Innovation Blog

Machiavelli’s The Prince: In Innovative Change, Nothing Has Changed in 500 Years!

By Shlomo Maital

  Niccolò Machiavelli

   In 2013 the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the completion of The Prince, a political tract written by the Italian public servant and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. His book was written in 1513, but published only five years after his death, in 1532.  Because of it, the term Machiavellian (mean, slyly manipulative) is in wide use.  This is unfair to Machiavelli.  His practical insights into the politics of change stand the test of time — especially regarding why innovation is so immensely difficult to implement.

      Here is what he says about innovative change, in Chapter Six, with a few comments. I recommend that all innovators reread The Prince before embarking on a change management project:

  “And 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.”

   Did Barak obama, the author of “Yes, We Can!”, ever  read, understand and integrate those words?  Based on his recent interview in TIME magazine, he did not.

  “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. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

   This asymmetry of passion is deadly — opponents of change are fierce and passionate, supporters are lukewarm and passive.  Change agents find ways to create a better pro-change balance.

   It is necessary, therefore, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others?  ….the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion.

Innovators cannot do it on their own; they need a team.  Keeping the team motivated is a key part of successful innovative change.  

     And finally, Machiavelli brings a case study:

    Hiero the Syracusan  …rose from a private station to be Prince of Syracuse….  This man abolished the old soldiery, organized the new, gave up old alliances, made new ones; and as he had his own soldiers and allies, on such foundations he was able to build any edifice: thus, whilst he had endured much trouble in acquiring, he had but little in keeping.

   Hiero rose from ordinary soldier to Prince with difficulty; he remained Prince, because he had a loyal cadre of supporters and soldiers.   Innovators build a sometimes subversive group around them who “get it”, and who protect, support and energize their leader.  This team is crucial.

    Innovative change is without exception political.    All the more reason to read or re-read the oldest, and still the best, tract on organizational politics ever written.