Posts filed under ‘People Sklls’

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

An all too typical Change problem

“Hi Peter

Just wondered if you had any quick tips on approaching Change with someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing? (I am always hearing the line ‘when we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’) They always find something to complain about with the new way.  Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots – a bad fall from grace.   It feels like you can never do anything right for them. Aarrgghh!!!“

There’s nothing in the above question, not even the growl of frustration at the end, that’s unique. The described situation is present in the office environment of every reader, as are the beliefs that a) the employee is in the wrong and b) implementing Change should be easier than it is.

Life would be so much easier for Management if people just did what they were told and didn’t complain so much. Of course… if we take that thinking to the extreme, then it leaves open the door for the nastiest of societies – where everyone must submit to the whims of whoever is currently above us in the pecking order. The ‘right’ to complain, the personal need to know and agree with the reasons for doing something differently – are things we all hold dear. In a sense, this ability to resist a new ideas is the difference between freedom and slavery.

Connecting someone’s reluctance to accept a Change at work, to the difference between freedom and slavery, might seem a bit hyperbolic – but accepting a Change we don’t agree with, without pushing back, does mean that we have to swallow our independent thought on the matter – give up our ability to choose what we do – and to the vast majority of us, that’s never done with a smile.

None of this solves the problem at hand – so how can we mitigate the conflict in this specific situation?  The description contains its own answers.

1)    “Someone who doesn’t believe their old system needs changing”

Here… management (or anyone attempting to bring about a Change) has their work well defined for them. Explain why the old system is no longer sufficient. Better yet? Figure out how you can help the person in question decide for themselves that the old system is now past its prime.

2)    “When we were at Acme Co. we didn’t have a problem, This product worked fine!’

Again, the answer is readily available, how is your environment different from their old environment? There is no harm in agreeing full heartedly that, Yes! In that environment the old system was the best solution… but in this environment other factors are at play. And yes, the old ‘cop out’, “we do it differently here” is allowed, if and only if, ‘doing it differently here’ is demonstrably better.

3)    “They always find something to complain about with the new way”

Yes. People do that. This goes away once people see the reason for doing it the way they’re doing it. A child being taught to ride a bicycle who doesn’t want to ride a bicycle will make the same statement when they fall off… I told you this wouldn’t work!…

Contrast that response to that of another child, one who wants to learn, when they fall off, they just take the problem in their stride and get back up on the bike – to try again and again, until they master the beast.

4)    “Plus they are very disgruntled that they are not the one in charge anymore and therefore not calling the shots.”

Yes, once again… people do that. People don’t like not being a part of the decision making process – especially if they were once an integral part of that process. Sooo… a possible solution? What can you do to include them in the decision making process? Understanding that if THEY had been the one to suggest the new system… ALL of your problems would never have arisen in the first place.

We all resist change we don’t understand, resisting change only becomes a problem when we’re the ones… trying to implement a change… on others.

Peter de Jager
Toronto, Ont
September 2008

September 29, 2008 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Making a Date with a Crisis

Regardless of our circumstances we often share the same thoughts. The notion “It can’t happen here”, is such a common way of looking at disaster, that even Kissinger got into the act with his famous “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Humor aside, disasters happen regardless of what you had planned for the week. How badly they affect us, is determined by our ability to respond without warning to crisis situations.

The traditional approach to disaster planning is to create a methodology, install contingency plans, ensure that proper backups of crucial data are made, and place all this documentation in yellow binders on a shelf. If we’re diligent, we take it out once a year for some exercise.

This way of planning for disaster, while it provides many benefits, also contains a serious flaw. It’s not so much the cost – insurance of any type always costs money. The flaw is more subtle, but it is potentially serious enough to scuttle the best laid plan.

It is this, Disasters by their very nature, happen unexpectedly. Our success on the day is based upon how we react when we’re confused and don’t know what’s going on. Planning allows us to think through the process of what to do if (when?) something happens, before it actually occurs. That thought process alone is the central core of any contingency plan, but just thinking about it, isn’t enough. We have to go into the water before we know how to swim. We have to live it, to learn from it. Planning for the experience is not the same as experiencing the plan.

How to improve a disaster recovery plan? Given the stated nature of disasters, ‘unexpectedly and without warning’ seems like the right approach.

At 9:00am on a Monday morning, inform 50% (or a mere dozen if that would be too disruptive) of your management team, individually and personally, that they’re leaving immediately for an off site location for an emergency meeting. No prior warning. No details provided. No excuses accepted. All meetings regardless of importance are ignored. No notification to secretaries/assistants or clients allowed. All cell phones and blackberries collected. In other words, just like a real life crisis.

When they arrive via the waiting bus, they’re told of the ‘disaster’ that has taken place. They are to respond to this ‘disaster’ over the next day or two. What is the ‘disaster’? That depends on how severe you want it to be and what you think would provide the best information.

There’s a certain beauty to this exercise – NO PREPARATION IS REQUIRED. (except possibly for the bus) The Exercise starts at 9:00am when your employees are informed. NO hotel is booked – no coffee pre-ordered, no Flip Charts on site.

I already hear the objections… we need to book the hotel in advance otherwise…

Question… on the day our building is on fire, bombed, flooded, the senior exec team all killed in an air crash, captured by ninjas etc. etc. will we already have a room booked? If we cannot manage this minuscule exercise in crisis – then we are fundamentally incapable of handling a real emergency.

Back at the office the remainder of the management team can take the exercise one step further and pretend the entire off site team are victims of a disaster. This secondary exercise might be more than your organization can handle without severely impacting day-to-day operations. The alternative is to merely explain what is going on and cope with their unexpected absence for two days (week?). There is learning even this minimalist approach.

The exercise provides two benefits. First? An immediate and relatively inexpensive evaluation of how well your management team responds to an unexpected crisis.

Secondly? In a very short period of time, with minimal impact to your organization, you highlight those areas most vulnerable to the ‘disaster’ you selected. With that in hand you can now move forward to a ‘real’ contingency plan with specific objectives in mind.

The objections to this exercise are many and obvious. You can’t afford the time. The board would object. You can’t afford the negative impact to the business. Your schedule is full next week.

June 19, 2008 at 7:42 am 2 comments

Change Management Interview

Something different.

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by George Torok for his radio show Business in Motion.

It’s a one hour conversation on the topic of Change Management, you can listen to it here:

George Torok
Host of Business in Motion
www.BusinessInMotion.ca
www.Torok.biz

June 13, 2008 at 4:12 pm 1 comment

On the Mechanics of one Election

Asimov’s classic “Foundation” is the purest form of SF. It takes a fundamental desire – our need to predict the future – then presents a “What if?” scenario and pushes it to the boundaries of belief. Whenever I’ve read “Foundation”, I’ve always spent more time wrestling with the central idea than actually enjoying the story line.

Is it possible, will it ever be possible, to predict how people will react to a specific event, to any useful degree of accuracy? Are there rules, perhaps waiting for a Seldon to discover and formalize for human behaviour? Will it be possible to use an understanding of those rules to shape the future? Could our tomorrows become manufactured products of calculated action?

I first read “Foundation” during my second last year of high school. I was, by any reasonable definition, a ‘geek’… not quite of the pocket protector crowd, but I owned a slide rule and knew how to use it. My buddies at the time were also addicted to SF and we spent many hours arguing over the possibilities presented by the science of Psychohistory.

We were then presented with an opportunity to use our high school as a grand experiment.

Like most high schools we had a Student council, elected by the students, and responsible for school activities such as parties, fund raising, proms and concerts. We also, like many other schools, had a raging case of student body apathy. Nobody attended school functions, sports events or concerts. School spirit was non-existent.

We, a cadre of invisible students, devoid of popularity, suffering from a dearth of cool, decided to fix this problem.

While the formal tools of Asimov’s Psychohistory were beyond our reach, there were some basic rules of human behaviour we could use in our social re-engineering project. The rule which best fit our situation, was the concept of the swinging pendulum. The notion that popular opinion/behaviour swings from one extreme to the other. The ‘trick’ is to identify the extreme ‘states’ and then apply just enough ‘force’ to nudge the system into one of these ‘states’.

We ran for student council on the platform that student councils were a tool of the administration to distract our attention from the real problems of poor education, over-crowding etc. etc. If WE were elected we would abdicate our responsibility, we would shut down the council, we would do nothing for the following year, and we would ban all future student councils… Anarchy would Rule!

The administration hated us… therefore the students loved us. We geeks won by a landslide. We abandoned the student council. Phase I of our project was complete. Now we waited.

Winning this election was an accomplishment of sorts. We had no prior status or influence within the student body, yet we beat much more popular and influential jocks, cheerleaders and divas. Rule #1? It’s easy to get elected if that is your ONLY goal… Just promise the people whatever they want. Some of our politicians are very good at this.

Throughout our elected year, we threw not a single party, flew no banners, we raised no funds. The first 2-3 months everything was ‘fine’. Then slowly but surely, discontent festered in the land. The value of a student council grew conspicuous by its absence. It grew in importance, because it didn’t exist. Phase II of our project was well on the way to completion.

That was our final year before we scattered to our universities, but we kept an eye on our little experiment to see if it would develop as we expected.

It did.

At the end of our last year, the students demanded a student council election. We knew someone, would step into the breach at the appropriate time. A full council was elected. The next year our school experienced a huge increase in student involvement. Parties, event attendance, fund raising all reached historical highs. The Pendulum had swung from abject apathy to total commitment. Phase III complete. Mission accomplished. Apathy defeated. Hari Seldom would have been proud.

Were there unintended consequences to our little experiment? Two of them come to mind.

Fact: The individual who became student council president… went on to become a Member of the Canadian Parliament.

Fact: I now speak for a living. My topic? Change Management.

May 26, 2008 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

As Others See Us.

If you don’t recognize the tail end of this quote from Robert Burn’s ‘To a Louse’ then here it is in its entirety, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!”. Why am I waxing poetic this month? Mainly because a sad incident a few months ago that has stuck in my mind.

I’d just given a presentation on Change Management and was afterwards approached by a contingent of a half dozen dejected looking employees from a company which shall remain nameless in this article. They wanted to have a private and confidential discussion about some changes going on in their organization. They wanted advice on two things; how to cope with the changes and how to communicate to management that they were on a path to destruction because of how the changes were being implemented.

None of this is unusual, I get asked these types of questions all the time. What was different this time was some of the language used in their responses to my standard information gathering questions. I could easily comment on their queries on coping with Change, as the techniques are the same regardless of the Change, company, person etc. etc. Change is Change is Change.

To offer advice on how to communicate with management isn’t as easy. To offer advice without knowing the culture first hand, is presumptuous. To dispense communication strategies without knowing the details of the existing Status Quo and the Change being implemented isn’t only naïve, it’s dangerous.

So when I asked if could come into the organization to gather this information their responses were as follows;

No – management isn’t listening to anyone who takes issue with their policies
No – the powers that be, won’t listen to anything that might change their actions.
No – that’s pointless – they only hire those who agree with them.
No – they shoot the messenger on a regular basis – I can’t risk my job.
No – upper management is convinced there isn’t a problem.
No – the dark overlords know best. (Their words… not mine)
No – management has no interest in people issues.

Now, we all know that ‘gaps of disagreement’ between staff and management are not unusual, but their choice of words, combined with the deer in the headlights look of desperation on their faces in front of me – suggested that this was more than the normal amount of disagreement. Other comments described management as a ‘not very nice people’, ‘bullies’ and ‘interested only in themselves and not the organization’.

Here’s the question, and the purpose of this particular article, are we certain we know how we’re perceived by others in our organization? Do employees really know how they’re perceived by management? And even more importantly (in my opinion) does management really know how they’re perceived by the rank and file?

Regardless of the accuracy of the above statements by this post-presentation contingent of employees, is management aware that they are not seen as leaders? Do they care? Should they?

That that question is even asked is a symptom of something wrong. We all know people who literally do not care what employees think of them. Why is that wrong? If we can’t answer that question, then we’ve lost touch with what it even means to be a leader. I can’t imagine how an organization can excel if employees don’t respect, and even admire, their managers.

I’m not a great fan of most Human Resource management instruments, many of them seem more like Astrology and tea leaf readings than anything I’d use to manage either myself or others. That personal quirk aside, there is one I’m willing to treat with great respect, primarily because it’s nothing more than a process by which the feedback loops between ourselves and everyone around us – which should take place on a regular basis – do take place, at least from time to time. I’m referring to the class of HR tools known collectively as “360-degree feedback”.

The 360 concept is simple. Your peers, subordinates, managers and even your clients provide feedback on a variety of your attributes – anonymously of course. Robbie Burns would love it.

All of us, regardless of where we sit on the organization hierarchy, need to know how others see us. Regardless of whether the impressions of management, such as the ones listed above, are accurate or not – it’s information we can use to our advantage.

There’s a risk of course. Ask for feedback and, guess what? You’re going to get feedback… can you handle the truth? What about the lies?

Not all the truth will be ‘pleasant’. Under the guarantee of anonymity (need I stress how important that is?) people are willing to provide both the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, under that same guarantee, there are those who will seize the opportunity to inflict some petty revenge. Luckily, these are usually exceptions and stand out as anomalies amongst the rest of the feedback. Good 360 instruments are designed to identify these aberrations.

Regardless of the feedback, it’s all information we can put to good use, unless we don’t care.
Frankly, even after a lifetime of experience with organizations of every stripe, I don’t know of more than a handful of managers who would pride themselves on a reputation as bleak as the one painted by the contingent that prompted this discussion. And even in those rare situations, would a competent board of directors support a management style worthy of the ‘Dark Lord’ comparison? Assuming they wanted the organization to prosper?

Putting the extreme end of the perception spectrum aside, are we seen as; fair; reasonable; competent; hard working; pleasant to work work with? If that’s what we believe, how do we know it to be true? Most people have trouble telling us we have something stuck in our teeth, never-mind anything really important such as our pet project is doomed to failure. Especially if we’re sending out unconscious signals that negative feedback is unwelcome.

The advantage of the 360-degree feedback process is the enforced anonymity of the feedback. We all enjoy both giving and receiving positive feedback – it’s the negative stuff that presents us with the largest difficult and the largest benefit. The amount about benefit depends entirely on our willingness to give more than a little credence to the negative comments we’re sure to receive.

So? Was Robbie Burns on the mark? Do we really want the power to see how others see us? Or is ignorance truly bliss? (ps. You do have something stuck in your teeth.)

May 23, 2008 at 11:31 am 2 comments

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