Niccolo Machiavelli – Change Agent

By Scott Franklin

“…there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things…” –Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Prince”

Considered by many as the father of modern political science, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” as practical, if not morally ambiguous, advice on what is necessary for a new prince to establish stable rule.

In other words, how to create and sustain major change. The following excerpt from his book demonstrates Machiavelli’s awareness of the difficulty of change and the resistance it can provoke.

“Hence it is that, whenever the opponents of the new order of things have the opportunity to attack it, they will do it with the zeal of partisans, whilst the others defend it but feebly, so that it is dangerous to rely upon the latter.''- Niccolo Machiavelli

This statement says that those who oppose a change will fight it with all they have, while those who support a change will do so without enthusiasm. As a result, leaders must take additional measures to ensure changes are adopted.

In his book, Machiavelli directly addresses three core principles of successful change management:

1) Change is a process – Change is not an announcement or an event, it is a process. As he points out, it is difficult for people to put their faith in something that they have not experienced. This is why it is critical to have active and visible sponsorship throughout the change. More than one change has found itself floundering because the sponsors observed substantial progress and moved on to the next issue trusting in ‘momentum’ to carry it the rest of the way. The reality is that as soon as the sponsors lose visibility, the momentum shifts to the defenders of the old way and hard-earned gains are soon lost.

2) Expect resistance – Major change alters power structures, shifts responsibilities, and crosses organizational boundaries, which affects real people with real influence. These real people get their real influence from the existing power structures, responsibilities and organizational roles.  Therefore, it is dangerous to underestimate the power of the desire to hold onto the current state. Machiavelli provided this observation as a reminder that people tend to work in their own self-interest and that the fear of losing something is generally stronger than the hope of gaining something. In other words, don’t waste energy wondering why people are resisting and focus your efforts on leading through the resistance.

3) Build support – Left to their own devices, those with power in the old system will actively (though not always visibly) defend the current state and those who will benefit the most from the new system will tend to be more passive in their support. In writing “The Prince”, Machiavelli hoped to provide the reader with an understanding of the challenges that lay ahead so that they may be better prepared. Therefore it is a critical role of the sponsor to work at closing the gap by reducing resistance from the first group and building support from the second.

Research has shown that major transformational change has only a 30% chance of meeting all or most of the results expected. I’m not sure what the success rate was in the 16th century, but I would venture to guess that the statement “…there is nothing more difficult or dangerous…” is a good indication that it was low even then. While some of Machiavelli’s other advice belongs in the Change Agent ‘Wall of Shame’ category, his observation of the nature, danger, and challenge of change is as true today as when it was written 479 years ago. Effective leadership is critical to successful change and requires active sponsorship throughout the change, expecting and managing resistance, and building support. Just ask Nick.

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