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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Managing Change

A conversation with a friend the other day has me thinking about change management, an admittedly unusual topic for a post but bear with me a bit. My friend who works in the support division of a very large firm found herself suddenly saddled with the task of training employees to use an internally developed software solution that had been released sometime in the past. Since its release it has suffered very poor adoption–and even declining use. Management put its imprint on this new tool and is eager to reverse the trend in order to improve productivity, assuming that more training and a better understanding of its value will fix the issue. It has not so far, and it is doubtful that it will. Here’s why.

First, the company—actually one person in one department, developed the software without the involvement or engagement of anyone from any other part of the organization. The developer, irrespective of his or her abilities as a software engineer has little to no experience outside IT and no idea of what kind of tasks hundreds of others are expected to handle across dozens of departments. No one else was consulted before, during or after development and prior to release. No effort was made to engage employees, to understand how they did their jobs, what they needed help with or what obstacles impeded their success. In other words, a solution was created for problems no one had identified except the developer.

With great fanfare the company released the new software but provided only limited documentation about what it was supposed to do, how it worked and offered no actual training. Despite these obstacles a few highly motivated people learned to use it—on their own, but no one asked them their thoughts or considered asking them to help others. There was no timeline set for implementation, and no incentives were proffered except vague references to ease of use, improved communication and productivity. In the same vein, because the company believes in what they describe as “holistic management”, there also were no real consequences for employees who failed to learn and use the software, especially supervisors and managers that had the political clout to ignore it.

This is not a small or unsophisticated organization; in fact, it is the largest in its industry. It is also a seemingly well-intentioned company that prides itself on teamwork, communication and consultation, according to my friend. So, where did they go wrong and why?

Anyone who has studied the change management process will recognize the issues, starting with a top-down approach at every stage of development and release. Someone had what might have been a good idea to leverage existing automation with an application that could improve communication and productivity. Although a bit abstract those were certainly reasonable objectives. Unfortunately, they went no further. That is, end users were never brought into the development process, had no say in design much less in identifying the specific obstacles or improvements that would be addressed. They were not involved in testing or training and had no clear expectations about when or how they were supposed to learn or use the application. No wonder then that only a few actually managed to do so, while the overwhelming majority have either ignored the software’s existence, figured out how to work around it, or simply added it to a growing list of grievances. No amount of after the fact fixes are likely to remedy this situation.

The more I thought about my friend’s dilemma the more it seemed a perfect illustration of the ways in which governments, institutions and service providers ignore the fundamentals of change management and in so doing, fail to meet the needs of their constituents and customers, create dis-engagement, alienation, and in extreme cases outright anger despite seemingly well intentioned efforts to improve their lives. Imagine, for instance, a group of chosen individuals gathering today to develop a Constitution, or for that matter any policy, rule or law, without the expectation that:

The people whom it would affect would have no say in its purpose, knowledge of its impact on their lives, understanding of its limitations, or ability to weigh in on its adoption or rejection.

No provisions were made for a trial of efficacy and no provisions existed to modify, repeal or sunset it.

There was no explicit timeframe for its adoption, but also no meaningful consequences for a failure to do so.

No effort was made to educate, inform or assist those impacted prior to or once it went into effect.

In the course of its drafting, it was so burdened by changes to its original purpose in order to satisfy the desires of sundry special interest groups that it was either crippled or failed to address the objectives it was intended to meet.

We might all agree that any policy, law or rule developed in such a manner would be likely to fail. At the least it would fail to meet the needs for which it was intended, but in the course of its development and implementation it would undoubtedly confuse, alienate and anger the very constituents and customers it was supposed to benefit.

Now imagine that the only course of action available to those constituents was to seek redress before a panel of annointed individuals who would interpret what the original drafters hoped to accomplish, or to ask an even larger group of drafters bitterly opposed to any new rule or law proposed by any others then themselves to amend the policy, rule or law or pass a new one to better meet the present needs of their customers or constituents. That my friends is the essentially the state of our republic today.

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