See my previous post for some context, and my definition of what a big horrible technology program is, but let’s just say I’ve ridden at a few rodeos.
In my last articles, I put forward the following positions for managing big horrible technology programs:
- You have to go fast
- Not everybody is going to be happy when you bring change
- If you are going to go fast, do it with a small team
Now I want to explore the role of people in organizational stability during change.
Given the title, I expect the reader will think this article is about how difficult people always want to stop you succeeding; weirdly it’s almost the exact opposite. Let me explain.
Healthy organizations are made up of many types of people, some looking for a stable paycheck, some strategic thinkers, some revolutionaries, some leaders, some followers, some looking for an easy ride, some looking to progress their careers, I could go on but I hope you get the point. What I find interesting is that the blend of these different types is affected by the culture and role of the organization. Let's consider some examples:
A County Superior Court - Personally, I like the Judges in my County Superior Courts, and the staff that support them, to have a high level of consistency and stability, and a lower level of revolutionaries, a culture of standardized process and fairness, and fewer mavericks. These characteristics produce a more consistent, and I believe better, justice system.
An Online Retailer – In this still fast evolving field, I would be looking for a higher proportion of people prepared to take risks, to get out there and to take on the world, because that helps push the organization forward, but also some slightly more flexible, but stable people, who run the operational part of the business, but can cope with the demands of rapid growth. With this blend there is more potential for success in the interactive environment. There have been many examples over the last 20 years of web based companies having explosive growth, effectively doing more of the same, more quickly. And every one of those companies for example Amazon, Google, Facebook, include employees who are operationally consistent.
Key to the success of both extremes of organization is a need for some people who feel comfortable with underlying stability, and feel that their way of doing things is fine. These people are needed for the success of the organization, often despite the lack of fanfare for their roles. Very likely, inherent in the psychological makeup of these people, is a resistance to change. These are your Laggards.
Now we have established our subjects, let’s discuss how change affects them.
They are cautious, resistant, and possibly scared, and will try to stay in their own box, hoping this change will just go away. They believe that there is an amorphous “better way” to make progress that doesn’t involve this level of disruption to them, but there is often no clarity behind this “better way”. It tends to be a mirage. Most of all, they don’t want this!
Their opinion of radical change agents (like me!) is that we are just plain crazy, likely to push the organization into dysfunction and/or bankruptcy, and the plans we present are ridiculously optimistic and unrealistic, that somehow we have convinced the leadership that this craziness is possible, but it’s just not!
And that’s okay, actually for me, it’s better than okay, it’s essential to success. As a change agent, these people are the source of input that needs to be processed, so that the voice in my head tells me when I am pushing too hard (or sometimes, though rarely, not hard enough!). Yes, they are always going to be counteractive to change, but once you understand the individuals, it is possible to discern stress levels within this negativity, and they will delight in telling you the problems. They have just given you a useful program barometer, and a set of problems to overcome.
The key to dealing with Laggards is to be very assertive in pushing them towards the go-live, really, give them no options other than to ride the train, but crucially, listen to their input. It is crucial to understand their fears, and I don’t mean let them speak, I mean really understand, then prioritize them in your own mind and with your program leadership team, then follow up on a point by point basis. It is very likely that your follow up will not be accepted, and that is not really the intent. The intent is that you have, and show you have, thought about their concerns.
After the push and shove of the go-live of a big program, it will be time to listen again, and be very gentle with them for the subsequent 6-9 months (depending on the size and impact of the technology program's change on the organization). You did disturb their psychological balance for a while and they need to re-stabilize. After this period of progressive improvement and stabilization they may begrudgingly say that the new system is not too bad, but not as good as the old system. And as an IT executive, you shouldn't expect any more than this.
If you were both still there 15 years later, as the systems changed again, they will react in exactly the same way about your system as they did about the previous one.
I set myself a personal objective in each new big program, there is usually that one person who is a laggard, an expert, and is acknowledged by others as having wisdom, and they are usually very good solid people. I find them and I try and win them over. I usually manage to neutralize their negative perspectives, I very occasionally win them over, and in one or two instances people who started out as extremely negative on a program, I have now known and been friends with for over 25 years.
Life is funny!