Facing disruption? Optimize for stability or speed

Is your organization more like a sailboat or a speedboat? Your answer reveals the assumptions you make about dealing with change.
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Ship sails in the sky

Photo by Jen Wike Huger

The most reliable contemporary change management research has consistently assumed that most organizational change can be controlled if leaders are mindful enough to predict and channel the forces driving that change. Like navigating a sailboat, implementing effective change was possible with a clear orientation, a dependable crew, and the ability to leverage the elements.

But with the advent of speedboats, this is no longer true. If sailboats are traditional organizations, then speedboats are disruptive organizations. And speedboats don't follow the same rules. They may share the waters, but they vary radically in their assumptions about stability, focus and priorities, people, and what makes them vulnerable.

How do these assumptions impact design, function, and engagement on the high seas of change?


Sailboat organizations need stability. Their intentional change leadership thrives on an ability to control the nature, speed, intensity, and permanence of their changes. They depend on relative internal and environmental stability to control the change process. If you're a speedboat organization and you have sailboat clients, recognize that they'll want solutions with minimal upset to their stability.

Speedboat organizations need instability. In order to maintain their prominence as the quickest to adapt, they create rapid, constant disruption of the environment and rely on their own lightning reflexes to stay in the lead while their competitors attempt to regain orientation. If you are a sailboat organization and you hire a speedboat to implement changes, change readiness efforts (which focus on adapting to unplanned change) will likely be more effective than traditional change management initiatives, because you will have less control of the change in an external disruption process.

Focus and priorities

Sailors focus on a straight course to the destination, and the experience of sailing itself.

Speedboaters focus on winning—reaching the destination first—and the thrill and merit of the speed.

Searches for "sailboating essentials" on Google offer links with tips that help sailors build skill and control so they can engage appropriately with the elements. A search for "speedboating essentials," on the other hand, yields links to equipment and technology—and the safety rules of passing.

If this is any indicator of priorities within sailboat and speedboat communities, one population seems to focus more on navigation skill, while the other seems to focus on navigation technology. And we can observe this apparent difference when juxtaposing traditional organization with disruptor organizations, too.

Here's an example: When a panel of experts on a recent #OpenOrgChat on Twitter was asked what blocks collaboration on most teams or in most organizations, some understood the question to be a question regarding collaborative apps; while others suggested tips on improving interpersonal collaboration: "It's not the tools, it's not the internet, it's people. Humans are the ones collaborating, not the tools. The tools are a mean. You can install mailing lists and still have people either fighting or not talking to each other."

This is an important observation: sailboat and speedboat organizations often use the same words while silently defining them differently. "Openness," "collaboration," "transparency," and other terms are exchanged freely without nailing down whether technological or interpersonal definitions are being applied.

This creates a problem. Meaning impacts application (see what I did there?).


On a sailboat, the crew is interdependent for survival. Stationed all over the boat, members constantly communicate with each other, adapt to leverage the elements, and navigate the craft. The people directly affect the speed.

On a speedboat, one daring driver sets the pace and everyone else hangs on.The speedboat needs a strong engine and a confident driver who manages the speed and the water. Drivers may read the comfort level of the passengers to help gauge the speed, but the force/speed of the engine affects the people, not the other way around.


A sailboat cannot navigate as quickly as a speedboat, but it's less vulnerable to crashing and flipping. Its vulnerability is its inability to make sharp, quick turns if it encounters an unexpected threat. In organizations, this can translate into outdated strategy with dire consequences.

If you've switched from sailboat to speedboat, or from speedboat to sailboat, recognize how the rules of engagement have changed for you. Are you aware of the areas in which you are less resilient, or more easily blindsided on this type of vessel?

A speedboat, however, can maneuver quickly—but its speed makes it more likely to crash. At top speeds, it can easily flip. Similarly, the very speed that helps disruptive organizations quickly gain the market lead is also their greatest vulnerability to crashing.

What does this mean on shared waters?

If you are on a sailboat, remember that you are not a speedboat. Even if you have a motor, you cannot do what speedboats can do. Your functions and values are different. Though you are less vulnerable to crashes and flipping, your maneuverability will never match theirs. To increase adaptability, focus on change readiness so you can benefit from the solutions that disruptive organizations bring to your organization, while staying realistic about the speed of your organization's implementation.

If you are on a speedboat and you are driving, take a look at the passengers. Are they hanging on for dear life, or are they enjoying the ride? Do you have a steady stream of people falling off the sides? How can you balance your desired place in the race with your concern for turnover? If you are not the driver, how can you help each other to stay on board while maintaining high speed? How sensitive are you to your clients in the wake of your rapid innovation? Engage in change readiness to empower those on the boat to understand care for each other while decreasing the risk of losing people off the sides. Change readiness can increase speedboat stability as well.

If you've switched from sailboat to speedboat, or from speedboat to sailboat, recognize how the rules of engagement have changed for you. Are you aware of the areas in which you are less resilient, or more easily blindsided on this type of vessel?

In my next article, I'll explain how people on both types of organization vessels can respond to changes ahead by asking some important, probing questions. In the meantime, let's discuss: What would you add to the difference between the way speedboat orgs and sailboat orgs handle change? How does this discussion impact the way you think about change, yourself?

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sorry, Jo's mug shot is shy today.
MaryJo Burchard (Concord Leader) helps leaders in business, public sector, education, and nonprofits to develop open behaviors and interactions to measurably raise the bar of humane, Open engagement in the workplace. MaryJo has a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University and conducts training and internal organizational development consulting for executives and managers.


I enjoyed reading this! What if the organization you are part of, is by default a sailboat org, and tries to transform parts of it to a speedboat org? Can they balance the optimization for speed or stability?

Such a great question, Robin! Though most organizations are not designed to be disruptors as their primary function, they can effectively adopt and optimize "disruptive"/agile behaviors to increase their maneuverability. In my observation, the two keys are: (1) incremental learning, modeling, and proliferating identified "speedboat" behaviors and approaches that fit the organization's goals, while (2) honoring the "sailboat" identity at the organization's core, and keeping the distinction between a modification and a full transformation. Caveat: "transforming parts. . . to a speedboat org" must be done with care. These adaptations will only be truly "upgrades" if people remain mindful of the org's essential nature (sailboat/speedboat). Rather than getting "the best of both worlds," conflating transformation and a modification can shock the crew and make the organization neither stable nor fast.

In "real life," people can add an engine to a sailboat, and when the engine is running the modified vessel is classified as a powerboat. But despite the reclassification and new capabilities, the craft is still essentially a "sailboat" with an engine. The crew still functions with sailboat goals, values, and approach to the water. The engine can be optimized if the crew learns powerboat approaches, rules, goals, and opportunities that it couldn't pursue without an engine. But the moment someone attempts to enter that sailboat-with-an-engine into a speedboat race, the craft is set up to fail. Crew members will bail with the sudden lurch, and may cause others to crash along the way.

For sailboat orgs that may be tempted to reinvent themselves as full speedboats: Digital transformation takes time and requires more than just a "new engine" and the technological capacity to "go fast." An organization with new tech upgrades and even new open/agile approaches to work will have the best chances if it still honors its status as a sailboat with an engine. The extent of optimal transformation is on a sliding scale based on a collective, intentional preference of either speed or stability as the focal point. Until the bulk of the people in the org understand the new rules of engagement - - and the infrastructure of the organization itself is also modified to be a speedboat (assuming they really WANT speed over stability), digital transformation will remain a term only embraced in pockets where it naturally resonates (vis: the cubicles of the IT department.) Intentional, relational digital modifications and incremental changes in the culture can help sailboat orgs gain the benefit of increased speed, without sacrificing long-earned stability.

Can anyone share an example of an organization doing this effectively (whether as modification or transformation)?

In reply to by robinmuilwijk

Great article MaryJo, I got a great sense of imagery through reading it. I really liked the way you pointed out the difference in the meaning of words and the impact that has on how different groups of people approach a discussion. In my experience, especially in tech orgs, I've seen similar discussions where the split is between one group of people talking about how behaviors are impacting the issue, while the other group talks about how technology is impacting the issue.

Thanks, Michael. You bring up what may be the most mission-critical issues in the disruption discussion: confusion arising from an unconscious conflation of meanings between the shared words of tech-natives and people-natives. Clarity increases the more we each recognize that our lens (and meanings) are nuanced to our background. We need to get good at clarifying what we mean. This can help us nail down technical, relational, and structural/logistical elements of an issue. We all stand to emerge with a more holistic, multi-dimensional perspective when we look at the issue together.

In reply to by mdoyle

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