Like so many people around the world, we Blue Seed-ers were watching with bated breath (and all our fingers crossed) as twelve boys and their football coach remained trapped in a flooded cave for fifteen days. And we cheered when the Wild Boars were led back into the world, in two and fours, until every one of them had been safely evacuated. Two months later, it is possible to stand back and think about the remarkable forces that came together to make this rescue mission a success. For us as change agents, there are golden lessons here; applicable to change leaders everywhere.
1. Know your role in change
The rescue effort involved more than 10,000 people, from the boys to their families, to the press, to Navy SEALS from Thailand and around the world, professional divers, doctors, police and paramedics. Everyone from Elon Musk to the King of Thailand had a part to play. Without fail, everyone was on board with what needed to be done.
In change, this “all-in mentality” is what makes a project succeed or fail; and the reason we identify Change Participation as a Critical Success Factor for change.
What was most striking and remarkable about this particular scenario was that everyone seemed to understand their own role and responsibilities clearly. Those involved have reported the deep sense of trust that they felt in those working with them, and complete clarity around what they were trying to achieve – allowing for extraordinary teamwork under extreme pressure. Each person was responsible for their own piece of the puzzle and knew what they had to do to deliver the collective outcome.
In delivering change, this common understanding of a shared goal is hugely important but often overlooked. This is why Change Need is another of our 9 Critical Success Factors. It means having a strong imperative and justification for change, and making sure that everyone involved is crystal clear on what the need is, and what collectively they are trying to achieve.
2. Communication is everything
Communication can be challenging in any complex situation, but with the high stakes context — the language barriers and a diverse audience — the cave crisis operation took this challenge to new heights. To meet it, micro- and macro-level communication was dialled up several notches, with clear, constant and courageous messages flowing every day. No excuses. There was a sense of transparency in these messages, coupled with great sensitivity of the need to protect the integrity of the operation.
At the end of the day, audiences across the world were kept informed and up to date; the families of the trapped boys were treated with the utmost respect, and the operation was never compromised. What an inspiring feat! If this can be achieved under the kind of fierce pressure, international attention and mind-blowing complexity of the cave rescue, we should never again feel like communication is too hard!
We do understand that when change is coming or happening, those leading it can baulk at communicating about it broadly and bravely. This is why expert support with Change Comms is probably a good investment, and the earlier the better.
3. Keep it real
While there was a real need to keep things moving quickly, Thai leaders and the network of rescuers gave us all an incredible lesson in emotional honesty. Every win was celebrated along the way, keeping the teams focused, energised, and connected. And losses were mourned, too. We all felt the blow of the death of 37-year old Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who suffocated during a critical part of the operation. All ends of the emotional spectrum were honoured. The humanity of this was tremendously moving and contributed to the feeling that everyone was in it together.
In corporate environments, and particularly among senior leaders, there is a strong tendency to ‘keep a lid on it’ by holding your emotions well in check. What the research tells us, and what we (Blue Seed folk) see on the ground, is that emotion doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Being willing to show your doubts, be frank about risks and not knowing all of the answers, acknowledge when things are hard, and cheer when you get over a hurdle, makes leaders appear more human and strong. Lead with compassion and authenticity will win you the respect of those around you, and ultimately help you and your teams to do what you need to do to achieve your goals. In Change Leadership, this is more important than ever.
4. Planning and agility get the job done
It’s a common misconception that planning and agility don’t go together. At Blue Seed, we know that on the contrary, they can work in perfect harmony, and the cave rescue was a brilliant example of this. Getting it right in the context of change is a matter of both Change Readiness and Change Discipline.
In this case, the whole system was considered in all planning – children, parents, community, media, government and authorities, support staff, skilled specialists from around the world, volunteers, communications channels, health care providers, educators, and on and on. All the risks had to be mapped and weighed up. The plan had to be waterproof, and consider the whole and the component parts.
At the same time, there was enormous time pressure and a significant number of uncontrollable variables – not the least of which was the weather in the monsoon season – which meant that the plan had to be flexible and adaptable. There had to be a Plan A, B, C and D for every part of the operation, with the impacts of any shift to all other aspects considered. Like the domino effect.
This was also a brilliant example of modern ways of working, in quickly forming and then disbanding a team for a specific purpose and outcome, within a defined time period. This meant planning had to be ongoing and efficient, resources had to be identified correctly for a targeted purpose, and funds needed to be made available quickly and mobilised immediately. As change practitioners, this approach is one we know can work extremely well to deliver a major change fast and with excellent results – against common belief, it isn’t always necessary to have a static group of people on the ground for an extended period of time to make a change sing.
5. Here endeth the lesson
Nine weeks after thirteen boys disappeared into the dark, they are home and blessed to be safe in the arms of their families. In the face of long odds, this is a triumph of people of all kinds working together towards a single and striking achievement.
What’s the final lesson? It has to be this: there is no obstacle too big to overcome…if you want it badly enough, and if you have the right people by your side, everything is possible!
Our purpose is to make transformational change achievable and create a lasting capability for our clients. Our unique approach empowers organisations to create the best return on investment for their change efforts.
We’ve seen that the sooner an organisation is willing to identify and address its (human) change capability needs and gaps in detail, the quicker it will be likely to reap the rewards.