Shaping the Riverbanks: A Metaphor for Sustained Change 

Shaping the Riverbanks: A Metaphor for Sustained Change 

Written by Chris White 


Imagine you want to change the course of the river. You wade in, trying to redirect the water’s flow with your hands. For a moment, it works. But quickly, the water flows around your hands and back to the existing current. Simply moving the water will not create your desired result. Instead, you must commit to the arduous process of reshaping the riverbanks. Once flowing along the reengineered riverbanks, the water will constantly reinforce the new structure, sustaining the river on its new path for years to come.  


Riverbanks have been a metaphor for one of my most deeply held beliefs about changing cultures since long before I worked in an office on the bank of the Huron River in Ann Arbor. Whether personal or organizational, culture change is hard. All too often, we just wade in, trying to move the water, missing an opportunity for sustained change.  


We can all think of times we’ve done this. In our personal lives – we feel we’ve been overeating or not exercising as we’d like. We adopt the latest fad diet with great gusto and lose a few pounds, only to lose our environmental support structures and find ourselves back at square one within a few months. In our leadership roles – one of our reports has received some negative feedback on his people skills. Deep down, he is a good guy, but he can come across as harsh to some people. As engaged leaders, we choose not to avoid the issue and set up a meeting to provide feedback and support a behavior change. Shaken and a bit embarrassed by the feedback, our colleague tries hard to change, but eventually, his workload piles up, and the old behaviors creep back in. The change didn’t last.   

When it comes to lasting change, willpower is not enough. To increase the chances of making change stick, you must change the whole system. As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits, “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.” If you really want to change your eating habits – remove the problem food groups from the places you would typically eat them – the house, the car, the office. Replenish these storage places with healthier, tasty options like nuts or fruits.  


If you want to support your colleague in changing his problematic people skills – help him refresh how he manages his people. For example, if he’s blending project-related feedback and personal development feedback too often for his direct reports, encourage him to schedule regular 1:1 development time with each of them. Instead of addressing issues with his people as they come up, he can track positive and negative observations throughout the month and focus their 1:1 time on coaching, providing feedback with themes and highquality examples. His people may be more likely to embrace his commitment to their growth if they are prepared to receive feedback. As an added benefit, other meetings can then focus on achieving the collective goals of the projects.   


In the context of broader organizational change, reshaping the riverbanks can take the shape (pun intended) of reflecting on how leaders are chosen, taught to lead, and rewarded. What is the way of leading that is special to your company? How can you make this type of leadership consistent throughout your organization? How does communication really happen? Is your theory (traditionally newsletters, emails, town halls) different from reality (likely a dynamic network of information sharing and sense-making)? How do you recruit, hire, onboard, and set people up for success? How do you off-board people with dignity, grace, pride, joy, and gratitude? What signals do people pick up from what they experience and see happening to others? These questions point to the processes that shape how your organization’s water flows. Otherwise, once your investment of resources, attention, and effort move elsewhere, the culture will revert to the path of least resistance: the preexisting status quo. If your organization requires a change, these are the riverbanks you must shift.