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Of Horses and Organizations

Picture yourself in this image riding a horse from the foreground to those buildings down and on the other side of the highway.    Simple enough.  Right?  What could possibly go wrong?

The horse you are riding has been ridden a total of ten times and has never been ridden on or next to a highway.  Here’s a list of the challenges you might face along the way:

  • Cars approaching from behind you that make the horse nervous.

  • Cattle in the field to your right but out of the picture.  Maybe the horse has never seen a cow in its life.

  • The tree that is center right may have a flock of birds in it that will all fly as you approach and startle the horse.

  • The grass on the side of the road looks good to eat.

  • The clouds look like thunder clouds.  How would a thunder clap alter the ride?

  • There’s a yellow diamond thingy on the other side that looks suspicious.

  • There are two solid white lines in the road with rumble strips.  The horse has never seen anything like this and it might cause it some trouble in crossing.  It might be concerned that it would jump up and “get him.”

  • The horse does not understand what you want and just balks.

  • The horse’s herd mates provide some distraction by whinnying.

How is your confidence level in getting to the buildings in one piece?  Does your confidence level change if I tell you that this horse you’ve never ridden before in your life has made the trip once a day for the last ten years with a new rider everyday?  In the 3,600+ times the horse has made this round trip, chances are that its seen everything that section of road offers including snakes and dogs.

Your plan to successfully complete this short distance trip changes depending on the circumstances relating to you, the horse, possible surprises during the trip, and the relationship between you and the horse.  You should take some time to consider some of these things before you and your horse come to this point.


Self Assessment

You must be brutally honest with yourself before undertaking this little adventure.  Given the above list of possible surprises along the way, do you have the ability to help the horse comfortably work through them?  More importantly, under the “heat of the moment” will you still have those skills?  Do you have all of those same skills while sitting in the saddle?  How about sitting in the saddle of a horse that suddenly starts galloping?  What will be your mental state after 30 minutes of the horse refusing to cross the first white line?


Assessment of the Horse

It is important for the horse that this trip go well.  It will have some memory of birds suddenly taking flight, white lines and cars coming from behind.  You must be able to set the horse up to successfully negotiate each of the possible challenges.  If the horse has only been ridden ten times and you don’t know its reaction to the likes of cars, white lines, a flock of birds suddenly taking flight, then maybe you break this ride up by riding down the field side of the fence and finding out what it’s reaction will be to those various things.  This is safe-to-fail experimentation.  Maybe you’ll try to find a more deserted stretch of road to start.


If, as often is the case, its an older, just acquired horse, then you will probably start at the beginning just like a green horse.  You don’t skip any steps or make assumptions, because you will likely to find why the previous owner sold it.  It could very well be that the horse “fired” its previous boss.


Assessment of the Relationship

People commonly forget this aspect.  Horses are far more adept at reading body language and sensing your mental state at all times.  If you are nervous the horse will know it and will probably be nervous, too.  You will have some past experience with this horse.  It could be over months or minutes.  No matter because you will have formed some initial impressions, they will alter your approach and confidence level, and that will alter the horse’s “comfort level” with you.

In the case of the horse that has made the trip 3600+ times with 3600+ different riders, it will not be much concerned with you.  In the case of the horse ridden ten times in its life and only by you, then it will be sensitive to you.  Every past interaction with you will be somewhere in its memory.  You have put this horse together by your actions.  Ask yourself, “How will all of that fit together to make this trip a success or a disaster?”

As Organizational Metaphor

Of course, there’s a parallel here.  Imagine yourself as the manager being like the rider and your organization as the horse.  You expect to arrive together at some objective in the future.  There’s a large spectrum of initial conditions.  You might be a novice manager of a group with 20 years experience together.  You could be an experienced manager with a fresh set of people.  You might face a routine objective or it could be the Ruybalid Trail in the South San Juan Wilderness.

Achieving that objective will require an ongoing assessment of your personal capabilities to face the known challenges and the surprises which will crop up along the way.  Of course, you will also need to continually assess the abilities of your people to meet the known and unknown but potential challenges.  You will have to maintain an ongoing understanding of the working relationship that you have together with your people.  After all, who you are at any given time will affect what they do in response, and who they are will affect what you do.

You will need to account for the past experiences and the successes and failures.  Your people could easily have picked up some not so good habits.  You might need to build confidence together before you tackle the tough ones.  It could be that you’ll need to change the perception of a situation like how the horse sees the white line on the asphalt.  You may try several different approaches to get them to “cross the white line” before they finally do it.


Managing people is not as simple as putting together a schedule and then driving people with whips and spurs to achieve it.  The capability of you and your people together is not constant.  What you can reasonably accomplish at any given time under any set of prevailing circumstances is not constant.  You must work with them to realize what they can and cannot do under a variety of circumstances, and then work with them to get them beyond things that hinder their work.


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  • Ali Anani

    Jeff- a simple metaphor that opens the eyes to hundreds of possibilities. I like your approach of adding a photo at the beginning to challenge our thinking and to draw the readers’ interest. A living metaphor that I shall keep thinking of. Great post, Jeff That I am scooping and posting to LinkedIn right now

    • COcowboy

      This metaphor has considerable reach and depth. This is due, at least in part, to the patient attitude of the one making application.


      • Ali Anani

        Thanks, Jeff- I am reading this post again because it is absorbing.

        • COcowboy

          A friend an I took our green horses to ride a trail that followed a creek that flowed out of some very rugged mountains. We came to a place where the trail crossed the creek and the trail emerged from the water about 20 feet away. Having never crossed such a thing, my horse balked about 6 inches before entering the water.

          After fifteen minutes of trying various things, I went back to the very first thing that he learned from me – take one actual step at a time. From the ground, I asked him to take one step back and then one step forward and then a second. He stepped into the creek and we stood there together for another ten minutes. He now nonchalantly crosses water up to his belly. There’s nothing deeper where I live.

          That’s the kind of patience that I’m talking about.


          • Ali Anani

            Jeff- that is a fantastic story


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