Weeds, Woods, Rocks and High Ground

I recently came across a great article by Michael Jarrett for Harvard Business Review entitled ‘The 4 Types of Organizational Politics’.

In the article, Jarrett describes mapping the political terrain within an organisation. The chart he creates includes four metaphoric domains: the weeds, the rocks, the high ground, and the woods. He does this to describe how to effectively navigate each domain.

Jarrett describes the purpose of his chart being that ‘executives are equipped with a reliable map of the political landscape’. The chart also screamed out at me as a great tool for Organisational Change Management (OCM) professionals and practitioners.

The political behaviours that Jarrett describes are also the sources of resistance to change, which OCM needs to surface and put in place tactics to overcome the resistance.

Jarrett’s political domains have two dimensions. First is the level that political activity takes place. It starts with the individual and their behaviours that can then evolve to organisational level behaviours. The second dimension is the extent to which the source of power is informal or formal. Soft power is implicit, making use of relationships and influence. Hard power is explicit and draws upon role authority, expertise and directives.

The two dimensions inform us of the tools we need to navigate each domain.




The Weedsweeds

In Jarrett’s words:

‘In this quadrant, personal influence and informal networks rule. I call it “the weeds” because it’s a dynamic that grows naturally, without any maintenance’. 

This can be a good thing. An informal coalition could form to support a desired change.

However, if the ‘weeds’ are left unchecked, they can form a dense mat though which nothing else can grow. They could be a source of resistance to change and influence their colleagues and peers to do the same.


To manage the weeds, we need to understand the informal networks that are at play. If the weeds are supportive of a change, we can leverage this and create a network of change champions. We can further equip them with the appropriate support, knowledge and skills to become effective change champions.

An effective change champion can help transition others through change. They can help manage the inevitable ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with change. They can be a real benefit in embedding and sustaining change within the organisation.

Read my earlier article about Change Champions.

If the weeds are not supportive of the change and are resisting it, we need to deploy resistance management tactics.

We need to understand the person’s frame of reference. That is, the set of assumptions and attitudes we all use to filter perceptions and create meaning. The frame can include beliefs, preferences and values which can bias our understanding and judgement.

We need to ask questions to understand the frame of reference. We can then explain the change in terms of the frame of reference and answer the questions: What’s in it for me? What does this change mean to me personally? How do I fit in?

Determine the source of resistance and acknowledge it. Empathy is key. We can only manage resistance when we know where it is coming from.

rocksThe Rocks

Jarrett describes the rocks as:

‘Power in the ‘rocks’ rests on individual interactions and formal (or ’hard’) sources of authority such as title, role, expertise, or access to resources. It might also include political capital that arises from membership of or strong ties to a high status group such as the finance committee, a special task force, or the senior management team.’

Rocks can symbolise a stabilising foundation that keeps an organisation steady in times of crisis. On the other hand ‘the sharp edges of hard power can wreck a plan’.


If you have sources of authority that are supportive of your change, just as you did with the weeds, leverage this support. Supportive rocks can make awesome sponsors for your change initiative.

Read my earlier article about project sponsorship.

With negative rocks you need to use reasoned argument or appeal to their interests.

Negotiation and agreement could be a strategy when resistance is coming from someone in a position of power. Jesse Jacoby in ‘Strategies for Managing Resistance to Change’ suggests:

‘This can be done by allowing change resistors to veto elements of change that are threatening, or change resistors can be offered incentives to go elsewhere in the company in order to avoid having to experience the change effort’.

You could invite the negative rocks to participate in the change effort. When someone is involved in the change effort they are more likely to buy-in to it, rather than resist it.

If you have a sponsor who is a negative rock, beware!

In the project sponsorship article and presentation I referred to above, I talk about categorising your sponsors. First of all you categorise them regarding their position in relation to your change: A = for the change or B = against the change or neutral. Second, you categorise them in regards to their change sponsorship competency: 1 = experienced, 2 = limited, 3= none.

If you have a sponsor whose categorisation results in a B1, you have a threat.




Your B1 is opposed to your change, but also experienced in change sponsorship. Therefore they have the ‘inside’ knowledge about how to undermine your change!

High Groundhigh-ground

The high ground combines formal authority with organisational systems including rules, structures, policy, procedures and guidelines.

These rules provide a check against the notions of individuals in some position of authority. They are the rails for the rocks.

However, this bureaucracy can be used to quash improvement ideas and innovation in the interest of the bureaucrats themselves.


Organisations where the high-ground is a problem tend to be risk adverse. A tactic in this situation would be to highlight the risk of not changing rather than the benefits of changing.

This is where we can leverage some of the tactics that Kotter offers in the first of his 8-Step process for leading change – create a sense of urgency.

For example, we can bring the outside in. A “we know best” culture reduces urgency. When people do not see external opportunities or hazards, complacency grows. External change demands internal change.

Get data about the outside and bringing it in in a dramatic way. Bring in the best consultants to create the sense of urgency because of what is going on outside the organisation.

woodsThe Woods

In the final domain, Jarrett describes the woods as:

In addition to their formal processes and guidelines, organisations also have implicit norms, hidden assumptions and unspoken routines – and that’s where we get into ‘the woods’. The woods can provide cover and safety for people in your organisation; or they can be a bewildering place where good ideas and necessary changes get lost. Thus, here it is important to understand the woods from the trees as you can miss the former if you focus on the symptoms rather than the hidden barriers to strategy execution’.

Navigating this domain is all about surfacing the unspoken and unseen ecosystem of habits and practices. It’s about making the implicit explicit.

Implicit norms are not openly stated (but you quickly find out when you transgress them).

We can surface these by asking new employees about their observations and experience of how the organisation works. Get people to describe what they believe their cultural norms to be.

Once surfaced, truths and myths can be discussed and used to iron out barriers to improvement and innovation.


From an OCM perspective, the tactics here involve asking questions, getting feedback and listening, to bring implicit routines and behaviours to the surface.

Identify the rules being put on people through the implicit norms.

Once the implicit assumptions are uncovered, ask people to reflect as to whether they are obstructing the organisation or furthering it.

An example could be that the company has a policy of encouraging working from home to reduce the percentage of workstations needed in the workplace. However, no one is working from home. The implicit rule could be that you have to work long hours in the office in order to get promotion – you have to be visible.

An organisation may be trying to get employee feedback on a proposed programme of work and is conducting a series of roadshows. Few attendees are asking tough questions as the implicit norm is not to be seen to criticise.


We can all use Jarrett’s mapping of organisational politics to understand how we need to navigate each domain. In essence, politics is just another form of influencing – positive or negative. Our challenge is to leverage the former and put in place tactics to deal with the latter.

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