Artisanal Leadership

In Brief: A Blog

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An Ameba, not a Butterfly: Get the Transformation Metaphor Right

Digital transformation is everywhere you look.  There are many articles in business journals and countless posts in business-focused social media, all highlighting the necessity of this transformation, lest companies be disrupted into oblivion.  With such high stakes one would think there would be a greater success rate.

But now, not surprisingly, we are seeing accounts of how it’s not working and the consensus failure rate of 84% is eerily similar to the oft-cited 85% failure rate we’ve been hearing for years for other large-scale change integration initiatives.  We are also now starting to hear a belated appreciation for the importance of the “culture component” in order to transform an organization.  However, the culture piece rarely moves beyond this acknowledgement of its importance. Little constructive action is ever taken to shape culture and move the needle on those failure percentages. 

Foundational narratives are one of the most effective levers in shaping organizational culture.  And metaphor is a powerful component of these narratives, helping people in organizations make sense of the environment. 

When it comes to transformation, the butterfly has long been the exemplar of such fundamental change. Whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether they are aware of it or not, it is the butterfly metaphor that has shaped the narrative in organizations attempting to transform. 

The ordinary caterpillar enters the cocoon undergoes a complete metamorphosis and emerges after a time, a completely new and different creature, the spectacular butterfly. When it comes to organizations there are many problems with this butterfly metaphor for transformation. 

 It views the process as,

  • A one-time event with a finite beginning and end – caterpillars become butterflies and then stay butterflies

  • Known and predictable, according to a plan or blueprint – everyone knows what will happen and what the butterfly will look like.

  • Linear– enter the cocoon – metamorphosis – emerge – finished. 

  • Discontinuous - there is little to connect the caterpillar and the butterfly except for the “black box” of the cocoon

  • Done to the subject, not by it – the caterpillar doesn’t change itself, it is changed by the process.

Each of these elements is problematic when transforming organizations. Transformational change is ongoing and never ends.  It is rife with uncertainty. Plans and blueprints rarely survive Step One, before requiring new plans. It is not linear - there is often a “one-step forward, two-steps back, element to successful change.  It begins where the organization currently is, there is no black box in organizations. Finally, the organization must change itself from within, not “be changed” from without.  Given this prevailing Butterfly metaphor, it is no wonder that when organizations are told they must digitally transform, the result is a lot of confused caterpillars.

A better metaphor for transformation is the Ameba.  It is continuously changing its shape, sending out pseudopods in different directions at the same time, testing its environment, then reacting appropriately, moving in the most promising direction and dividing when necessary.  It is governed by a nucleus that does not direct specific activity, but rather, regulates the internal environment in order to allow the organism to act itself.

Adopting the lessons of the Ameba metaphor would go a long way to shaping cultures ready to transform.

Written by Thomas Rottenberger, Founder at Artisanal Leadership



Nehal Beltangady
Change is a Verb

There have been countless articles, books, posts, seminars, and workshops on "Change." We have been guided on how to Lead the Change, Integrate the Change, Manage the ChangeCommunicate the Change, Imbed the Change, and on and on. Yet over the past 35 years, one statistic has remained fairly constant - 85% of these change efforts fail.

There is a fundamental flaw with the way Change has been approached. “To Change” is a verb not a noun. It is not a “thing” to be implemented. Once we put the definite article “The” in front of the word “Change” we have already failed.  

Treating Change as a noun, sets up a false construct with three component parts: Leadership, The Change, The Organization.  Here Leaders attempt to get the Organization to implement the Change – which is defined as a known shift that leads to a desired new state.

This leads to several interrelated fatal misconceptions about change that doom these efforts:

  • Firstly, it treats Change as something definite– taking an organization from Point A to Point B at which point the change is completed

  • Secondly, it assumes an end state where the organization will remain at Point B for a time before embarking on another change some time in the future

  • Thirdly, it treats Change as something distinct from the ongoing activity of the organization.


  • Change is not a definite “Point A to Point B” exercise.  Once an organization embarks from Point A, Point B has already shifted, and the organization must continually adapt and redefine.

  • There is no such thing as an “end state.” Organizations and their environments are fluid, not static. Change is ongoing.

  • Change is part of the core activity of any organization, not something else to be done and managed.  People and organizations change all the time and always have done. It is how they survive and progress.

The real problems with changing effectively have more to do with the people in the organization not accepting, believing in, or committing to the proposed directional goals of leadership. And/or from being prevented by process and structure, from freely applying their knowledge and experience to shifting situations.

The solution to changing effectively comes down to shaping an operating environment that engages and activates all constituents of the organization in the framing and pursuit of directional goals. And one that then provides sufficient freedom, tools and resources to ensure these goals can be achieved.

Written by Thomas Rottenberger, Founder at Artisanal Leadership


Nehal Beltangady
The Leader as Artisan
Leader as Artisan.jpg

Like in the Indian folktale The Six Blind Men and the Elephant, where each man touches a different part of an elephant and comes up with a different description of what an elephant is, there are many definitions of leadership and descriptions of what makes one a great leader. On any given day, you can scroll through your LinkedIn newsfeed and find various different metaphors for leadership and a recipe for becoming a great leader based on that particular construct.

The most common metaphors that I have come across tend to fall into three categories:

·     The Leader as military general– the emphasis here is on devising the right strategy vs. the competition and then driving the execution of that strategy with efficient processes and disciplined practices. 

·     The Leader as star athlete– here leadership is viewed as a basket of must-have competencies. The more of these key competencies a given leader possesses and the greater the degree of mastery of them they exert, then the stronger leader he/she is - much like a "five-tool" player in baseball.

·     The Leader as social worker– in the construct of this metaphor, the leader is focused on the needs of the people in the organization. The strong leader is the one that effectively develops and nurtures individuals and is there primarily to enable them.

And just like in the folktale, each of these has something to offer a view of leadership. However, each alone is insufficient to define the nature of leadership.  The critical defect common to all of them I believe, is the exclusive focus on the leader.  Leadership is a practical art and it is impossible to look at the qualities of a leader without addressing the particular situation and environment in which they must lead. Thus, none of the metaphors above can adequately explain why the same leader may be a stunning success in one role be recruited to another, and fail miserably.  The same person would have the same strategic ability, the same set of competencies, and the same nurturing traits in both circumstances.

I propose there is a better metaphor for leaders, The Leader as Artisan.  An artisan is defined as a person skilled in an applied art.  Someone who produces high quality, distinctive products, in small quantities, usually by hand

I believe this metaphor suits a leader well. The notion of “high quality” places the emphasis where it should be, not on the leaders themselves, but on the organizations that they shape.  The qualities of being “distinctive” and produced in “small quantities” realistically reflect the situational nature of leadership.  There are no cookie-cutter situations.  And finally, “by hand” highlights the importance of a leader being hands-on and close to the activity of the organization.

Adopting the Artisan as metaphor for the leader will get us closer to the whole elephant.  It will help foster an appreciation for the situational dynamics at play in organizations and move us beyond narrow, paint-by-number solutions.

Written by Thomas Rottenberger, Founder at Artisanal Leadership

Nehal Beltangady
The Importance of a Balanced Internal Environment
Balanced environment illustration.jpg

“Nothing is more critical to the survival and independence of an organism – be they elephant or protozoa – than the maintenance of a constant internal environment.” wrote famed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in a 2015 essay entitled A General Feeling of Disorder.

I believe we can confidently extend his illustrative examples of organisms beyond elephants and protozoa to organizations as well, which after all, share the same root word.

I’m sure we have all seen from direct experience that the internal environment of an organization often determines its ability to achieve and sustain success. Yet very little meaningful effort is expended on addressing issues in that environment. There is a vague sense that it is important and often the word “culture” is used to address this sense.

“Culture” however is too amorphous and ill-fitting a concept to enable a meaningful understanding of the internal environment. The word “culture has a variety of interpretations:

  • Some too superficial (foosball tables in break rooms or bagel Fridays)

  • Some merely vapidly descriptive (lists of values printed on coffee cups or corporate tchotchkes)

  • Still others pejorative, used to connote the “too soft” foil to a bottom line results orientation

All of these interpretations treat the internal environment, described as culture, as a topic separate from performance, results, and the “real work” of an organization. Thus, efforts to meaningfully address the internal environment rarely move beyond executive lip service. Yet properly understood, the internal environment determines performance and results and is integral to the “real work.”

Further in the same 2015 essay, Sacks uses a migraine as an example of when the internal environment is out of balance. He points out, “They are not associated with any tissue damage or trauma or infection. Migraines therefore provide the essential features of being ill without actual illness.” Yet patients during the onset of a migraine can be completely debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest activity.

Here too, the analogy to organizations applies. An organization may have no defect in its structures or in the quality of its talent, there may be no ineffectiveness in its processes, yet if the internal environment is out of balance it will still be unable to execute and achieve its goals.

It will exhibit the essential features of operational problems in the absence of any such problems.

A structured examination of the dynamics that comprise the internal environment is the only way to restore the balance essential to success.


Nehal Beltangady