Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Change Is So Hard

Einstein said we have one important decision to make in our lives, and that is to decide for ourselves whether we live in a friendly or a hostile universe. Our competition-laden lives are so burdened with proving ourselves that the friendly universe we’d all love to be a part of is all too elusive. And that process of proving is about feeling a sense of value – that we’re contributing to something larger than ourselves. This is all very Maslowian, of course; we’re humans, after all, and we all need some form of periodic validation.

So along comes the BPM expert with her “should be” process models that fly in the face of the “as is” state and, naturally, there’s instant defensiveness and insecurity on the part of those who designed the existing processes. In one fell swoop, their good work is undone, their sense of value shattered. This is no joke; it lies at the very heart of managing change.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Office Space. In it, a meeting with “The Bobs” – a pair of management consultants named Robert – was a dreaded goodness-of-fit test with the company. In my own work, I experience the very same apprehension when I interview staff (it can’t help that my first name is Robert, either). The fear is apparent; the nervous questions almost always precede the interview:

“Is everything ok?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“Is my job safe?”

It’s almost heartbreaking to listen as the interviewees’ fears rear their ugly heads. My job is to put them at ease, to reassure them that what management intends to do is simply refine, improve, better meet the competition. Rarely, I remark, do people lose their jobs over my recommendations. Truth is, sometimes they do. As such, there’s a need to balance the intimacy that facilitates good information gathering during discovery periods with the cool detachment of a professional whose charge it is to remain objective. The trick is to be understanding, to realize that questioning the way someone performs their work will often come across as threatening, undermining that fragile sense of value we all crave. Resistance to change is often a direct product of someone feeling threatened, less valuable, expendable.

The point of all this? There is a decidedly human side to business process management that far outweighs the technical or mechanical aspects. An old friend, a venture capitalist in Seattle who holds a PhD in Physics from Yale and an MBA from Wharton told me not long ago that his education was important, but he would have been far better served in his dealings with business owners and the staffs they employ with a psychology degree. All of the technical know-how in the world pales in comparison to the finesse of someone who understands human motivation, the “people part” of process. That’s why change is so hard.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


That’s the standard reply these days from just about anyone to whom I pose the question, “How are you doing?” Back when I worked on Wall Street, when cell phones were rare and a blackberry was something you ate, the response was “Great!” or “Fantastic!” Today, the responder inevitably puts their head down and shakes it in disbelief as if to underscore the pile of work they’re facing while they pronounce, “Busy,” usually with a hint of resignation and a small sigh for effect. This seems to be a universal reply: This morning, at the grocery store, a customer in front of me asked the cashier how she was doing. “Busy” was her reply. There were three of us in line as she “busily” dragged goods across the scanner and “busily” watched as the customer swiped her credit card for payment. Busy, indeed.

Cut to a typical morning at the airport, where lately I’ve been spending a lot of mornings, as my travel schedule tends to keep me airborne. Near the gate, there are usually several well-dressed gentlemen talking on a cell phone, typing diligently into a blackberry or working on a laptop (or, most often, some combination of the three), grabbing those precious minutes between Group 1 and Group 4 boarding to respond to an email or add that important column to a spreadsheet or follow up with someone at the office to ensure that proposal went out. Wow. Are more deals getting done? The now ubiquitous blinking blue lights on the half-ounce Bluetooth earpiece screams of the diligence and dedication of the world-weary working warrior that, even when he’s not working, he’s working, always ready to take that call in an instant, always ready to get the deal done, always available, anytime, any place, to serve you better, to be the best he can be, to excel and beat his competition.

Then why, pray tell, can I rarely get someone on the phone on the first try? Why am I almost always sent into voicemail when I call someone at the office? Where is the friendly greeting of years gone by that asked me, politely, to where I would like my call directed? Here’s my theory: we busy ourselves with nothing. We busy ourselves to feel as if we’re being productive. We create “work” where none exists. We are victims of the information economy, struggling to shift our focus from the piecemeal workaday processes that used to yield definitive deliverables you could put your arms around, to the now amorphous intangibles that characterize the product for which so many of us are being paid. Contemplate this: If I sit and think about a client’s business challenge for five hours while staring at the Pacific Ocean, am I being less productive than attempting the same great feat while juggling my cell phone, blackberry and laptop? In which scenario will the client gain more value? What is worth more to the client? Me multitasking, and after two weeks finally squeezing out enough time to consider and respond thoughtfully to the client’s issues, or spending a half-day staring out to sea, contemplating possible solutions based on twenty-plus years of experience and a whole lot of formal education and heading back to the office to write them down? Both deliverables yield the same revenue for the firm. Ironically, the one that is delivered faster, with far more dedicated thought on my part, is the one that might lead the uninformed observer to conclude I was being lazy and unproductive, while my harried counterpart, delivering late, piecing together bits of thoughts over a far longer period of time, is assumed to be the “busy” person who appears to be hardworking.

Think about that. And think about how your own processes would be impacted by a shift in thinking that reflects true productivity, rather than perceived diligence. Confusing activity with accomplishment is a fundamental challenge to good business process management practices.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Look in the Mirror

Man, have I heard some horror stories lately – deadlines missed, functionality incomplete, millions thrown away. Sure we’ve all heard about similar situations and all know we need to apply the discipline of project management and develop a thorough understanding of user requirements to minimize the chance of failure. But perhaps it’s time for some folks to take a hard look at themselves, to see whether they – and not their vendors or vendors’ technology – are entirely to blame for the failures of certain systems implementations.

This is all of course old news to the tech savvy out there, but my mission, with this blog and in general, is to communicate to those who are not terribly tech savvy that there are reasons for frameworks, disciplined approaches, software development lifecycles and other forms of best practice. The cynicism most have toward many of these methodologies is no doubt a function of the misuse or misapplication of them that resulted in a bad experience. To be sure, one vendor I know of promotes the use of Agile development methods in their deployment of enterprise-class systems involving complex insurance operational processes that involve offshore development teams and multiple integrations with third party systems. To me, using an Agile framework for such a project is non sequitur – the remoteness of the development team alone sort of mandates the creation of fairly detailed requirements documents – a mandate that directly contravenes the Agile philosophy.

The lesson? Get to know more about these frameworks and insist that your vendors use them properly. Make an inquiry into vendor methodology a major part of your RFP process, and insist that contending systems vendors provide vivid descriptions of the approach to the project they propose to undertake. Further, make sure your own organization is prepared for the change that’s associated with adopting a vendor’s framework, and remains committed to the approach. Sometimes, a good look in the mirror goes a long way.