“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future” – John F. Kennedy

The saying that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it is a long standing adage. it has been applied to many different circumstances so it seemed appropriate to apply it to the world of change management. While ancient history is full of great examples, here are five pivotal battles that provide critical lessons applicable to successful change management execution.

Battle of Actium

One of the most famous battles in history it marked the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Occurring on September 2nd 31 B.C.E. it was a naval battle that took place near Actium – a small town in Greece. The commanders were Octavian Caesar – eventually known as Augustus – and Marc Antony who was allied with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.

The battle determined who would be the supreme ruler in Rome. Antony had better ships and vastly more experience than Octavian. Combined with the Egyptian fleet from Cleopatra they should have easily won. After many hours of indecisive battle the Egyptian fleet moved towards to open sea to reposition. However, a strong breeze picked up and they were blown away from the battle area. Marc Antony mistakenly thought Cleopatra, with whom he’d fallen in love, was fleeing and ordered his command ship to follow. Seeing their leader’s apparently leave the battle Antony’s navy lost the will to carry on and Octavian won the battle. Here’s a short video for more detail.

Change Lesson – Don’t start a major change initiative if senior leaders are not on-board and bought into effort. If the senior leaders are not in it for the long haul the effort will fail.

Greco-Persian Wars

These spanned about 10 years and encompassed many battles. However, four stand out. The first occurred in 490 B.C.E. when the Persians under king Darious invaded Greece following the rebellion of some provinces within his empire which Darious felt the Greeks incited. The first major battle was at Marathon where, despite being outnumbered by as much as 9:1, the Greeks prevailed due to their stronger weapons, armor and better tactics.

Ten years later Darious had died and under the new Persian emperor Xerxes, the Persians invaded again, this time with an even larger army as retribution for the loss at Marathon. They were stopped at a narrow pass called Thermopylae by 300 Spartans. This is the story behind the movie 300. While in the end all the Spartans died and eventually Athens was burned the Greeks had time to flee and set up a counter-strike.

The third battle occurred one month after Thermopylae in the narrow strait of Salamis. The naval battle was a decisive victory for the Greeks who used a strategy to lure the larger Persian ships into a narrow strait where the smaller, faster Greek ships had an advantage. What was left of the Persian fleet fled back to Persia. However, a land invasion was still on.

This brings us to the fourth and final decisive battle which occurred at Plataea. Two army’s of over 100,000 men on each side faced off. Again, like at Marathon, the Greek armor and battle tactics won the day. This victory set the stage for advances that are recognized today. Here’s more on the entire period.

Change Lesson – Enterprise change is a journey not a destination and the end goal must be kept in mind for the duration of that journey. Continual communication of both short term wins and the final destination is critical to maintaining momentum and morale. Tenacity matters, so keep your eye on the prize and don’t let set-backs derail you.

The Battle of Dyrrhachium

This battle took place in 48 B.C.E. and is most famous because it was the only major battle Julius Caesar lost. It occurred in a location that is today situated in Albania during the Roman republic civil war. Caesar was working to consolidate power as the leader of Rome. The Roman senate opposed him and backed Pompey Magnus (The Great). Pompey’s forces considerably outnumbered Caesar’s and Pompey, with more military experience, had a much stronger position. In the end, despite a strong offensive from Caesar and his general Marc Anthony, Caesar’s position was overrun and he was forced to retreat. However, Pompey did not pursue Ceasar believing his humiliating defeat would cause him to flee for good. He was wrong. Pompey’s lack of follow-through allowed Caesar to regroup his army – which he did. One month later a second battle ensued where Caesar soundly defeated Pompey who was himself forced to flee. Unlike Pompey, Ceasar did not assume complete victory and continued to pursue. Ultimately, Pompey ended up being assassinated in Egypt. You can read about it in more detail here.

Change Lesson – Don’t underestimate human resistance to change. When undertaking a change initiative always lookout for even the slightest sign of push back, overt or passive. Address such situations openly and as quickly as possible. In change, unlike war, the goal is not to destroy decent, but rather to win over the naysayers and skeptics with facts and a strong vision. Help them see your point of view while at the same time ensuring their concerns are heard. Often times, those who oppose change the loudest become the biggest advocates once they feel heard and their concerns addressed. In addition, it’s not unusual for those individuals to have some of the greatest insights into things that could impede progress and help overcome them.

The Battle of Khadesh

This is the first battle in recorded history for which we have first-hand documented evidence. The battle occurred over 3200 years ago in 1274 B.C.E. in what is today Syria, near the border of modern day Lebanon. It was fought between the two superpowers of the age the Egyptian empire led by Ramesses II and the Hittite empire led by king Muwatalli II. Both were large, successful kingdoms in the throes of expansion.

The Egyptians objective was to capture the city of Khadesh while the Hittites were looking to crush the Egyptian army so they could expand further south. The battle occurred when the Egyptians let their guard down one morning and found the Hittite army attacking their camp before most had awaken. The Egyptians managed to push them back with Ramesses himself leading. However, he got separated from most of his army. The Hittites realized the opportunity for victory, moved quickly to kill the opposing king. However, Egyptian reinforcements arrived saving Ramesses and pushing back the Hittites. In the end, the battle was a draw. However, the accounts of the battle, literally written in stone in Egypt as well as Hattusha – the capital of the Hittite empire – both kings pronounced the battle a victory. Each king had nothing but positive things to say about their performance and that of their army while making the opposing forces appear weak and foolish. As previously, more can be learned here.

Change Lesson – Communication is critical and in times of change should highlight the positive. This is not to say mislead or lie, but rather highlight and celebrate the progress being made while acknowledging what remains to be done. There will always be people voicing negative opinions on any change effort. Those views should be acknowledged, but also off-set with success stories to allow the broader organization to have a balanced view of progress.

Boudicca

The final story comes from 60/61 A.D. with events taking place in modern day England. The Romans had begun to colonize Brittan and the local Iceni tribe had enough of their brutality. Led by their queen Boudicca they organized thousands of local tribesmen into a rag-tag army and fought back. Initially with some amazing success which included sacking three Roman cities including Londinium – modern day London. However, after regrouping, despite being largely outnumbered, the professional Roman army defeated Boudicca and her army. Some historians believe had she stopped after her initial success and tried to negotiate a settlement from a position of power she may have had some luck. However, she overreached and ultimately lost.

Change Lesson – Do not over reach. Execute in bite-sized chunks. A good rule of thumb is no portion of the business should be in continuous change for more than three years straight. More than that and change fatigue can set in and motivation and execution quality drops.

Summary

In summary, the five key lessons for more successful change management execution are:

  1. Ensure key leaders are aligned and on-board for the duration before starting a change effort.
  2. Stay focused on the end goal / vision – tenacity wins
  3. Stay vigilant and do not underestimate the human resistance to change – keep lines of communication open so everyone is heard and comes along for the journey
  4. Highlight the positive – don’t lie or exaggerate, but ensure wins get communicated to help off-set the inevitable negativity
  5. Be mindful of organizational change fatigue – execute so no one group is impacted for more than three years straight

While not comprehensive, doing these five things will greatly improve the chance of success for any enterprise change management effort.