Instituting Change

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Business Relationship Manager - Product Lifecycle Management, Chevron Corporation

This article may seem at times like a rant. It’s not meant to be. It just deals with the frustration that all of us who innovate in the development of planning processes feel when the most rational, carefully-planned, sure-fire, absolutely-self-evident advanced planning methods fail to stick in an organization!

We all know that organizations that fail to evolve will be left behind, but resistance to change is so ingrained it is almost impossible to convince some managers that the wisdom of change also applies to them. John Kenneth Galbraith said it well: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”.

Many thoughtful authors have written about implementing change, and I certainly do not pretend to have the management credentials that most of them can boast—I am an academic, away from the day-to-day fray. What I do have, is experience from the outside trying to help managers on the inside introduce planning tools new to the organization. In this article I will discuss some of the ways I have seen implementation fail and some ideas for how to increase the odds that changes will stick.

Paving the Path to Failure

Too Simple; Too Complex.

Sometimes its hard even to get started. More than once I’ve been asked to present a planning process where there was unstated but pretty obvious interest in potential use by the organization. The question always is how to present. Will the audience be put off if the presentation makes the process seem too simple—or will they be more turned off if the process seems too complex?

Almost any useful change will have to be extensive enough to provide real gain over current practice, but that will bring to every person’s mind the questions: “How hard will it be to learn and implement this? Will it be worth it?” Senior decision makers will be weighing potential benefit vs disruption. All too often, the perceived cost of disruption overrides the potential benefit. Disruption is hard to estimate; but benefit—especially for more complex processes—is much more difficult.

Ahead of Its Time.

On one occasion, I was asked to present a project for which my students had received a very high international design prize. The interest was actually in the process which we had used to develop the concept, and the invitation was from a Fortune 500 company’s CEO. He had also invited the Vice Presidents of R&D and Marketing. After I finished the presentation, the CEO turned to the vp.’s with the question, “Are we doing anything like that?” The answer was “No, but we think we are doing all right”. Actually, they weren’t doing that badly at the time, but they weren’t staying ahead of their competitors, either—as events proved out.

On another occasion, I ran several corporate projects simultaneously in one of my courses at the Institute of Design. The impetus was a remark made to me by a corporate leader who had seen some of the more advanced, large-scale projects we had been doing at the time—most notably one on climate change in the late ’80’s. He commented, “Can you use that process for more down-to-Earth projects?—we build widgets!” His remark led me to run five demonstration projects using five leading companies (Sony, HP, Apple, Siemens and Xerox) as the projected clients. Most company contacts were interested in a planning horizon of about 3-5 years, but one asked especially that we look ahead a little further for them. When the project was completed and results were transmitted up the corporate ladders, the result that came down from that company’s board chairman was that our proposal was “a little too far in the future”! I said that I didn’t think so and, sure enough, the key conceived software component appeared in the market two years after our project—but not from our client.

In both cases, conservatism ruled. In the first case, the process was considered ahead of its time relative to what was needed for the company. In the second, management underestimated the rate of technical development underway globally and mistakenly branded a timely proposal too far ahead of its time. My experience is that the competition is closer than you think.

Don’t Be the First.

Whatever happened to risk-taking? Nobody wants to be first anymore. Really, to be globally competitive, a company now must take risks, even to the extent of routinely obsoleting its own products. That requires a long step out on the risk-taking plank! Ultimately, it means treating the processes of planning in the same way as the products of planning. Committing to the early adoption of new tools, methods and processes is becoming just as important as committing to staying ahead in the roll-out of products. It’s about staying ahead in all elements of development. Yet, there is still strong resistance to being the first to try out the “new”.

One of the first questions I get when I give talks about new tools for advanced planning is, “Who’s using these tools now?” For me, the answer often is, “no one—yet”, both a reminder that what I have been talking about is ahead of the curve, and the implication that those in the audience have an early opportunity. Smart organizations recognize that global competitiveness requires more risk—taken carefully—to stay ahead of a growing field of competitors.

The Chosen Few.

Internal people-problems can seriously compromise attempts to implement change. They often arise when the change is initiated insensitively in a compartmentalized “selected” group within the organization. The idea that some are the chosen and others are not can cause subtle barriers and defenses to be raised that can block adoption of new ways once the early novelty and support have subsided.

An example that I observed directly in the university community involved the introduction of a new approach to teaching undergraduate engineering. The change required all undergraduate students from the freshman year on to undertake team projects in which learning was project-oriented. As students matured, they assumed greater leadership roles culminating in full project leadership in their senior year. Subject matter normally taught in lectures (such as mathematics and engineering sciences) was committed to modules for self study undertaken as needed by students working one-on-one with faculty member “tutors”. The process was radical, but results were extremely good. Nevertheless, when NSF funding ended following the multi-year project award period, the program only continued for a few more years before it was terminated by the more traditional general faculty.

What happened? The program was teaching-intensive and highly interdisciplinary; faculty worked much more closely with students than under traditional practice. And while they were doing so, they were away from their home departments and the usual organization politics. When they came up for promotion, they did not have the internal networking of their competitors, and when the program itself needed departmental support for continued life, it failed to receive it.

Divided Loyalties.

A related problem develops when a pilot project to test out new planning techniques is staffed with team members from different functional departments. Typically, none of the departments involved has ownership, and the team members are “on loan” for the duration of the project. The project usually starts out well, but as time goes on the need for individual members to spend more time with their home departments for “emergencies” grows. Since department managers don’t have responsibility for the pilot project’s success, they find it ever easier to “need” their members for internal department problems.

When projects are organized in this way, I double the time allowed for the work and prepare additional outside resources to inject when, usually at the end, there is more work to complete than team members can manage. Even then, there usually is loss of team morale, noticeable in the quality of the work.

Rotating Managers.

Probably the worst problem to confront change-makers is one totally outside their control: loss of the manager responsible for commissioning and overseeing the project.

I have faced this problem more often than I would like to report. The rotating manager problem widely infects American business practice, but I have seen it abroad also. The scenario proceeds as follows: executive finds promising new process; negotiations determine conditions for experimental project; project begins under guidance of executive; midway through project, executive is transferred to new position; replacement manager neither understands new process nor shares interest; project terminates with incomplete or scaled-down results; new process is abandoned.

Change introduction is a delicate process. Beheading the team is no way to nurture it.

The Wrong Champion.

Having a champion is the next best thing to owning the company—well almost. But it does help with internal competition! In the western world, competition rules as the evolutionary mechanism for achieving success. Besting opponents is a necessity. Cooperation, as an alternative mechanism, comes in far second. Given the competitive world we live in, having someone in the organization interested in and supportive of your goals confers a valuable competitive advantage. But that advantage can vaporize if the champion does not him- or herself enjoy a favorable power position.

Introducing change with the support of a champion works better top-down than bottom up. I have seen it tried both ways. If the change is minor or easily mastered, championing usually works either way, but if the change is major and/or requires a significant learning effort, it is very hard to introduce bottom-up. For a tough sell, it helps (and may only be possible) when the champion carries some clout.

Some Steps Along the Way

Vaclav Havel, playwright, essayist and first President of the Czech Republic put it cleverly, “Vision is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.” Here are several steps that can help to make change easier to accept.

1. Find a high-level champion.

Over years of giving presentations, I have found vice presidents and directors to be the best level champions—especially the Vice President for R&D, who usually understands best and has the vision to see the value.

2. Establish an advisory committee.

Key people can provide insight into an organization’s operations while, at the same time, helping to prevent problems from developing. Coming to them for advice while reporting on progress also leads to positive information distribution.

3. Include key management in milestone presentations.

If those in the decision chain—including potential replacement managers—can be kept up to speed, the rotating manager problem may be eased (but not eliminated).

4. Make sure change benefits are known.

In the process of information collection and operations analysis, candidly work into interviews how changes will benefit all. “What’s in it for me” is a natural question, and a good answer builds support.

5. Make progress visible and involving.

To the extent possible, display progress where others in the organization will encounter it. On one project, we created an ongoing Function Structure (for a description of Function Structures, see my article, Covering User Needs) on a wall outside the project workroom. Employees passing by couldn’t resist checking parts relating to their work and confirmed or helped the team to improve the model.

6. Give credit where it is due and make it visible.

In documents—and anywhere it is feasible—identify the sources of information, insights and ideas. Not only is it important for the record (and building the knowledge base), it helps to motivate providers to buy into the project.

7. Provide feedback to information sources.

Beyond documentation, those who provide information for the project should be made aware personally of how their help has been beneficial. This takes time, but if it is handled informally as opportunities arise, it is both possible and effective.

8. Establish a formal Metaplanning function.

This is more likely to result from a successful project than be accomplished along the way, but the advantage of formalizing advanced planning will be felt immediately once it has been established (see my article, Reforming the Development Process).

Aim high!

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it” — Michelangelo Buonarotti.

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