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Change Management Insights: the Gamekeeper & the Poacher

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Change Management Insights: are you a gamekeeper or a poacher?

As a change leadership consultant, I often find myself being a gamekeeper by day and a poacher by night. Bear with me, and I'll explain the difference between the two.

This article is not about managerial traits. It is not about one set of traits being right and another being wrong. However, it is about understanding how traits can clump together to form a managerial type that might not fit the job at hand. These traits have been observed by all this interested in human behaviour - Carol Dweck theorises around Fixed and Growth mindsets, Certified Public Accountants in the US discuss Technicians and Rainmakers, and adult learning theorists identify field dependent and field independent learners.

My work has been heavily influenced by andragogy - adult learning theory - and led me to develop the analogy of the Gamekeeper and the Poacher. These observations were inspired by my PhD Supervisor and Vice-Principal for Knowledge Management at the University of Edinburgh - a neuroscientist and informatics expert, who used to say that he was a gamekeeper by day and poacher by night.


Question: are you a Gamekeeper when you need to be a Poacher?

Sometimes you need a Gamekeeper and other times a Poacher. It's not about one or the other, it's about creating a fit between you and the environment. The question is, do you have the requisite variety of beliefs, attitude, skills, knowledge, experience and talent for the environment you work in?

A few years back, I worked with an agile innovation team within a large multi-national engineering company. Based in Germany, the team pulled the brightest and best talent from across the company with a remit to engage the workforce to generate ideas that could lead to innovations that enhanced the company's competitive position in the marketplace. However, the team was facing a challenge. 

After experiencing an initial influx of ideas, the well had quickly run dry; two years down the road and they found themselves at a point of crisis with the executive leadership team questioning their commitment and capability. The response was one of anxiety and fear, which stunted learning.

The team believed their problem was the employees; they didn't get agile or innovation and, subsequently, they didn't have any good ideas.

The reality was very different. You see, the agile project was full of gamekeepers when what it needed was poachers. 


The Gamekeeper and Poacher

Over the years, I have discovered that the best change managers tend to be a blend of gamekeepers and poachers.

The Gamekeeper:

  • An experienced hyper-specialist

  • A linear thinker who detests messy problems

  • Protector and enforcer of structures, systems and processes

  • Trust the process - mistakes happen because someone didn't follow the rules

  • Thrives in certainty and has a low tolerance for risk

  • Predicts and measures success through Key performance indicators

  • Responds to challenges using tried and trusted methods

The Poacher:

  • An agile multi-disciplined generalist

  • A non-linear thinker who sees mess as an opportunity

  • Finds and selects the right approach for the job and will rapidly change if a given strategy isn't working

  • Mistakes happen because they got it wrong

  • Thrive in uncertainty and has a high tolerance for risk

  • Speaks about the probability of success

  • Responds to challenges by probing the environment, sensing and then responding


Being formed of people with dominant Gamekeeper traits, the agile team in Germany didn't have the requisite Beliefs, Attitudes, Skills, Knowledge, Experience and Talent (BASKET) required for the mission. The team needed to embrace the Poacher mimdset, taking an approach that allowed them to be Gamekeepers during the day and Poachers at night.

Engineers, accountants, Project Managers and the like tend to lean toward being Gamekeepers, and in complicated environments, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, the moment the environment tips toward complexity, the Gamekeeper tends to get outwitted by the Poacher.


Gamekeeper & Poacher BASKET Shortfalls

Recently, I have been working with a team of Project Managers from across Europe tasked with influencing the way people feel and think about electric vehicles. EU stakeholders were not happy with their performance because, after two years, the team had not achieved the impact they expected. 

At the heart of the dissatisfaction was a BASKET shortfall, where the teams lacked the variety of BASKET needed to create trust, influence and impact with their target audience. 

The team was full of brilliant Gamekeepers, who couldn't work out why people wouldn't subscribe to their rule-based approach to influence; they knew best because they were expert engineer Project Managers, and people should listen to the logic, their logic. They didn't grasp that whenever two people meet, whether to compete or collaborate, there is complexity - the relationship is dynamic, and outcomes are not predictable. 

The team needed to break out of its Gamekeeper sanctuary and learn to be Poachers. However, to do so, they needed to be learning agile and, unfortunately, they reinforced the need for what Dweck would refer to as a fixed mindset - the way of the Gamekeeper was the one true path.


Good Life + Work Project note

This article is not about Gamekeeper = wrong & Poacher = right.

The world needs both Gamekeepers and Poachers, but the message here is about having the right blend within your change initiatives. Also, you need to consider whether, as the environment changes, the team is fit enough to pivot and thrive. For you as the change lead, are you agile enough to adapt and become that Gamekeeper by day and a Poacher by night?


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