You Can't Fight Change


We can probably agree that, for the most part, change is good. But it is also disruptive, and can even create chaos. In this column, Becky Winant explains a familiar model of the  change process, and offers some ways to acknowledge and cope with change in the workplace.

Twenty-five centuries ago a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, proposed this universal law: There is nothing permanent except change. While his philosophy may have been a bit abstract, his catchy quote feels familiar to contemporary analysts.

Isn't it amazing that we sometimes act as if change doesn't exist? The fact is, it is everywhere. Customers request changes. Then they interrupt us to add a few more changes. Developers make changes to accommodate technology. Testers weed out undesirable change. And of course, the implemented system, by intent, changes the customer's routine.

We can't control change and we certainly can't fight it, but we can learn how to cope with it. We can be sensitive to how it affects our customers, our colleagues, and ourselves; we can introduce practices to cope with project and requirements changes; and we can seek assistance with both.

The Phenomenon of Change
Psychologist and family therapist Virginia Satir observed that a predictable process of change applied to individuals and groups alike. Her model looks like this:

She explained that people would be jolted out of the familiarity of status quo by a foreign element heralding that change has occurred. The source of the foreign element may be outside influences—a competitor releases their product ahead of yours—or internal decisions—features planned for later versions are abruptly added to product development. For many people, the foreign element throws them into chaos, resulting in confusion, indecision, or inappropriate responses. A transforming idea can take you out of chaos; you realize how to move forward through change. Assimilation and learning begins, as you adjust to change. The new status quo takes over when comfort returns.

Acknowledging Chaos
Satir's model explains why change is disruptive, and our jobs are all about change. By being aware of how change produces chaos, we might find transforming ideas sooner.

  • We impose change on ourselves

We embrace new ideas about improving our ability to identify true requirements. Sometimes we embrace these new ideas successfully. Maybe you have heard something like this: "If we adopt the XYZ process everything will fall into place" or "If we send everyone to class to learn the ABC techniques, then we will have everything under control." This might or might not happen. With change initiatives, organizations can unwittingly introduce a "foreign element" then expect "new status quo" to follow directly. 

  • We push change on others

My consulting work frequently falls in the wake of a foreign element. Managers hire me to facilitate change or new approaches, which people may not want. During one such meeting for a client, Jim arrived late and sat tight-lipped with arms crossed. When I asked people about their experiences with requirements definition, Jim drew dart-like arrows, a clear message. He loathed the process, explaining that in his last job the requirements were used to control the software developers. Jim was forced to change his code every other week without a satisfactory explanation. Now he feared my presence confirmed the changes recently announced by his manager. For us to develop a process that would include Jim, we had to respect the fear and insecurity that change brings.

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