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Wild West and Change

The Management Centre

Next week I’m running, with colleagues, the =mc consultancy skills programme. It’s full of cool stuff on innovation, strategy, financial analysis etc.
All the cool stuff is …cool. But the most important sessions in the programme, I think are on change.
And the more I help in change settings with NGOs the more I feel changes in organisations can’t happen without specific kinds of support- especially if it’s a challenging or radical change.

This blog explores how these roles might work in various settings.

Managers and board members have a vital contribution in promoting and then maintaining the change. As part of this, they can take on a number of roles which may be different from those they normally play.

But how do you choose a role? The model I feel is most appropriate for change situations is one we’ve developed from an original idea of Dame Rennie Fritchie. The model argues that in any change process you need key individuals – senior managers, board members or even external consultants – to act in specific ways. These ways of behaving- roles- are based on a Wild West wagon train metaphor. The idea is that change – and particularly radical change – is like the Wild West during the colonisation period: huge opportunities and huge risks in a relatively unknown and fluid situation.

My seven change roles are: pioneer, scout, wagon trainer, sheriff, homesteader, medicine man/woman and hired gun. Below I look at each of these in more detail.


The pioneer is the person with the vision. This Grizzly Adams/Fennimore Cooper figure embraces risks and is determined to prove that the apparently impossible is possible … to head west, to reach the ocean, to travel upstream. They do the things that everyone else says they can’t do.

Pioneers have to be fantastically brave. They not only have to have strength of vision and intuition they have to be able to deal with hardship, difficulty and … scorn. Not surprisingly they’re often not good team players. Once they’ve established the change is possible, they want – and they need – others to carry it through.

Bernard Kouchner, who set up Medecins Sans Frontieres, was such a pioneer. Once it was set up he then left. He needed others to develop and deliver the result.

Are you a pioneer-in-waiting? Do you need a pioneer to achieve radical change in your organisation? Or do you already have an organisational vision to challenge the status quo and drive you towards breakthrough?


Every wagon train needs a scout. The scout’s job is to go ahead of the main wagon train and identify various opportunities and threats, such as sources of water, robbers, possible floods, difficult terrain, etc.

Sometimes organisations need a scout to go ahead and find out what’s advisable and what is absolutely not. ‘Ahead’ in this sense can mean scenario planning, creating alternative options, or even just risk analysis. The current financial crisis facing many charities has led a number of them to hire =mc as a scout- working out what to if financial challenges become too great.

An outside consultant often takes on this role because they can bring a radical, disinterested view. It can also be taken by a new CEO or board member who doesn’t yet have the baggage of someone long serving, but does have the courage to sketch out possible futures raised by the vision of the pioneer.

The process of scouting is not an exact or certain science. But the key qualities for a scout are to be keen on risk taking, to have courage, to be able to operate alone and not feel isolated, and to have experience of other relevant situations to build on. Members of the wagon train have to trust the scout. But remember the scout can only report back what they’ve found, or their ideas. It’s then up to the organisation to sign up to a degree of risk they outline.

Does your change process need you to be a scout? Do you have the qualities to do it? Do you need someone else to check out the concerns?

Wagon trainer

Every wagon train also needs a formal leader, aware of the responsibility vested in them, concerned for the overall good, and confident in their ability to complete the journey to a better future. This person is called a wagon trainer. Ideally the wagon trainer is taking a group of people on a trail that he or she knows well. You can trust a wagon trainer to lead you safely because they’ve done it before – maybe not over this exact terrain, but something pretty similar. What you’re getting with this person is experience. So an NGO may use a CEO or board member to guide them through a change that they’ve encountered in a previous position.

The key qualities, then, for a wagon trainer are essentially experience, experience, and experience. They also need a commitment to the safety and interests of the group, and the skill to know when to use a scout to check out the risks … A wagon trainer will generally take the safest option – the one that minimises risks. Note that you mustn’t confuse scouts and wagon trainers. If you are committed to having a wagon trainer, then make sure you’re getting real, relevant experience.

Sometimes your change similar to one someone else has already done. You’ve hired in a wagon trainer to repeat what they did elsewhere. So you need to merge as in the recent Age Concern/Help the Aged process- what could you learn from those who led the successful NSPCC/Childline merger?


Often in the Wild West you need the benefit of a sheriff. This person is responsible for laying down laws or ground rules for the wagon train once it stops and sets up camp or stays in a town. In change processes, individuals may bring all kinds of wild and zany ideas to fruition. These may work at the time and maybe they’re appropriate. But people also need some stability and – after a period of dramatic change – to calm down a little and have some rules and structure.

The sheriff’s role is to administer ‘the law’ – the systems and structures that are necessary. They will also ensure everyone is treated fairly. The sheriff may have to do a number of things:

  • keep the charity within the law – literally – in terms of things it does
  • make sure organisational discipline is maintained
  • act as a focus for dispute resolution

Key qualities for a sheriff are wisdom in applying the rules, a desire to avoid confrontation (but not afraid to do so if necessary) and a sense that they are a law enforcer not a law maker. It’s worth noting that when the sheriff and the CEO/chair are combined they sometimes confuse their will or opinion with the law …

We worked with a homelessness charity that had just lost its wildly charismatic – and disorganised – CEO after five years. Five years in which the organisation had grown, gained credibility, attracted good people … But it was not sustainable. The new CEO said famously ‘I’m not running a hippy commune here,’ and began to lay down the law in terms of systems and organisation. A painful process – but necessary.

Sheriffs are necessary to create some stability. Remember even in the wildest Wild West towns there had to be some laws and justice. Make sure it’s clear who is in charge of interpreting the rules and making sure things are interpreted properly.


The homesteader is the Jimmy Stewart figure who wants to develop the new community, put down roots and create long lasting infrastructure. They may not be the most exciting person, but they spot what works and build on it.

This is a key role once a new level of performance has been reached. You should think about employing the role of homesteader if what’s needed is a fulcrum for people to work round about, or to create enough structural stability to allow people to try for new performance goals.

Key qualities for a homesteader are a desire for stability, a skill in organising and shaping people’s energies, and a willingness to play by the new rules.

Homesteaders are often underrated in change processes. (And they may be opposed to the change initially.) But you should use them wisely to keep the real process of momentum going.

Who’s buying the cakes in your office and looking after morale?

Medicine man or woman

Traditional approaches don’t always work and sometimes you have to try a bit of magic. (Remember Arthur C. Clark’s famous quote ‘Any kind of science, sufficiently advanced, looks like magic.’) The medicine man or woman provides this. They may be a consultant, a new board member with great fundraising contacts, or an innovative CEO with new ideas from outside the sector. In fundraising it may be the digital media specialist with their promise of Apps and Tweets.

It’s worth noting that the new CEOs for MacMillan and NSPCC were both from way outside the UK charity sector- hired to introduce radical new ways to do things. Whoever they are, they have a secret weapon: a big idea or a new technique. And it is this that will produce results.

Medicine men and women can inspire people to produce extraordinary results. But they are, of course, fallible, and you need to be sure about the medicine man/woman and their idea. Whatever it is, they have to bring some ‘magic’ with them to give people confidence their idea or technique will work.

Key qualities for the medicine man or woman are charisma and self-confidence, a ‘magic bullet’ (real or imagined!), an orientation towards a practical outcome, and the ability to inspire confidence in others.

Hired gun

In the Wild West you occasionally need some muscle to do a dirty or difficult job. This is the Clint Eastwood character in every man-with-no-name movie. The hired gun is someone engaged specifically to weed out those who don’t want to – and won’t – sign up to the new breakthrough.

For this reason, the hired gun is generally an external consultant. Someone who can come in, identify key elements to be changed, and often the people to be fired or made redundant. They can have no friends.

Their strength is their ability to do, to drive through, a difficult job. Key qualities for the hired gun are clarity of purpose, ability to work in isolation and a clear analytic mind.

Think carefully about hiring the hired gun. It’s a tough role. But be aware of the challenges if you try to do it yourself.

When you lead your change process you may need to think about which role or roles you need to play. And how competent you are to play them. And make sure you also pay attention to the roles or responses that others display.

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