Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Breaking Down Barriers to Enable Positive Change

The majority of teams that I talk to have something that they wish would be different, something that has been a problem for a while and is limiting productivity or predictability in some fashion. What I find interesting is the length of time project thorns such as this continue. The difficulty gets plenty of dialogue around the lunch table, or at the local watering hole, however an actionable plan to do something about it is frequently put on the back burner. The reasons sited are typically one or more of money, time, "it will never get better" or "not my problem".

These long term project thorns are similar to an old pair of our favorite shoes. They may be ugly in ways, have obvious defects to most people and everyone is telling us we need to get new ones. We are blind to these facts because they are so comfortable and we know how to walk just fine with them. However, in reality they are probably causing us some physical problems that we may not even be aware of, since the negative change with time is so subtle. Why are we reluctant to buy new shoes? We are comfortable with the ones we have and new shoes will hurt for a while until we work into them. In reality we are afraid of how peculiar the new shoes will feel vs. the familiar old ones and how long it will take for us to adjust to them.

For our projects the major reason we tend to hold back on changing something is also fear centered more often than not. Ouch - am I really afraid to change something? The odds are high that fear is a major non-starter for implementing changes to improve a less than perfect work flow situation. Fear is the result of the unknowns that exist on the path to a change. If we diddle with something to make it better, will I be OK with any impact on my work situation? The common reasons for this fear are outlined below:

  • Things may end up worse after the change.
  • I already feel overwhelmed; will defining and making this change increase my load?
  • Skeptical - will my concerns/ideas be heard and addressed?
  • I may be impacted by a change in an unfavorable fashion.
  • Change of Habit - Things may not be perfect now, but I know what I am going to do every day when I go to work. How will this change my day?
  • I am not responsible for the issue we have. Will I somehow end up more responsible for the problem?
Ignore the reality of fears such as those identified above and plans for change will either never leave the starting gate or drag on and on without any attainable value, leaving you to potentially deal with "see, I told you that would never work" type of criticism. Acknowledgment and handling of the prospective fears will enable a smooth course to the development and roll out of a change.

So how do you handle the diffusion of the fears? The simplest means to a minimally fear filled, maximally beneficial change practice is "Broad Involvement". Each individual's potential solution vector will have different magnitudes and phases for a specific problem. They all need to be as aligned as possible to maximize the effective magnitude and the only way to do that is to engage them, really engage them. Any problem to be addressed and the resulting change will have far reaching impact; therefore a strategy of far-reaching inclusion rather than exclusion of individuals will alleviate fears and tip the scales towards success. Consider that the problem you want to resolve is rarely contained within a given organizational silo, although it may appear as though that is the case due to a narrow view of the project execution landscape.

1 comment:

  1. I was in a meeting today where we recommended to a project team to use new advanced verification methodologies (OVM) rather than the comfy shoes of directed testing. The project manager had made up his mind before the meeting began that there was too much risk, too much work, etc. I realized that we needed to make him part of the solution and your timely post really hit the nail on the head that he's reacting out of fear.

    Great insight!