspective the obvious advantages become apparent. We all know examples of misjudgements of innovation which a few years later look totally ludicrous. Here comes Kaiser Wilhelm: most likely following a rather uncomfortable ride in one of the earliest cars, the German emperor is said to have predicted: “I believe in the horse. The automobile is just a temporary phenomenon.”43 Eventually the Kaiser had 22 cars and two drivers but it obviously took him some time to embrace the changes and enjoy the advantages the automobile brought.

Often we find it difficult to embrace change because we are so deeply immersed in the present. Being used to and feeling comfortable with the status quo can easily lead to a strategy of denial of a changing reality. Recently a colleague sent me the link to an internet blog which makes fun of our sector’s habit of denying changes in the reality surrounding us. Under the title ‘If the Horse is Dead, You Should Dismount’44, Bernard Ross refers to ‘ancient tribal wisdom’ encouraging us to accept rather than deny the changing realities around us. Ross provides us with some examples of how CSOs – he calls them charities – may respond when finding that their horse is dead:

  • “Buy a stronger whip to see if we can improve performance.
  • Change riders to get a better match of styles.
  • Declare as a core value, “This is the way we have always ridden this horse, and it fits with our culture.”
  • Appoint consultants to study the horse and come up with creative uses for it.
  • Arrange to visit other charities to see how they ride dead horses.
  • Rewrite the performance standards to incorporate riding dead horses.
  • Create a training program to help people ride dead horses.
  • Form a project team to find uses for dead horses.
  • Promote the dead horse to a management position.”

This is a funny way to describe a situation all of us will have experienced in some form before: rather than accepting that realities have changed – our beloved horse is dead – we try to maintain an untenable situation, often by undertaking any possible effort to find a new meaning for an outdated tool or habit. Accepting that the horse is dead, that chemical film is no longer needed or, in our case, that the basis for our traditional role as intermediary is disappearing, takes farsightedness and a lot of courage. If you are courageous enough to admit to yourself that your horse is dead or may die in the near future you may find some of the following discussions useful.