The Plow

Posted by Doc
Aug 28 2010

The other day, in a meeting, someone made reference to the change process as a plow. At that moment, I admit that I stopped listening. Not because it wasn’t interesting or valuable, but because the image of the plow took over my attention.

First, the question of pulling, pushing, resistance, and steering. This intrigued me. When we focus on organizational transformation (or whatever term you like), all four things come into play.ox-plow-nepal.jpg


The pull comes from the organization’s desire to change. The power of the pull, then, is dependent on their desire and willingness and commitment. Imagine the image at the right – strong desire, willingness, and commitment. Now imagine a chihuahua pulling the plow. Would you achieve the same success in the same time? Probably not.

How about the idea of a plow that is pulled, but not pushed or steered. How would it be if the oxen were left to their own devices here? The plow would fall over, and either they’d keep going until they got bored, or they’d get stuck because the plow got stuck on something.

The importance of pull is that it’s nearly impossible to achieve change without some amount of pull, while at the same time, pull is not enough by itself.



Then let’s consider push. Many of us approach our consulting/coaching roles as if our job is to provide a giant push. This just doesn’t work. If there’s no pull, then no matter how hard we try to push, we’re not going to achieve success quickly. Imagine a cruise ship or one of those massive oil tankers. Yes, their default mode of propulsion and steering is from the rear – push. It takes a long time to change the direction of a ship like that, because of the inertia of the ship and the resistance of the water.

Now imagine adding a tugboat at the front of the ship. While neither push nor pull is enough by itself to make a significant change quickly, working together they can effect the change more quickly than otherwise.

So we have the idea of synergy between the organization’s pull, and the change agent’s push. Together, they produce more change more effectively.

Of course, with pull and push working together, you get a linear motion, right?


No matter how willing individual people might be, there will be resistance. Sometimes it’s passive resistance: people just keep doing what they’ve always done, not to thwart the change, but because it’s what they know. Sometimes it’s active resistance: people hold fast to their kingdoms or their safety, and change is threatening. Regardless of the reason, there will always be some resistance. In plowing for planting, it’s the earth itself. In the example of our ship, it’s the water. Neither earth nor water is actively resisting, nor is it malicious. Rather, just like organizational processes, water moves in its own way and earth is static in its own way, and you have to work with it rather than against it in order to succeed in effecting change.


Finally, let’s look at the part that brings them together: steering. Pull without steering is inflexible. The ship will keep moving in one direction. Push without steering is unpredictable. Whether the vagaries of the waves (change) or running into some resistance, pushing can lead to disaster. Consider the Titanic. While they had push and steering, they didn’t apply the steering until it was too late.

And, of course, there are currents in the water that change, and rocks in the ground that resist progress. It takes some attention and thought to recognize and adapt to those currents and obstacles.

We have to consider, therefore, that change is best effected by a combination of pull – the desire to change, push – the drive and incentive and energy, and steering – the intelligence and experience and attention to make decisions on a moment-by-moment basis.

When we find ourselves in coaching/consulting roles, it is a significant challenge to find the balance, and to find the right people/groups to effect that balance.

  • Oxen pulling plow:
  • Train plow:

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4 Responses

  1. ChrisD says:

    I love the plow metaphor, and was wondering if you might get a little more out of it with this observation.

    There are basically two types of plows:
    – plows that need to break into a deep surface (plow a field)
    – plows that need to scrape a surface (plow snow off the road)

    Deep plows are always (to my knowledge) pulled. If you push on them then they sink in and get stuck. You can’t push across a field, because some of your force will almost always be down on the plow and so it sinks deeper and deeper until it gets stuck. All farm plows pull.

    Scraping plows are generally pushed because they only need to scrape a some sludge off the underlying surface, so there is a hard limit to the depth of plowing. Snow plows generally push.

    I think the same applies to organizational changes.

    If the change needs to be deep, they need to be pulled by the organization.
    If the changes are shallow, then consultants (or what have you) can drive those changes because its just a matter of trying to polish and existing good organization.

    I also agree that plows that are pushed and pulled might be best but I can’t think of any real examples that you’d call plows. Saws on the other hand can be pushed and they do things that might be impossible any other way.

    • Doc says:

      Thanks, Chris. You have articulated quite nicely some of what was banging around in my head but didn’t come out. I agree that there are different types of plowing/effort, and that there are, therefore, different tools/approaches that suit.

      Your thought about the saw is an excellent one, because it’s a tool that can be designed to cut in either direction, or in both.

      Getting back to your pull/push analysis, I think you’re on target. However, I’ll add that pull without any push, or either without intelligent steering, leads to either marginal success or failure. And when it comes to organizational change, while I agree that you can achieve some kind of shallow change based mostly/solely on push, I believe that it will not last.

      Like waiting for the next snowfall.

  2. Robbed says:

    You’ve used my photo without permission or credit, nice work.

    Maybe you can tell these nice folks where that plow train photo was taken?

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