Planting Seeds

December 22, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, Quality 

When it’s time to act as a catalyst for change in an organization, the last approach you want to take is the old ‘bull in a china-shop’ method: taking charge, giving orders, ignoring feedback, making demands. While you may end up delivering the proposed changes and maybe even an accurate analysis of what really needs to be done, you will fail in the end. There will be massive overt push back and passive resistance, and you will likely sour the team’s attitude toward change in general. A better approach is to think of yourself as a farmer, and to plant seeds.

It is safe to say that virtually any team that exists could benefit from reasonable adjustments to their approach to getting things done. Some that are already operating quite effectively could use some minor tweaks, others that are really struggling could use a significant change in direction. Regardless of the overall effectiveness of the team’s approach, one thing is for certain: the approach they are currently taking is their own. They may not be happy with the results, they may be inconsistent in how they do things and their approach may not be documented in a nice set of standards or workflows, but it is what they have right now. Anything that is done that is perceived as taking what is already theirs from them will not be easily accepted. Ownership is critical, and you need to ensure that what is already theirs will remain theirs, with reasonable adjustments.

The best approach, then, is to work with the team and cultivate a more effective way of doing things that the team members will recognize, appreciate, and embrace as their own. This takes time, just as it takes a seed to grow. In this time, the team needs to experience a sequence of “a-ha’s”:

  • They need to see that there is a cost of not doing things as well as they can. These costs will manifest themselves in different ways to different people, so often need to be expressed in a number of different dimensions. Poor quality, unpredictable delivery, plenty of surprises, excessive costs, too much overtime. Each person on the team will have their own trigger points for pain, so you need to ensure that everyone sees the costs from their own perspective. What is important here is that the costs should never be expressed as someone doing something wrong, but rather as costs associated with a system that needs to be adjusted.
  • They need to understand that there is actually value in doing things differently. There remains in the technology world an attitude that what we build is inherently risky, inherently hard, and that extra costs and uncertainty are a standard part of the discipline. While this may be true for a very limited subset of projects, for the most part, teams are shooting themselves in the foot with practices that almost guarantee inefficiency and disappointment. Critical here is that the team needs to understand this for themselves, rather than simply being told this is the case. Industry case studies make for wonderful lecture topics, but the points don’t really hit home until there are concrete examples of challenges from their own projects. As opportunities are identified for improvements, be clear and concrete on the initial costs, as well as how adjustments could have been made to eliminate or mitigate these costs. Follow through and demonstrate how things done differently would have resulted in a better solution.
  • They need to acclimatize themselves to this new way of doing things. Even after you have demonstrated that there is a better approach, they will not immediately become experts with this change. Any time we learn something new, there is an initial period where we need to consciously think about the steps we are taking. Over time, these steps become more ingrained and we no longer need to consciously think about what we are doing, but until them we must work to ensure the learning becomes complete.
  • They need to see that their behaviours are producing better results. Even after they have become proficient in the different way of doing things, they will not truly be comfortable until they can see that these behaviours are making life easier for them, are reducing those pains that were initially identified. Remember, these pains will be manifested differently for different people. Follow through to help measure the benefits from their adjustments, and the cycle will be complete.

This can’t be done overnight, but results in lasting change that has far less risk of crumbling back into old practices and poisoning attitudes towards change in the future. In addition, this will be effective for getting teams beyond the point of barely keeping up with what they need to do, and will also work for refinements to the teams that are currently working together quite well.

On the downside, though, there are some things that will prevent this from happening, or at least make this less attractive.

It can be difficult to sell this approach, due to the apparently large investment to be made, particularly if the sponsor already has bad experiences with poorly run change initiatives. Key here is to expose the current costs (to focus explicitly on that first “a-ha”), to help them understand that this really is an investment, not merely a cost. If necessary, it may be useful to start with a relatively small initiative to warm the group up to the idea that this does not have to be painful, and there are net benefits quite quickly if done properly.

The second concern, probably more of a concern to the person who is driving the change, is that a well executed initiative provides all the appearances that the team itself has done all the work. The change agent becomes a catalyst in this case, and can’t be motivated by a need to appear to be a hero. Unfortunately, “humble” and “change agent” seem to be oxymoronic in too many cases, and the heroic change agent is what many sponsors look for, despite the results.

Be prepared to be humble, foster lasting change through planting seeds, and step back and watch the organization grow. You’ll be amazed at the results. – JB


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