Don't Vaccinate Your Organization Against Success

Process Zeal May Be Hazardous to Organizational Health

Change is an inevitable part of the ongoing evolution and refinement of our processes. Learning to implement change successfully is a vital skill for people who would be leaders in our industry. This week, Payson Hall reflects on challenges to implementing new tools and processes and offers caution to would-be change agents: Be part of the remedy, not part of the disease.

While having dinner a while back, Cem Kaner and I talked about the toxic practice of offering too much process information to organizations or individuals that are not yet mature enough to appreciate them. Cem said something simple, profound, and thought provoking: "Not only are the recipients overwhelmed, but also the bad experience (frustration with too much, too fast) inoculates them against future process improvement."

The biological metaphor he invoked for organizations is interesting and instructive. When an organism perceives it is under attack by a foreign element like a bacterium or a virus, the body mobilizes to fight off the infection. This "immune response" is quite fascinating. When the body fights off an infection, it does it in several ways, using a variety of tools.

Some responses are general purpose, like causing a fever. Many infectious agents can only thrive in a narrow window of temperature. When the body detects an infection, increasing its temperature may slow reproduction of the bacteria, which buys time for a more focused and customized response.

Some responses are targeted, like the manufacturing of antibodies specifically designed to bind to the bacterial cells and mark them for destruction by other parts of the immune system.

Not only does the body fight off the infection in several ways, it also "remembers" the event and response at some level. The next time a similar bacterium is detected, the body calls upon the battle plan that worked previously and destroys the intruder much more effectively. This is why vaccines work. Introducing a weakened version of the foreign element into the body mobilizes the body's defenses and teaches the body how to respond. When the "real" agent shows up, the body is ready and remembers what was effective before.

Organizations also have an "immune system." It's their powerful tendency to do the same thing tomorrow that they did yesterday. This creates a resistance to change that can be surprisingly robust. If you think about it, this phenomenon is not so much related to whether a particular change is good or bad. It is mostly caused by people trying to get work done. They tend to rely upon what has worked in the past and resist the disruption to their work that a new process might entail.

Here's an example: Imagine you are behind schedule trying to work through a backlog. A coworker tells you that the next release of the development tool has some neat debugging and tracing features that will save you a bunch of time after you get over the learning curve. Do you:

  1. Stop what you are doing, find and install the software, and read the manual, knowing that the time you save will more than make up for the
  2. Make a note to install the software when this sprint is complete and you have time to play with it a bit?
  3. Make a note to watch for Fred in the next cubicle to install it, knowing that when he has installed it (and stops whining) it will be ready for prime
  4. Politely tell this interloper to go away because you have work to do?
  5. Begin writing a folk song that nostalgically praises the current version of the tool?

Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. It's not that we resist all change just for the sake of being belligerent (although you likely can think of several people who do exactly that); it's more that, if it isn't imperative, we will tend to delay. Repeated by everyone in the organization, this sensible behavior looks like resistance to change.

Resistance to even positive change is natural-but what if the changes being proposed are of questionable value or, worse, seem maybe to cost more than they could be worth?

In some organizations, changes that don't clearly improve a team's ability to do work will be met with rebellion. Organizations in which open rebellion won't be tolerated may find themselves with a thriving, underground resistance. Left unresolved, the change conflict can deteriorate to a destructive test of wills between change advocates and opponents, often losing sight of the costs and benefits of the proposed change itself. This can lead to collateral damage on both sides.

The tactics of the rebellion can be insidious:

  • Meeting the letter, but not the spirit of the change
  • Blaming all schedule slips on delays introduced by the change
  • Whining about the change at every opportunity

All can undermine the authority of an organization's leaders and damage morale.

It should be apparent that this state of chaos can be counterproductive. Furthermore, the skepticism it engenders among the staff and the rift it can create between management and the troops reduce organizational effectiveness until the matter is resolved. An organization in chaos is wounded. Until the matter is resolved and the organization has time to heal, any new change is likely to re-introduce chaos and encourage the rebels to take up arms again, triggering an immune response that may be disproportionately severe. In this way, an organization subjected to ill-conceived change or more change than it is prepared to assimilate at one time becomes adept at resisting all change.

What does this mean for the well intentioned change agent who is trying to introduce new tools or processes? To be effective, he or she must act in thoughtful, measured steps:

0) Before introducing any new process or tool, check the stability of the organization. Is it currently under stress or already trying to assimilate significant change? Timing is everything if you want your changes to be effective.

1) Make sure the change has value. Consult with thought leaders in the organization and try to recruit allies. Be ready to explain why you think the proposed change is necessary or valuable, then listen to their concerns and address them if you can. If you can't sell the change to the thought leaders, the organization probably isn't ready. If you can, perhaps your allies will help advocate for the change.

2) Start small. Pilot the change whenever possible. This will give you a chance to build success or adjust the implementation if it isn't perfect without getting the whole organization involved in the first attempt. Choose your pilot group from people willing to give the change an honest try. Avoid piloting with groups who are already stressed, behind schedule, or understaffed. Remember that change is always awkward at first as people climb the learning curve. Set the pilot up for success. A successful pilot done with credible members of the organization can help reduce broader organizational resistance later.

3) Give the change time to become assimilated and routine before you introduce more change. This point is particularly important and challenging to implement for people who have been tasked with "fixing" a particular problem that will require a series of significant changes. If you try too much too fast, you are not only doomed to fail, but you will boost the organization's immune response and make future improvements all the more difficult.

What are your experiences with ill-conceived initiative to implement new processes or tools? Have you seen organizational immune systems in action?

1 Q: How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Three-one to change the bulb and two to sing songs longing for the one that burned out.

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