Why Title a Book "Parachuting Cats into Borneo"?
Looking for crisp, concise, and targeted advice for success? Change-management experts Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson offer that, and more, in their new book Parachuting Cats into Borneo.
The authors expose the most significant impediments—helping readers recognize their habitual patterns of thinking and perceiving a situation, critique their own beliefs regarding change, and then move beyond these unhelpful patterns using improved systems thinking. Named after a classic tale of unintended consequences, Parachuting Cats into Borneo delivers tools that help leaders and others keep their change initiatives on track. The advice imparted will help you move away from agonizing over immediate problems toward stoking action, identifying collaborators, focusing at the right level for your cause, and aiding others in pursuing their change.
In the following Q&A, the authors discuss (and even sing!) about the book’s mission, and its potential impact on making change.
- After all the books, articles, courses, studies, and workshops on leading change, don’t we know everything there is to know about change-making already?
- Both of you have helped corporations, NGOs, large networks, and even governments around the world manage their change processes, and one key to your success has been recognizing that managing change is not a single challenge; it’s really six different challenges. Can you explain that?
- You also state that there are seven different ways to effectively approach change. What are they? And do you choose just one way to proceed?
- What’s the best way to find your optimum role in a change process?
- Change initiatives can get messy with so many people involved. How do you keep all the parties working in harmony?
- Parachuting Cats into Borneo covers all kinds of change, but the change initiatives closest to your own hearts are those focused on sustainability. These have been described as some of the most deeply challenging change initiatives. Why?
- Finally, your book is titled Parachuting Cats into Borneo. What’s the story behind that?
- Skip to: Video of Alan AtKisson Singing
After all the books, articles, courses, studies, and workshops on leading change, don’t we know everything there is to know about change-making already?
Axel: There is a lot of information out there about making change happen. If you search for the phrase “books managing change,” you get more than 100 million hits. But research still shows that only 1 out of 3 organizational change initiatives are successful. We believe that there is enough knowledge and experience around, maybe even too much. But often change initiatives don’t focus at the right level or depth. Our book aims to help people reflect about the right level for intervening in a change process. Our experience tells us that it is often the human level that matters most.
Alan: That’s why we adopted the “café conversation” style that runs through the book—the idea that we are sitting with the reader in a relaxed setting and just talking. And even listening, though of course we can’t hear responses to the questions we pose. We’re trying to help change agents listen to themselves better. We also summarize each chapter with a few key messages, and we tell the reader how to jump around and find the information they really need. Though, of course, if you read it front to back, you’ll see how the concepts build on each other.
Both of you have helped corporations, NGOs, large networks, and even governments around the world manage their change processes, and one key to your success has been recognizing that managing change is not a single challenge; it’s really six different challenges. Can you explain that?
Alan: Well, it can actually be more than six, but thinking about multiple challenges is a stretch for many people.
Axel: Once a client of mine agreed, in principle, to a change process with a focus on sustainability. But he added a caveat: “We need to make sure not to increase the complexity of decision making.” Our brains like to find single answers to a problem. We are often looking for “the root cause” in order to change things. But change, and to an even greater degree transformation, is a very complex endeavor. You might need to create a good plan, win over the leadership, create energy for change among all people involved, prepare for dealing with resistance, coach all the change agents to perform at their best, reflect on your own metal models . . . and more still.
It would be helpful if we as change agents could learn to see complexity not as an obstacle but as a richer set of opportunities and learn to play with it.
You also state that there are seven different ways to effectively approach change. What are they? And do you choose just one way to proceed?
Alan: We built on a number of other people’s ideas in this book, and in this case we expanded on some thoughts by Léon de Caluwé, who had the key insight that it was possible to cluster different approaches to change, by type. After you can see those types, then you are better able to step back from your own process and see which way—or combination of ways—is really best suited to the situation you’re in. If you don’t do that, you’ll fall into habitual patterns that might not work.
Axel: The seven categories we use are probably familiar when you think about them: planning methodically, setting up incentives or penalties, negotiating with people based on mutual interests, engaging in participatory dialogues, encouraging what’s already working, creating big visions, or going very deep with dialogue and reflection. Others might frame these categories differently. What’s important about this approach is the amount of reflection we recommend before, during, and after the process.
What’s the best way to find your optimum role in a change process?
Axel: Well, once again, it’s a lot about reflection and awareness—about yourself, about the issues you are working with, but also about the relationship you have with those issues.
Alan: We use a little model to help people figure out how they, and others, relate to the specific ideas for change that are being promoted. It’s called “Amoeba” because we like for people to think about organizations and groups as though they were living things in constant motion, with a clear boundary, and with ideas and information flowing in and out. We also give them roles to think about, common parts of the “Amoeba” that you can find people acting out in any change process, from visionary innovators to practical change agents to very resistant reactionaries and many others.
Probably the most important thing to reflect on is where you are in that Amoeba. Then you can start mapping where other people are and start building a thoughtful strategy for interacting with them.
Change initiatives can get messy with so many people involved. How do you keep all the parties working in harmony?
Axel: Here’s where our book gets a little more technical, and we do provide some very specific tools for keeping track of all the threads in a change process. We also share some facilitation tools for both small groups and for large processes. If you combine these kinds of methodologies with the reflective approach we keep talking about, and with a lot of attention to the subtle interactions among people, you can certainly improve your chances of keeping things harmonious. But there are never any guarantees.
Alan: That’s why we emphasize the self-development of the change agent, alongside the learning of new tools and methods. You always have to be ready to deal with an outbreak of chaos.
Parachuting Cats into Borneo covers all kinds of change, but the change initiatives closest to your own hearts are those focused on sustainability. These have been described as some of the most deeply challenging change initiatives. Why?
Alan: Because they are so complex. They are also complicated, and there is a difference: complicated means that a lot of the complexity we have to deal with in sustainability—changing, say, energy systems and market incentives and consumer behavior all at once—is also problematic. It often involves introducing many new ideas, and resolving multiple conflicts, so it always takes time. People don’t start buying electric cars that run on wind and solar energy overnight, to pick just one example.
Sustainability forces us—all of us—to think systemically, and to think in terms of long-term, transformative change. And that just goes against the grain of everything that’s brought our industrial civilization this far.
Axel: A lot of the success of the Western world during the last centuries lies in the ability to narrow our focus. Breathtaking innovations in medicine, science, and economics were only possible due to that focus, connected to the belief that a good competition of ideas and engagements leads to the prosperity of the whole. The success of any individual, or company, or country lies in the middle of those multiple success stories. We also accepted that, with every success, there is a winner and also a loser. Those are the rules of the game.
But now we see that some of the costs of this game have become too high. We created an economy that led to prosperity for many, but not for all, and also to climate change. We use plastic bags that end up in the stomachs of whales. Companies make millions of dollars producing fast food, which has the side effect of an overweight population.
Sustainability means taking responsibility for the secondary and third and fourth level consequences of our actions and not just focusing on the next goal. Our brain is not used to such thinking. So, many change processes with a focus on sustainability often involve a very substantial change in our own mental models. That is not easy. But it is so much needed.
Finally, your book is titled Parachuting Cats into Borneo. What’s the story behind that?
Axel: We’re tempted to say, “read the book,” but it’s too easy to find the story quickly on the Internet.
Alan: So instead, I’ll tell you where we got the story of why, in the 1950s, cats had to be parachuted into Borneo to control an outbreak of rats—a problem caused by a previous solution to another problem. Because the “story of the story” is just as interesting. And it’s not in the book.
The story first emerged as a tale told by a famous British adventurer and filmmaker, Tom Harrison—a colorful figure whose biography is titled The Most Offending Soul Alive. Harrison had lived on Borneo, and he had a tendency to exaggerate. But it turned out this particular tall tale was mostly true.
I first learned the story in 1990 from Hunter Lovins, the legendary sustainability pioneer and promoter. She and her former partner Amory Lovins (author of Reinventing Fire) used it in talks but wanted to confirm it, so they researched it. They found UN librarians and TV documentary sources who confirmed it as well. Inspired by Hunter, I turned the story into a song back in the 1990s. Now the song has helped to spread the story as well.
These days, you can find all the historical evidence for “Operation Cat Drop” lovingly assembled by University of Iowa professor Tom O’Shaughnessy at a special website (catdrop.com).
Axel: But of course, the story also makes a bigger impact if you read it in a special context. So we’re still going to say it: Please read the book!
Or, better yet – watch and listen to Alan sing the book title!
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