Shipbuilder or leader of change?


Consider for a moment this short story, what I often refer to as the “rest of the tall tale.”

On an island village, there once lived an ambitious sailor, the finest sea Captain in all the land. He approached the King with a vision for a new type of sailing vessel, one that moved at great speeds even without the wind. The Captain described this new vessel and claimed that with a 100-man crew, he could save an entire day on the trip to the mainland. The King approved of the Captain’s plan and chartered a single ship. He promised the Captain three attempts at the mainland crossing with 1,000 gold coins for every hour saved on the voyage.


The Captain hired the best craftsmen and shipbuilders. Each month he returned to the King to report on his progress and to borrow more money. He was growing heavy with debt. The first month he required 10,000 gold coins, 5,000 the second month, and 4,000 the third month. By the fourth month the ship was complete.

The townspeople milled around the dock in wonder at the new vessel. Some scoffed, saying that water would just run into those holes in the side. Others asked why the sails were so small if this was to be a faster ship. The Captain, proud of his accomplishment, was running into similar skepticism. He had anticipated excitement about the new design with sailors eager to join his crew, but instead was met with half-hearted and reluctant responses from his potential mates.

After sitting idle for a month, the Captain made his first run to the mainland with only 20 of the 100 oars manned on the new ship. His time was still faster than the older sailing ships, but only by four hours.

The Captain began asking all of the villagers to join him on his venture. He explained how the ship worked, and why this new type of vessel would one day rule the sea and make them a stronger kingdom. He talked of the riches awaiting the bravest among them.

On his second run the following month, he had 60 in his crew. Still short more than 40 rowers and struggling with the constant bungling and banging together of the oars, the Captain saved only seven hours on the trip to the mainland.

The King was beginning to take interest in the Captain’s vision. He could see the long-term benefit for his entire realm. He personally recruited a full crew for the ship on the third journey. The Captain also added a boy beating a drum at the bow of the boat to improve the tempo of the rowers. On the third attempt one month later, the 100-strong crew, rowing in rhythm, saved more than one full day on the trip to the mainland.

Upon return the Captain was celebrated by the entire island population and the Viking ship of this design dominated the oceans for generations to come.

I use this story to help convey the pitfalls that we so easily fall into as we manage projects and introduce change. Through this simple story, we can examine the difference between a shipbuilder and a leader of change. Let’s begin by making some general associations within the story. First, the Captain is the project manager, and the process he uses to organize tasks and resources to build the ship is akin to project management. The King is the executive sponsor of the change. He authorized the project and provides the funding. Building support among the villagers and gathering a competent crew is akin to change management. Change management is the process, tools, and techniques used to manage the people-side of a change to achieve the desired outcomes.

What mistakes did the Captain make that we can avoid as project managers?

Mistake #1

The first mistake the Captain made was to assume that if he had the right solution and used effective project management, the project would be a success. In a study with 327 project teams undergoing major process and technology change, the number one obstacle to success was not ineffective project management. Nor was it a poorly formed vision or bad strategy. The number one obstacle to success was employee resistance and the ineffective management of the people side of change (Prosci, 2003). Data from a recent study with nearly 400 project teams showed that you are five times more likely to meet your objectives if you implement effective change management to lead the people side of change, as shown in Exhibit 1 (Prosci, 2007). In other words, achieving business results requires more than a good solution combined with good project management. It requires getting your employees on board.

Correlation of meeting project objectives with effective change management

Exhibit 1: Correlation of meeting project objectives with effective change management. Used with permission from Prosci.

Mistake #2

The second mistake the Captain made was to assume that “I’m responsible for the ‘hard’ side of the project, not the ’soft’ stuff.” Many project managers think that managing the people side of change is someone else’s job. For the

Captain, the first four months of the project were solely focused on shipbuilding with no attention paid to the crew. It was not until the Captain faced failure with a meager band of 20 did he approach the villagers and explain why this change was needed and “what was in it for them.”

On real projects, the consequences for poorly managing the people side of change are severe, both for the organization and for those leading the projects. Leaving the task of change management to “someone else” is essentially turning over control of your project. You can expect:

  • Resistance to the change from employees and managers,
  • Unwillingness to engage and participate in the design,
  • A decline in productivity,
  • A project that exceeds budget,
  • ROI (return on investment) for the project that is lower than expected, and
  • A project that falls behind schedule or is cancelled.

A shipbuilder sees his or her responsibility narrowly—to build a ship. For you the ship may be a new system, business process, new facility, or perhaps an acquisition or merger. A leader of change views his or her responsibility as achieving the desired business outcomes from the change. Change management and project management are both under the control of a change leader. Stated simply, change management is the responsibility of the same person who is accountable for achieving results.

Mistake #3

The final notable mistake the Captain made was assuming that change management was equivalent to communications. His first inclination was to talk directly to the villagers. What was noticeably missing up to this point was the King. It took active and visible involvement of the King, as the primary sponsor, to turn the tide and recruit a full crew. The small boy beating the drum also played a critical role in helping the crew row in unison. Being aware of the need for change and having the desire to engage is not enough. The crew needed the knowledge and ability to eventually achieve the expected speed of this new vessel. Finally, the gold provided an abundant reward and reinforcement for their efforts. Through this process they achieved the elements of the ADKAR model (Hiatt, 2006) and succeeded at the change.


Having a good solution and applying effective project management is not sufficient to achieve the business objectives of a project. The number one contributor to your success will be the effective management of the people side of change, a competency called change management. Think of change management as a companion discipline to project management. It is a competency that you and your project team must master to ensure that your projects are on time and meet, or exceed your project objectives. Think beyond simple communications. Change management is a structured application of processes and tools to manage the people side of change to achieve the desired business outcomes. Managing people through change is not someone else’s job. Today’s project managers must become leaders of change, not simply shipbuilders.


Hiatt, J. (2006). ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community. Loveland, CO: Prosci Research.

Prosci. (2003). Best practices in business process reengineering report. Loveland, CO: Change Management Learning Center.

Prosci. (2007). Best practices in change management report. Loveland, CO: Change Management Learning Center.

© 2008, Jeff Hiatt
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Conference Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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