Building the Faith

January 9, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, Process 

A few months back, I wrote about the need to have faith in the process that was being used to build a product. This was recently reproduced in the Cutter E-mail Advisor, and generated a question about the diagnostic I referred to, and a question about how to build that faith that I alluded to in the article. Here are a few thoughts on the topic.

The diagnostic I referred to is something that we developed a few years back and use regularly, something we use to benchmark clients and lead to discussions about how to best improve their practices. As we do a lot of work with startup companies and a traditional discovery phase is out of reach for them price-wise, we developed a ‘lighter’ approach that ends up providing greater value at the end of the day. Given the apparently smaller investment, many clients are quite skeptical that we can get the value out of it that we do. I don’t think I ever want to do an assessment and set of recommendations in a report again.

It just occurred to me that there is a strong parallel here to the skepticism about agile approaches…

How to allow or foster faith in the process for others?

I think one of the key ingredients to recognize is that we (as leaders with any new approach), have already made quite a journey to develop this faith, and this is often accelerated by the fact that we’ve invested a greater thought share into ‘process’, ‘value’, ‘benefit’ than most of those that are busy trying to get a product out the door. I expect that for the majority of practitioners, most of their exposure to process has been negative. From dry lectures about waterfall and spiral models in their undergrad curriculums (and more recently, superficial expressions of agile approaches), to heavy-handed, documentation-laden process that slows them down, to weak interpretations of agile where the lack of any infrastructure whatsoever sets them up for failure. Most are predisposed to cynicism in this area, and there are very few that have ‘bought in’ from day one.

Because of this cynicism, we need to show results very quickly. There is an old saw that if you change the process you are using on a project, you need to expect a drop in productivity in that cycle where it is introduced. This goes back to Virginia Satir’s change cycle, something that is often called a learning curve. While that may have been true in the past, I don’t think we need to assume this remains the case.

Indeed, if we are injecting so much change that we need to wait months for perceived value, we are setting ourselves up for failure. In most shops, there are tweaks that can be made that demonstrate value in days or weeks, that dramatically reduce that ‘leap of faith’ that we ask of people, and naturally lead us into the continuous improvement cycle.

One way to do this, if there are a range of different things you would like to introduce to a group, is to carefully govern the exposure to your list of changes (so that they are not seen as a litany of changes), only introducing the one or two changes that are currently relevant to the situation. This will reduce the culture shock and pushback from the group, increase the focus on these specific practices, and shorten that payback cycle.

This in turn will quickly build up that faith we are looking for. Triage all of the new practices you could introduce at any one point, and limit the focus to those that are most relevant to the current situation, and have the best potential value. Hold the others on your pocket for when the time is right.

Tied to all of this is the need to decide on the changes as a group, rather than telling the masses they need all need to move in a different direction. I find that an open discussion where we can identify and agree on the challenges we face, look at a list of potential remedies as a group, then select the appropriate approach as a group provides tremendous value. The simple notion of the group having participated in the decision-making process (rather than the group receiving a consultant’s report suggesting a new direction to go) is extremely powerful.

They have made a connection between the pain and the solution, but more importantly, they have ownership in that decision. They will run with it. – JB

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