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Monday, June 4, 2012

The Change Myth

Welcome to Tomorrow

It is a new year - again. 
During this time of year I usually review my goals and objectives. It is the time to take stock of the past 12 months, and realize where you have been over optimistic, where you’ve succeeded, and what you’ve learned from failure.
It is also the opportunity to set new goals, to motivate it, and plan its execution.
It is a good time to consider and re-consider changes you want to make to yourself, your circumstances and to your business. Your goals and objectives bears testimony to the degree of change you plan to make. 
Similarly, Organizations has to review the year past, and plan the results for the next year. 
As I.T. Professionals we are in the business of change. A lot of what we do has to do with changing something. We are either changing a business process, a technology or a business model. Our main reason for being in this business is to change things. Our projects deliver new solutions and hopefully this leads to business improvements.
However, sometimes we are so busy changing things that we manage to confuse change with progress. There is a famous saying in this business: “The only constant in I.T. is change.” We are so used to continuously strive for change that we sometimes forget to check if the changes we are implementing is really improving matters. The new system, the next technology, changing that team structure, replacing a team member are all changes. Stop and ask yourself if it is change for change sake, or change for the better.
We confuse action and activity with results. We are often caught in a change trap where we as experts need to come up with the next best thing. We are under pressure to make things better, faster, more functional. This keeps us busy, but it also distracts us from evaluating our results. The pressure on completing the project, or deploying the next release sometimes leaves little room to evaluate if we are really achieving the desired improvements or outcomes.
The objective of this first Blog entry for 2007 is to explore something I call: “The Change Myth”.
In 2007 let us not be so busy changing things, that we forget to check if it is for the better. Let our goal be results in the face of activity.
Ready, Set, Go

Although our business is changing things, I’ve found that as people, I.T. Professionals are as reluctant to change our ways as the next person.  Unless there is a convincing and compelling event or set of circumstances, that require us to re-evaluate what and how we do things, we will be reluctant to change the ways in which we think, operate and organize ourselves.
For example: It is sometimes difficult to justify an investment in a new solution purely because it provides more or better functionality - even if it is cheaper. However, if the current solution is not working, and is unstable, then it becomes very easy to justify a new implementation. This is also referred to as: “A Burning Platform.”
In facilitating change, we have to face a very powerful human fear - the fear of uncertainty. This fear needs to be contrasted against the pain and discomfort we hold for the current state, else changing is simply not a compelling option. 
Change assumes dissent with the status quo, else there is no good reason to embrace it. If the current state of affairs are not more uncomfortable than the possible uncertainty of the future potential benefits, then there is simply no motivation to change.
The resistance to change can therefore be addressed by addressing the future “uncertainty factor” versus the current “level of (dis)comfort”.
Be sure to know who is feeling the discomfort. I have often tried to improve I.T. delivery and found it hard to improve an I.T. team because the incumbents are quite comfortable and set in their ways. This, while a business is suffering from a lack of response from this “comfortable” I.T. team. In this case, the discomfort is with the business, and unless the “comfortable” I.T. team feel this discomfort too, they will have very little motivation to contemplate changing and improving their ways. 
The “uncertainty factor” is is the degree of certainty or uncertainty about the intended outcome and its perceived benefits.

The “level of discomfort” is the amount of dissatisfaction one has with the current state or circumstance, and its symptoms.

To facilitate change, one therefore has to address two important matters:
  • Removing Future Uncertainty; and
  • Increasing Current Levels of Discomfort.
It is All a Matter of Perception
Uncertainty is removed when you have a clear view, and is convinced of the benefits of a change. This can be done in several ways: Thorough planning, trials of several options, comparisons, the inclusion of warranties and guarantees, prototyping, testimonies, profiling and more. AlL these methods are designed to remove uncertainty about a particular outcome.
Businesses are particularly creative in devising means to address possible uncertainty for their prospective customers. In this way, they make a change towards their products or services easier for the customer. If a client trusts that they will receive the promised benefits, then the Company has a better chance of making the sale and winning the customer. 
The business has more control over the perceived future outcome than they have over the current levels of discomfort, and therefore devote the majority of their energy in addressing this aspect to facilitate change.
Your ability as I.T. Professional to remove uncertainty for your customers in the work you do, will also go a long way in ensuring your distinction from fellow Professionals. Give your clients trust in the proposed changes or improvements and it will be easier for them to follow your lead.
How does one increase the current levels of dissatisfaction to facilitate change? 
Although no one will admit it, certain products are designed with a lifetime in mind. Miraculously, once a product leaves its warranty period, it starts to cause problems, have faults, and ultimately fail. It costs more to own and maintain, and that newer option suddenly makes a lot more sense than before.
Another way is to improve the new and contrast the benefits of the new with the old. Demonstrate the inferiority of the current against the new. How often have we not upgraded to a faster computer only to discover soon afterwards that it appears as slow as the older one. This happens while it is in line to be replaced with yet another faster and better model.
The Insurance industry does a good job of reminding you of your “possible” discomfort if you don’t have their product or service, thereby creating for you more discomfort. Your home, car, and even your loved ones are at stake - definitely a very discomforting situation.
When you find that your superiors are making your job very uncomfortable, then you should realize that it is time to move on. Similarly, customers can go out of their way to make live difficult for a supplier. When this happens, be aware that they are probably already committed to making a change and you will possibly not be part of this future.
The risk with increasing someone else’s discomfort levels is that it can be perceived as unethical and/or malicious. Be careful.
Degrees of Change

If you are planning some slight enhancements or a fundamentally new direction for your new year, you should be aware that there are some key considerations that can help you achieve your desired change outcome successfully. Know what you are getting yourself into, before you start.
To differentiate the changes you are planning, it may be useful to take note of the degree of change. Each degree of change has attributes that characterize the change type, and will help you to be more prepared for the journey.
To keep matters simple in this discussion, I am highlighting only three degrees of change and some of their attributes:
  • Small Changes: These are changes that can easily be facilitated through efforts of continuous improvement. Inherently you are happy with the status quo, and will benefit from small improvements to further enhance and maximize the benefits. For example: In your personal life you may decide that your fitness program is on the right track, all that is needed is an increase in frequency, or a few more repetitions. Upgrading your bicycle may also do the trick to enhance and revive your current fitness program. The innovator in this case is usually internal to the system - you can make the changes yourself. If you are a business, your internal staff should be able to identify and implement these improvements. Typically these changes are motivated by slight improvements like improved costs, or shorter timeframes to reach your goals and objectives. The key question that drives changes of this nature is: “How”. How can it be made even better? The costs for these changes are relatively small, so is the risk and gain.
  • Large Change: In this instance you require a serious improvement on the current. Essentially you are not happy with the current situation. The current solution does not meet your needs. You know the desired outcome. What remains is the implementation of a solution to significantly improve the status quo. For example: Typically in business, these initiatives are driven by Total Quality Management (TQM). A desire to significantly improve the quality of service or a product calls for some major engineering or organizational intervention. In you personal realm you may decide that the current fitness regime of cycling no longer produce the desired results, and opt for something more intense like Thai Kickboxing or Weight Training. The goal is usually effectiveness driven by the question: “What”. What can be done to achieve the desired outcome? A catalyst is usually required to facilitate this type of change amongst the current organization. You may need to bring some consultants in to assist you with the changes and it will typically require training and re-skilling of the current workforce. The costs for these changes are large, so is the risk and gain. and
  • Fundamental Change: This requires a paradigm shift. It may require you to change your basic assumptions about the problem and its possible solutions. Typically fundamental change is driven by unsolved problems and may prove to be quite difficult. In business a paradigm shift may mean making an industry change. For example: An I.T. Business may elect to transition themselves from a product business to a service business. The business may decide to change their market focus. Instead of selling to large corporations, they may decide to target medium enterprises with a different set of solutions. In you personal health and fitness objectives, you may decide to give up on exercise and diet altogether and elect for cosmetic surgery instead (not a very wise decision, but certainly a paradigm shift). The innovator in this degree of change is usually from outside the organization. You require a coach or doctor to introduce the change. Often the current team will be replaced with a new workforce. The change is driven by a shift in values and beliefs and motivated by survival or competition. The costs for these changes are significant, so is the risk and potential gain.

In summary then, make sure that you focus on the outcomes when you contemplate any changes for the year in your personal life or business. Set up a score board that helps you to track your progress against your desired objectives. Unless you keep score you won’t know who is winning. Change for the better.
Secondly, if you are planning slight modification, a new solution or a totally new business or career, know that each degree of change has its own attributes, drivers, cost, risk and ultimately benefits. 
You can rely on yourself or your team to make smaller changes. A large change will require some catalysts like a coach or a consultant, and if you want to fundamentally change and improve matters, it may require the most painful of all solutions - a paradigm shift and a new team.
Lastly, to facilitate any change in your personal or business life be sure to identify the point where the the discomfort of the current outweighs the uncertainty of the future change. It is usually easier to address and lower the uncertainty factor, than it is to address the level of discomfort. 
Change is mostly fun! It provides opportunity to learn. 
If you are a pathological learner like me, then go forth and change the world this year. If you don’t change it, you will never know if it can indeed be better!
Hendrik van Wyk
P.S. Thank you to my esteemed colleague and friend Richard Dickie, for the inspiration to write this entry.

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