Have you ever heard of that riddle where you have to get a fox, a chicken and a cabbage across a river? You have a row boat. But it’s on the small size and can only hold you and one other item – or else it will sink. Your challenge is to get all three items across the river. But there are complications. If the fox and the chicken are left together, the fox will eat the chicken. If the chicken and the cabbage are left together, the chicken will eat the cabbage. How do you do it?

Life is full of metaphorical cabbages – targets that are wrapped up in dependencies**. In an earlier post about influence I talked about a target – the outcome you’re hoping to achieve through influence. Having a clear sense of your objective(s) is vital in influence – and that’s what I’ve been thinking about today.

Using the word target suggests a clear focus. But how can you get that focus? And how do you know you’re focusing on the right thing. The 5 whys is one technique I’ve used in the past to clarify things. Asking ‘Why’ (often ‘why something… like why is that important?) will lead you from a general thing to a more specific and actionable area of concern.

It’s important to prioritise when you’re looking to influence. Every ‘ask’ of someone costs something, even if it’s only time. Prioritisation can simplify things. It increases your efficiency because you only focus on the things that matter or make progress. Reflective thinking will help you clarify your target. What are the possible outcomes? What are the preferable and desiraable outcomes among the possibilities. What are you willing to trade off or compromise on? What forms of co-opeation do you want to establish or exploit? Would a short term victory be worth damaging a relationship? What is your core objective?

But your objectives are only part of the equation. Imagine steaming into the fox, chicken and cabbage situation. If you focus on your objective without paying attention to the stakeholders in the situation – Foxy, Clucky and ‘The Captain’****, you wont hit your target. Sometimes you have to think laterally. Often you make progress towards your ultimate target by focusing on individual tactical stages.

Once you have a sense of what you want to achieve, you must open your attention to consider the surrounding context. Is there something about the situation that introduces a constraint – is the cabbage of your success at risk from the chicken of external pressures? And is there something particular about the sequence in which you convince or persuade that will make things easier?

The secret to the riddle is to find a sequence of moves that stick to the rules. It might feel at times like you’re moving away from your target, but thinking strategically about the ultimate target can inform your tactics. Another way over the river might be to hop across steppng stones. In influence, what are the moves or plays that you can make to get closer to your target?

Each step should accrue credit for your position or be an investment that will pay off in the future. Ask yourself – what do they need to believe or know to agree with my target position? How can I give them this belief or understanding within the current context?

Practical points:

  • Influence and persuasion needs situational awareness + a clear sense of your core objective + an understanding of preference/disposition of those involved.
  • Think creatively about the sequence of things – build consensus and accrue credit.
  • Consider the dependencies – what do people need to understand and believe to agree with you.
  • Consider constraints – what might wreck a partnership or relationship of influence?


* I know that in the actual riddle it’s a bag of corn. I think a cabbage is a funnier image. I think if Aesop were alive today more of his fables would be about cabbages.

** the cabbage is the fable character that keeps on giving. Here the leaves of the cabbage are evoked in a powerfully lyrical sentence.***

*** Sorry.

**** ‘Captain Cabbage’ is an excellent nickname.*****

***** Sorry again.