Transformation and the Oxbow Lake
Nature offers us a lot of models and metaphors for life and human behaviour. We’re animals, after all, and our lives and patterns often echo not just those of other animals, but the geography and cycles of the planet itself.
In my work as an enterprise coach and transformation partner, I often think of the phenomenon of the oxbow lake — one of my few vivid memories from high school geography class. When a rapid-flowing river adapts to the landscape it encounters, it twists and turns; eventually, some of the wider twists will be cut off, orphaned from the river, and form their own bodies of water. These U-shaped bodies are dubbed oxbow lakes — shaped like the collar used to attach oxen to a yoke for ploughing a field.
What does this have to do with the work I do?
Well, rivers are, by definition, moving things. They have an impetus to flow, generally toward other, larger bodies of water. And they carry things along with them.
Oxbow lakes represent the curving meanders of a river that get cut off and isolated as the energy of the river seeks a more direct path to its destination. They are, you might say, the product of a river’s impatience to get where it’s going.
All this, in my mind, relates easily to one of the biggest misses in organisational transformation: the people angle.
Employees working at all levels of a company are swept along by the currents of that company’s flow — its development, its expansion or contraction, its goals, its fate. Some people thrive in that energy, and some don’t. Some experience change like being caught in an eddy, and feel lost or robbed of purpose in the whirl of deep changes in structure and approach. Those people are the ones whose impulse can be to move toward an oxbow — cut off from the current, sitting in a body of water whose perimeters feel safe and familiar, but that may stagnate and eventually dry up.
Transformation poses many challenges to any organisation, but often it is that thick layer of middle management so familiar to many companies that finds change particularly difficult.
Those in the management layer often have the greatest knowledge of their business, their products, and their market. This knowledge is often tacit; it doesn’t reside on an org chart or in manuals. Yet it holds huge value and forges connections across an organization that can destroy huge impediments with just a phone call. Without these people and the network of relationships and skills they represent, many companies simply could not function smoothly.
But these knowledge-laden people are frequently also the most resistant to change in an organisation; they feel secure in the middle of their lake, and don’t want to move. To extend the metaphor, instead of being soft soil that will yield to momentum, and thus allow the river to moving directly ahead, middle managers can feel that they need to protect their territory, and so act like a granite bank — something that will erode eventually, but only after a great deal of time, and at the cost of a lot of wasted energy. They are trying to stand against both literal and figurative types of streamlining — a term that comes from the constant shaping of a river or stream based on the flow of energy and path of least resistance.
Of course, this sort of fear and resistance isn’t the exclusive territory of middle management. We can all feel lost or trapped in our jobs — and how often have you heard someone use the language I’m using here and say, “I’m stagnating at work”? So if we’re caught in an oxbow, or simply struggling to stay afloat in the current, how do we become strong swimmers again? And how do we keep others from becoming restless and searching for fresher waters?
As is the case with so many things, the key to saving people from “oxbowing” is to address the issue head-on. Doing so will help any transformation move in the right direction. Instead of pushing middle management into recalcitrant, isolated groups, energy should be focused on helping them move into an area of your business that drives the direction of the river.
This is where coaching comes in. There’s a reason why a coach is a real, live, on-site person and not just a software programme or a video. Transformation is about more than structure; it’s about the environment and culture within which we work. A great coach knows this and is there to see and feel the reality of working in an organization. They are there to survey the river, help people dive in with real confidence and passion, and swim alongside them throughout their journey.
In my next article, I’ll talk about what that survey looks like, and how I help people get back in the swim.