Archive for February, 2008

Lewis Carroll on Change Management

In Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen admonishes Alice with “in this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” So much for the concept of a self sustaining ‘Status Quo’.

Giuseppe de Lampedusa echoes this same idea in another, seemingly paradoxical manner, “If things are to remain the same, things will have to Change.”

All of this is true, there really is no argument. The status quo is a myth. The best we can do is identify what aspects of our organization we value today, and do our best to ensure that these attributes exist in our organizations tomorrow.

However, just because we have come to the inescapable conclusion that Change is necessary, does not mean that all possible Change is mandatory.

This is the great trap for those who embrace the idea that we must Change or Die. Unless we find some way to distinguish from good and bad Change, we are compelled to Change when faced with any and every innovation. In the already quoted Through the Looking Glass, there is sad character who has taken the Red Queen’s advice too literally, let me introduce you to the White Knight.

He’s an interesting fellow this White Knight. He believes in embracing anything that’s new. His mistake is to believe that all Change is mandatory. His sturdy horse is festooned with gadgets. There’s a little box in which he keeps his sandwiches, but it’s turned upside down, “so that the rain can’t get in” he says proudly. Until Alice points out that the sandwiches have fallen out, he was totally unaware of this flaw.

He’s also attached a beehive to the horse in the hope that bees will take up house and provide honey, not realizing that bees would never set up house on a moving horse. And then there’s the mousetrap he’s strapped on the horse’s back to keep the mice away, and anklets on his horse’s feet to keep away the sharks.

Yes we must Change, otherwise our organizations fall so far behind the competition, our constituency and clients, that we lose effectiveness and fade into obsolescence. On the other hand, to embrace every Change is the path to chaos.

Our problem, despite the many dinosaurs lumbering in the tar pits of yesterday, is not the lack of recognition that Change is necessary. It is that there is far too much Change to choose from, we suffer from too much choice and a scarcity of good decisions.

Organizations must become adept at three seemingly contradictory skills. We must become brilliantly effective at resisting bad Change, equally effective at embracing good Change and wise enough to decide between these two alternatives.

In case you missed my outrageous statement, I’ll repeat it in its pure form.

Organizations must become brilliantly effective at resisting Change.

Despite the Red Queen Principle, we should not and must not, for the sake of our organizations, embrace all the Change placed before us. Instead we must select the best Change from the panorama of Change facing us.

How do we do that?

The first step is to identify, as clearly as possible, why we’re here. What exactly is the role of our organization, and what must we do to continue fulfilling that role? We can give this a variety of labels, from “Statement of Purpose” to “Vision Statement” to “Services Offered”. It doesn’t really matter what we call this as long as it becomes something we believe in, and against which we can measure all proposed Changes.

This is the idea snuggled inside Lampedusa’s quote…

“If things(1) are to remain the same, things(2) will have to Change.”

things(1) – Refers to that which we do, which is important to our mandate.
These are the things which are of value to us, our constituents, and our superiors.

things(2) – Refers to all the other stuff that surrounds us, stuff we might become
attached to, but which in the final analysis, contributes little to the fulfillment of our mandate.

Therein is the key. Does a proposed Change reinforce, support and/or extend a previously established organizational objective? If it doesn’t, then enthusiastic acceptance, Red Queen Principle notwithstanding, is incorrect, improper and ill-advised. To paraphrase Lampedusa, to embrace the things we value, we must jettison what we don’t.

These are the first two steps. Identify what is valuable to us, and then measure every proposed Change against these core values.

The next step, is to determine how the proposed Change will fit into the context of our organization. In other words, what must Change in order to accommodate the new Change? If you’ve made it this far, then you are well into the first stages of implementing the Change.

At this point you know why the Change is necessary. i.e. what core values is it designed to protect, support or extend. This knowledge, properly communicated, will go a long way to reducing resistance to the proposed Change, especially if you are willing to make all the information which went into your decision public. Nothing is more effective at reducing resistance to Change than full disclosure… except perhaps being involved in the actual decision making process itself.

You now also have some idea what impact it will have on your organization. ie. What other things will have to Change to accommodate this Change. With all of this in hand, changing should not be too difficult.

The issue of Change is tricky. On one hand you cannot avoid all Change; on the other hand, you cannot embrace all Change. Which means we must resist the bad, embrace the good and know the difference.

Good luck.


February 29, 2008 at 9:47 am Leave a comment

The Predictor’s Paradox

Predict vb: To declare in advance

“Can we predict the Future?” In many ways that’s a loaded question (it’s also redundant since we don’t ‘predict’ the present or the past). There’s an implicit assumption that the question means “Predict accurately”, and when we make that assumption explicit, most people answer that predicting the future is impossible. That’s where the “paradox” starts to creep in.

We make predictions all the time, from the incredibly mundane “If I throw this coin up into the air, it will fall back to the ground”, to the more interesting “If we build a Dam ‘here’, water levels will rise ‘there’, and within five years, the economy will improve around this region.” – (and we’ll force animals, people included, to relocate… )

The coin falling example is so incredibly boring, most people won’t even allow us to call it a real ‘prediction.’ They’ll respond with “Of course it will fall to the ground! You’re not ‘predicting’ anything; you’re merely stating the obvious!”

At the other end of the spectrum, if we flip a coin and we dare to categorically declare the result, heads or tails, in advance… then we’re told that’s impossible to predict…

Between stating the obvious, and voicing the impossible, there’s an interesting category of predictions. Let’s approach them from the perspective of how impressive an accurate prediction appears to the reader.

The Predictor’s Paradox:
The impression made by an accurate prediction
is more a function of the reader’s ignorance,
than of the speaker’s ability to predict.

Consider the following thought experiment. With some solid knowledge of how to calculate eclipses, travel back in time a bit more than 2,000 years and use your knowledge to ‘predict’ an upcoming Solar Eclipse. Chances are you will be either killed or raised up as some sort of Wizard/Sorcerer – or worse… a God. Good luck in any case. I doubt Godhood is all it’s made out to be. There are reportedly far too many people asking for mutually exclusive and contradictory favours.

Now come back to today and calculate the next Solar eclipse… the response is a general ‘Ho-Hum’… it’s not that the reader will necessarily know how to perform the calculations, but they’ll know that such things are readily doable and/or accessible.

From one situation to the other, your prediction first generated general wonderment to then sheer boredom. The only variable was the audience’s knowledge of eclipse calculations.

In other words, a prediction is only impressive if the audience doesn’t know how you came to that conclusion. This is the same concept underlying every stage magician’s act. Come to think of it, it’s almost a corollary to Clarke’s Law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Why do we make predictions? To impress, or to inform?

If we make them to impress people, then we must recognize that the degree to which an accurate (or reasonably so) prediction makes an impression is directly proportional to the amount of disbelief it engenders when they first hear it.

The question arises, what is the use of a highly accurate prediction… if nobody believes it in advance of the event? If you did ‘predict’ Sept/11 or the failure of the Levees, but nobody believed you, what good did you achieve?

If on the other hand we make predictions in order to inform the listener, perhaps in order to change behaviour, then the less the prediction looks like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, the better.

Here’s the paradox in full bloom, if you could have predicted Sept/11 and got everyone to believe it in advance, then it would not have been seen as a prediction… it would have been perceived as a statement of the obvious.

In other words, the best soothsayers make predictions which sound obvious, sometimes to the degree that neither the prediction nor the predictor registers on the listener’s consciousness as something extraordinary.

Once more with feeling? We’ll believe anything, if we also believe we thought of it first… and give no credit to the one who convinced us it was our idea.

February 28, 2008 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

The Change Agent’s Challenge

While there are other ways to define the role of a Change Agent (CA), the CA’s most commonly assigned and practiced mandate is to bring about a pre-determined Change within a community. A CA is typically assigned the task, “Make this happen!” and it is their responsibility to force/cajole/steer/entice/motivate etc. etc. the community to move towards a specific destination. The CA fails in their task if ‘this’ doesn’t happen exactly as envisioned by those who assigned them to their role of CA. In the real world, the CA typically does not have a lot of wiggle room in their assignment.Regardless of the specific task assigned to a CA, all CAs, without exception, must function within the context of how people respond to Change in general. It is this fact (obvious observation?) which spawns the Change Agent’s unavoidable handicap.

How do people respond to “Change in General”? The most honest and accurate answer is that we don’t, or rather we can’t, respond to Change “in general”. We can, and do, respond to specific Changes. We evaluate each Change according to its individual degree of necessity and then, and only then, respond accordingly.

This observation doesn’t stop us from making generalized statements about Change, here’s one, “The only constant is Change”. While this is cutely true (if I’d meant ‘acutely’ I’d have typed it) and ancient in origin, a more useful and more recent observation is that “People don’t resist Change, they resist being changed.”

If presented with the statement uttered by a CA, “I’m here to Change how you do things.” no rational person will gleefully respond “Okay! Do what you have to do!” Instead we immediately try to get specific and respond (retaliate?) with a simple question, “Why should we change?” This in turn, is immediately tagged as resistance, and even as a mild form of insubordination.

If the statement, “People resist Change” is true, then it is true in the same sense that Newton’s 1st law of Motion, The Law of Inertia is true.

Newton’s First Law of Motion:
The Law of Inertia.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest,
and an object in motion tends to stay
in motion with the same speed and
in the same direction unless acted
upon by an unbalanced force.

Like a stone unconsciously (literally) following Newton’s Law, we continue doing what we’re doing, until we’re presented with a reason to do something else.

When we ask “Why should we Change”, we’re not trying to annoy or frustrate anyone, we’re merely following a fundamental law of the universe. We’re just seeking the reason necessary to do something different from what we’re already doing.

The CA’s handicap is not only that they’re here to Change us, for reasons as yet unexplained, but they’re here to Change us regardless of how we feel about it. Remember, the task of the CA is to “Make this Happen” if they don’t, they fail.

So, the CA must Change us, otherwise they fail. This flies in the face of how we decide whether or not a Change is necessary. Even worse, it ignores our earlier observation, “People don’t resist Change, they resist being changed.”

Allow me to introduce you to Bill, he’s a Change Agent, he’s here to Change you.

When a Change Agent is appointed, the decision to Change is fait accompli. Nothing anyone has to say has any bearing on the matter.

There’s an alternative approach to this problem, even if there’s no generally accepted term for the role. Perhaps the term, “Change Coordinator” would work better? It suggests that at worst the person is assigned the task of coordinating the efforts, decisions and the Changes of others, rather than inflicting them with a predetermined Change?

Our desire for Change arises either from the need to respond to a threat, “We must do something about this!”, where “this” is a visible problem, or a perception that there is a better way of doing things, “We could do this in order to achieve a specific additional benefit!”.

The term “Change Agent” has accumulated far too much negative baggage, and isn’t conducive to the notion that real Change is not mandated, but instead grows out of a common understanding that it is necessary, for specific reasons, to respond to a growing threat, or to seize upon a potential future opportunity.


The Change Agent

You can see (and order) a better version of this 20×30 poster here

February 22, 2008 at 8:56 am 1 comment

Project Management by GPS

I’ve become a bit of a GPS addict. I now have maps for both all of North America and the UK and Ireland. I can’t imagine driving to someplace new, without the assistance of strange unseen satellites.

Despite the benefits, there is a peculiar downside to these navigation units. With a map, you always have some sense of where you are, with Mapquest type instructions, you have some sense of where you’re going… but with a GPS? You only have a moment to moment sense of where you go next. If (when… I have a story to tell the next time we meet in a pub) the device breaks down, you are completely, totally – almost permanently – lost.

Benefits and disadvantages aside, there are a few things we can learn about project management from the lowly GPS.

This is the very first ‘strange’ thing that I noticed when I first used the GPS. When you make a mistake and go ‘off route’ (or off plan if we’re replating this to PM), no matter how many times you make that mistake, the voice giving you directions remains calm, cool and unfluttered.

“Well of course it does!”, Someone mutters from the back of the room… “It’s a machine!”, and my response is, yes I know that, but when I make a mistake I’ve come to expect that the response will communicate someone’s displeasure. And, that expectation of a negative response to a mistake is the primary reason why status reporting is so difficult. We’re afraid of the negative response so we ‘shade the truth’ to make ourselves look better.

Constant Monitoring
I would not suggest for a moment, that your project is monitored as closely as GPS monitors your location, but the lesson is plain. Knowing where you are, is crucial to getting to where you need to be according to your plan.

Regardless of the effort it takes to where we are against the plan, it’s something we have to do. If it’s not done, then we’re not managing the project. I’m not sure what we think we’re doing, but whatever it is, it isn’t project management.

Track the project isn’t administrivia is the heart of the PM concept. To state it even more plainly; everything done in the name of PM, is done to make it possible to know where we are. To do all the difficult preliminary work and then not track our progress is a form of insanity.

Not allowing time in the plan to track and report progress against the plan, is to state publicly that our planning activities are a farce… something we do to merely ‘look’ like professionals. The solution is obvious; learn what we can from the GPS

Retracing vs. RePlanning
When you go off route with a GPS, it will, for a period of time, do nothing more than try to get you back on the original route. It’s do this, until you get so far off the correct path, that it’s better to replan the trip.

That’s a great PM lesson. If we’re off the plan, how long do we just try to get back on the original plan… before we sit do and replan the project? Frankly, not enough replanning is done, in it’s place there’s a lot of wishful thinking – we’ll catch up on the weekend.

Macro vs. Detail views
If you’re paying close attention to the GPS, and that’s what we usually do, you’ll notice that when the next ‘check point’ is far away, then it zooms out to an overview, but when the next turn is just a little bit ahead, the instructions happen faster, the map zooms closer, proving you more detail of what’s ahead.

Project management can emulate that approach. Having a project status report ‘every three’ months works reasonably well when the work between markers is much of the same… but when key deliverables arrive more rapidly, when they get bunched up on the Gantt Chart, then more frequent status updates are advised.

While this is a tongue in cheek comparison, there’s some truth here. Driving from Dublin to Sligo has much in common with a project where both the starting date and deliverables are known. One difference? There are more Pubs on the road to Sligo.

February 21, 2008 at 10:24 am Leave a comment

Just Trust me

Regardless of whether we’re politicians, managers or parents, our most valuable relationship asset is “trust”. With a healthy accumulation of “trust” in hand all relationships with constituents, employees and children are easier, simpler and more pleasant. Without “trust” life is difficult. If this is obvious, and it is, then why do we seem to go out of our way to squander these benefits?

Without cracking open our well worn dictionaries and thesauri and digging up a lifeless definition… what is “Trust”? Two images come to mind; a parent standing in a pool entreating a nervous child on the edge of a swimming pool to “jump! I’ll catch you!” and of Charlie Brown running, for the 700th time, to kick the football held by Lucy the Deceitful.

Those simple images sum up what we already know. Trust is our willingness to accept a risk on someone else’s assurance of safety. The reasons behind this willingness are worth dissecting, because hopefully they’ll provide a basis for techniques to both build and retain trust in the workplace.

Benevolence: The child trembling with fear at the edge of the pool will leap into the waiting arms of her parent, because she knows, with absolute certainty, that Mommy won’t let her down. That the parent has the best interests of the child at heart: no deceit; no hidden agenda.

Do those we want to trust us, know that about us? That we have their best interests at heart? That we won’t let them down? Have we demonstrated our benevolence in the past with more than words? Do we put their interests before our own, once we’ve made them a promise or given our word?

Credibility: The child knows that Mommy won’t lie. That if Mommy says she’ll catch her, that she will catch her.

This is perhaps the easiest aspect of trust to avoid violating. Never make a promise, a statement, or even suggest you’ll do something and then not do it. Once upon a time, perhaps in a fantasy land, our word was our bond. Once we said something, then we’d follow through no matter what the consequences. Sadly, today our word isn’t sufficient. We exchange contracts and employ legions of lawyers to ensure that we all agree on what the phrase “I will” really means.

Competence: The child knows that Daddy won’t drop her. That he has the skill, the strength and ability to catch her and keep her safe from harm.

Your knowledge of my competencies is a crucial component of your trust in me. If I say I’m going to do something, one of your first thoughts is “Can he do it? Does he have the skills? Can I rely on him to deliver?” This consideration forces me to do two things. First? I’ll never commit to something I can’t do. Second? I need to ensure you have a good understanding of my capabilities.

There’s more to this thing called “trust”. We could explore the notion of fairness; do we treat everyone equally both in terms of rewards and punishments? Do we adhere to Golden Rule?

We could also include concepts of openness and shared risk. We could explore the notion of trust between strangers and arrangements based on mutually shared consequences, but the bulk of trust is based on the concepts of benevolence, competence and credibility.

Meanwhile… we left Charlie Brown running at that football… you’ve read the comics, you know what will happen this time. Lucy, for personal reasons beyond our ken, will pull that ball away for the 700th time and Charlie will once again launch himself into the air, to land with a sickening crunch on the wet grass. He never learns.

A news flash to all managers – Charlie Brown doesn’t work for you. Good old Chuckie is a cartoon figure. Those working for you are real people, with memories the envy of Elephants. We never forget.

That’s the glass jaw of this thing called trust. It can take years to develop, and then a single betrayal of someone’s trust will not only demolish all we’ve worked to achieve, but it severely hampers our ability to build trust in the future. Unlike Charlie Brown, we’re unlikely to trust people after a single betrayal, never mind constant betrayal.

Understanding trust isn’t difficult, all we have to do is just remember why we were willing to leap into a parent’s arms, and then be willing to trust the reasoning of the child we once were.

February 20, 2008 at 11:01 am Leave a comment

February 2008
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