Machiavelli for procurement professionals – managing change

This year sees the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first version of The Prince by Niccola Machiavelli, one of the greatest political thinkers and philosophers ever. He's also arguably one of the most unfairly maligned writers in history, with ”Machiavellian” being used as a term of opprobrium to describe usually devious, evil behavior. The book is written in the form of what we might call today a self-help or business advice book - it’s topic being how to gain and (particularly) maintain power as a ruler in the complex world of Renaissance Italy, with its multiple principalities and republics.

I first read The Prince many years ago and it was one of the few classics that far exceeded my expectations of it. I still dip into it from time to time, and I never fail to find it extraordinary that so much of his advice – given in a time when what we call Italy now was a mass of warring states, principalities, and religious institutions – is still really relevant to us in our personal lives and even more so in organisations of all types. So to celebrate the anniversary, we've got a short series of articles looking at some of his key ideas, and how they might help us be successful even today.

Coming back to his reputation, there is some basis for negativity, in that he wrote from the point of view that acquiring and keeping power was an end in itself. The end justifies the means, if you like, in a manner that can be taken to be amoral. But if you look at The Prince as a book of business advice, let's face it, not many of our contemporary works on ‘how to succeed in business’ work from a particularly high moral plane.

In The Prince, his best known work, he offers advice to politicians and rulers, particularly through the eyes of a ‘new’ prince or leader of a republic – rather than a hereditary ruler. So as we get into what his work might tell us about being procurement executives, think of it as advice for a manager or director taking on a new role or joining a new porganisation, or perhaps a post merger or acquisition situation.

So today, let’s start with one of his best known maxims – his explanation of why managing change is so difficult. And it is as relevant today as it was 500 years ago.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new”.

So those who will lose from the change will make a lot of noise or worse, whilst those who will gain tend to keep quiet. But why are the winners so hesitant about supporting change?

“This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them”.

People are suspicious, and don’t believe that change will really happen and they will really benefit. So immediately, we can see why communication and persistence are two key characteristics of successful change managers (remember our comments on transformation recently). We have to keep telling people what is going to happen and of course they must see that things actually are changing. Then those who benefit will support the change more strongly.

Machiavelli goes on to say that those who lead change – ‘prophets’ as he calls them – need to have real power as well. Now we can’t use a few hundred guys with swords, which is probably what he had in mind, but it is a salutary point to consider. If we want things to change, we need to recognise it is difficult, and consider how are we going to back up our objectives. What power or authority do we have in our organisations? If our stakeholders don’t want to adhere to our new “no purchase order, no pay” policy, will the CEO support us?

And in the next part of our series, we will see what Machiavelli has to say about love, fear and hate - very relevant to many procurement leaders I’ve come across!

First Voice

  1. Emily Crews Montès:

    I’ll be keeping French and Raven’s 5 (and later 6) bases of power, in mind as I re-read The Prince. On the other side of the channel “the order of things” is a phrase that’s often repeated, and changing things, even if it’s manifestly for the better, or temporary in order to achieve a key goal, is greeted almost systematically with suspicion. The word “libéralisme”, when it’s uttered, is usually given as the phrase “ultra-libéralisme”, and seen as a dangerous concept because it leave “the order of things” vulnerable to attack. In a challenging economy where businesses need to be supple and to challenge the need for sacred cows, I feel a change agent needs to be a Prince, especially to effect change in a latin country.

    On my site, I have reviewed “La Logique d’Honneur” by Philippe d’Iribarne, which has helped me understand reluctance in France to embrace cross-discipline working, essentially because people are anchored, in their work ethic, to their profession more than they are to their organisation or to their manager. D’Iribarne also paints a portrait of an honourable boss – I’ll be noting how that might relate to the Prince advocated by Machiavelli.

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