|This article is an abstract of an article published in "InfoQ". You can read the full article through this link|
I have been working for nearly twenty years in changing organizations. Over this time, I have come to the conclusion that some 80% of all improvement and change programmes fail. Failure means that they did not achieve the expected results, the investment in the change programme was greater than the value achieved, “improvements” were seen as mostly bureaucratic, or changes were abandoned soon after the implementation. In this short paper, I would like to point out some recommendations as to how things can be done more efficiently.
An organization, a company, a corporation, a society needs to be considered as a living creature. An organism whose prime objective has become the need to survive and grow, ensure the perennity of its genes. Like other living species, the corporation rapidly starts to place its own needs above anything else. As such, we see them eating smaller companies, killing off competition and deviating from their original purpose in the pursuit of gain.
I have often compared “institutionalized” practices to practices which have been written into the DNA of the company. The CMMI defines “institutionalization” as the “ingrained way of doing business that an organization follows routinely as part of its corporate culture”. Basically, this means that this is something so obvious, people just do it, without questioning. Your DNA is repeated in every cell of your body and defines a lot about you. You, as a person, are a cell in the organism which employs you. Just as you discard and grow cells continuously without changing who you are, the company needs to be able to change individual members of staff without losing its corporate culture.
Most organizations who fail their change or improvement programme do so because they ignore the fact that this is a cultural change and not just a technical activity. Management does not see themselves involved, just giving orders for others to change. Their objectives may be mistaken (trying to satisfy a standard or model) or based on a misunderstanding of cause and effect (for instance by believing that if they do everything CMMI says, than they will manage their performance rather than recognizing that it is organizations who manage their organizational performance who satisfy the expectations of CMMI maturity level 5).
The focus of the organization needs to be on quality, nothing else matters. Every product and service can be found cheaper somewhere else, however the quality you deliver to your customers is particular and specific. Quality is now compared to global competition, meaning that you need to provide world-class quality if you are going to establish a relationship of trust with your customers and prospects. This means that in all things, you need to find a way to exceed your customers’ expectations.
Someone at management level has had an idea, they have been to a conference, read a book, met a consultant and suddenly, they believe they have found the response to all their needs. They are going to implement CMMI, TickITplus, ITIL, Agile, Six-Sigma, ISO15504 and all their problems will be solved, all the projects will be delivered on time and in budget, customer satisfaction will be as high as it can go and all will be well.
The first step is to accept that whatever they have done until then is wrong, so they hire a consultant to tell them how to work; the consultant creates a lot of paperwork, implements processes and tools, explains to them that this worked in a different organization, with different needs and culture, so therefore it should work for you. Rapidly, the employees with experience are demotivated, they leave the company; the new practices fail, are bureaucratic or just inefficient and are abandoned. A “QA” group is created as the process police, to enforce compliance with the new standards and practices, quality goes down, staff are taking longer and producing lower quality. Management publishes that the standard or model they chose is useless.
The French revolution was based on reasonable principles, but led to years of pointless terror, as thousands of innocent people were murdered based on any accusations. This is the case of most revolutions: the following years are just as oppressive as the overthrown dictator.
There is another solution.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of the word evolution are all based around the concept of movement, development, change from simple to complicated through a succession of stages; they even go as far as saying that evolution is a process. The same dictionary defines “intelligence” as based on reason, understanding, knowledge and communication.
And this is how we are need to look at achieving results when trying to change an organization: we need to take our time, act step by step, with a strong emphasis on understanding and communication.
If you want to change the way people do things, you are naturally going to have to understand why people do the things they do. The human being is a complex creature, some would say half animal, half god: we have instincts and fears, a desire to control everything while submitting to a partner or a manager. As the only animal which is (apparently) conscious of its own existence and uniqueness (our ego or id), we are profoundly social animals. We want to be unique and different, yet we conform to social norms.
When trying to change the way people work, we need to consider how to get them to change the way they think rather than just telling them to do things in a particular way. This means, we need to be able to reach their complete mental process: reasonable and emotional, intellectual and active – and we need to understand the intersections and interactions of these elements.
Reason + Thought = Acceptance
The combination of rationality and intellect is probably the area we are most willing to advertise and believe to be our own dominant trait. It focuses on a logical interpretation of the known facts. This is the part of us that understands and accepts the need for change. The demonstration of the value of a change, the statistics based on similar organizations and the evident return on investment should be enough to demonstrate the need to change, just as the fact that I am breathless after coming upstairs and the view of my stomach in the mirror makes me accept that I need to exercise more.
And yet, we don’t do it.
Reason + Action = Ability
This combination covers the ability to do what is needed. It includes knowledge, skills, understanding and access to the necessary equipment and practices. We can show you what you should be doing, explain how to perform it. We can educate and train you to achieve the results, provide everything you need to be successful. I have a gym near my home, I have a bicycle and I have the time to exercise.
And yet, we don’t do it.
Emotion + Thought = Aspiration
Viktor Frankl explains, in his theories about logotherapy, how people are willing to put up with amazing levels of suffering, if only they understand the purpose or the objectives. For effective change to happen, there is a need for the people involved to have a shared vision of what the end will look like, what the image of completion for which we are aiming is. This must be inspiring and encouraging, and it must be shared by the people involved: when asking about the vision, we should hear that “our vision is…” rather than “management’s vision” or “they”. This is something we all believe and want to achieve. Personally, I would like to be able to run a marathon.
And yet, we don’t do it.
Emotion + Action = Attitude
The reason so many change efforts fail is because the last quadrant is not being considered: people’s attitude. This is deeply ingrained and is what provokes your reaction more than anything else. This is also the cultural aspect of the organization, but also of the teams and the individuals. If we want to change anything, we need to change the attitude. I was recently in an organization which advertises its sustainability and quality but focuses internally only on delivering projects on time. The amount of bureaucracy they had put in place to manage the projects, meant that the project managers did not really have the necessary time to do the work. When I suggested a few simple changes, measurements which could be put in place in order to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the reaction from management was largely a statement that “they will never accept that” and “it is too difficult”. This is the culture, the attitude which leads to failure. Interestingly, the engineering staff wanted to do the things which management decided they would not accept, they were stopped by the negative attitude.
Changing the attitude or the culture is something very difficult and delicate. It requires careful management and continuous encouragement. Some techniques need to be implemented at different levels in order to ensure sustainable improvement.
Management needs to establish and communicate a vision of what the organization is going to be in the future. That vision needs to be communicated in such a way that the team members buy-in and commit to the vision; they need to consider it as “our shared vision”, rather than management’s dream. That vision must be sufficiently challenging to motivate those who want to make a difference.
Expectations, in business and result terms need to be clearly communicated across the organization. People need to know and understand what they are being asked to deliver and why this is critical to the realization of the shared vision. The expectation is not that more defects are found in reviews and tests, but that less defects are missed; the expectation is not documentation, it is traceable communication; the expectation is not to perform tasks, it is to deliver results.
Most organizations I visit focus on training people to use tools, to perform tasks, however there is a lack of education – helping people to understand the purpose of the activities they are being asked to perform and guiding them in thinking for themselves, judging and improving continuously at every level. Ideally, staff members should feel that they are being encouraged to challenge management’s solutions with better approaches to achieve the shared vision.
Measurement is the most powerful tool at the disposal of any management team. However the measurements are not useful without appropriate analysis. The focus needs to be on understanding which measurements identify problems in the development or delivery system. The purpose is not to identify the person who is under-performing, but the roadblocks in the whole system: where are you wasting time and money? What is frustrating the people doing the work? Where are the earliest points at which errors can be identified and removed efficiently?
An often forgotten management technique, which consists in identifying how much effort, time and money should be consecrated to a problem which might never happen? Everyone within an organization occupies a unique position and can therefore see things that are not visible to anyone else. They are able to identify risks which cannot be identified by their management. People who identify risks and report them are demonstrating an interest in the success of the organization, not criticizing management.
A reward mechanism should support the people who are trying to move the organization forward. There is an old maxim that the person who manages a project well is seen as “lucky to have an easy project which ran smoothly”, while the one who messes up and struggles to deliver anything gets rewarded for their efforts. Understanding who should be used as an example and rewarded is one of the more difficult management tasks. Rewards should not be financial, they rarely have any lasting impact. Most efficient people are happy to be rewarded instead by being given time to attend training, or an all-expenses paid trip to a professional conference – this also means that their reward will keep on giving.
Change is possible and needs to be encouraged. It is not done by throwing out babies and bath-water, it is done by building on the skills and experience which already exist in the organization. They need to be based on progressive transformation and clear communication at every level.