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Scaffolding of Change September 10, 2013

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Quite often during a consulting engagement, a client will question the need for a particular tool or meeting that has been implemented as part of the project.  It might be a new method of data collection, additional paperwork for change management, or a rigorous weekly review of project deliverables.

In some cases, these things are intended to become part of the client’s new way of doing business.  It is what they have paid the consultant to bring to the organization: some change in the way managers make decisions, the way their product is developed and produced, or increased efficiency of the operation.  Quite often however, the ultimate outcome – behavior change – doesn’t depend on any particular form or spreadsheet or meeting.  The specific tool is less relevant than its use in facilitating and catalyzing the desired change.  Indeed, it is merely scaffolding – something that is necessary for construction but nevertheless temporary.

Many clients fail to recognize the time and effort required to construct this scaffolding (and tear it down at the end).  It can be a project in and of itself, but is not the “real work” that they expect to see.  The deliverables of scaffolding – the most visible and tangible of the consultant’s early work on a project – are often frustrating distractions from the true operation.  It is often difficult to perceive the behavior change going on behind the scenes and this can in turn can put the project at risk.

From the consultant’s point of view, it is important to clarify as early as possible what the project will and won’t deliver.  It’s also important to outline the need for some of the tools that will be used during the engagement and specify which will be permanent and which will be temporary.  The client then is obligated to take on some of this “extra work” as their part of the bargain.  They hired the consultant to facilitate organizational change – this won’t occur without the processes more regimented than they were used to before.

 

Small Victories July 22, 2013

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So often, especially with social media posts flying like mosquitoes around a barbecue, we read the same platitudes over and over, having long since taken any real meaning from them.  Sometimes, however, someone will recast even tired sayings with a different perspective – and in the process provide a way to create real actions out of them.

In today’s Monday Morning Memo, Alan Weiss sums up in just a few words what many consultants’ clients often have the most difficulty with.

“If you never fail, you become comfortable with increasingly minor victories.”

I can’t count how many times I have advised clients that they need to just take that first step.  Develop a log of actions for the week, start breaking long-term, unmanageable tasks into smaller bite-size chunks.  And it works…for a while.  Alan’s advice warns that the small satisfactions obtained from crossing off to-do lists is only good as we progress forward a few steps – it is not a path to long-term growth.

Another aspect of my consulting work is continuous improvement.  Once an organization has mastered a particular method, it’s time to look ahead to how it can be improved.  This may mean, by the way, that it be eliminated in favor of a new method.  Need to have a meeting established to implement a new program?  Fine.  But don’t forget to terminate it when the project is done.  Don’t even let it “evolve” into a meeting that covers some other topic.  Make conscious decisions to maintain those tools that continue to add value.  Be especially critical of meetings, but really, anything goes.  Forms, procedures, job descriptions – everything will eventually change to accommodate new technologies, skills, competitors, and regulations.

Those small victories are indeed critical to building positive habits and motivating an organization going through a difficult change process.  But small victories eventually will only provide the illusion of progress through activity rather than bona fide results.  Crossing off to-do lists is an important step, but always challenge yourself and your organization to take on ever bigger goals.  Continuous improvement comes at a price: not being 100% perfect.  Accept that some ‘failures’ will occur and that your learning of a new process is as important as getting it right the first time.

Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013

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All too often in the consulting world, we find individuals in client organizations who have been beating their heads against a wall for years.  They are smart people with good ideas who, for various bureaucratic or political reasons, have been unable to effect real, lasting change in their organizations.  We probably all know people like this – happy with their work in theory, but frustrated that valuable improvements remain ignored or impeded.

However, there is another category, not lacking good intentions, who inadvertently contribute to the first group’s angst.  I had the chance to observe this firsthand – in my own home workshop.

Perhaps something of a dying art, I build plastic models (especially during cold Montana winters).  Here is my latest project, a Ford Trimotor that I picked up two years ago, but which sat in storage during my time in Australia:

Trimotor Model

As a project manager, such a “project” seems a good fit with my day job, but it occurred to me that I approach my models differently than a real project.  Definitely, there is a budget and I maintain my own personal standards of quality.  I establish the deliverable, determining whether I build the kit “out of the box” or include any modifications or new techniques.

But when it comes to the other fundamental leg of any true project – time – I let the art-like nature of the model go with the flow.  Like other hobbies, a kit like this might wallow half-done in a box somewhere for months or years.  There is no pressure to complete it “on time” – if ever.

A true challenge lay in developing a project schedule around a new kit, predicting the time involved for each stage of production.

Model Project

And this is where such a simple plan revealed just how little my 30 years of model building experience actually “knew”.  Like many of my clients, I thought I knew the job.  But if anyone asked how long it took to build a typical model, I would have only the most rudimentary estimate.  Too often, my recollection is clouded by time and the various delays that go along with any hobby – a kit that takes just hours of working time may actually have taken weeks to complete.  It is, of course, a supposedly relaxing diversion, so I wasn’t exactly keeping meticulous records.

In many organizations, these same conditions can – inadvertently or otherwise – stymie a change initiative.  People that have done the job for 10, 20, or 30 years may indeed know their jobs better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know as much as they could – especially if they require improvement.  Without a solid baseline and a clear understanding of the work involved, there is no way to effectively manage the job itself, let alone any changes.

Hence the challenge, and one of the benefits of having an outsider’s point of view.  The consultant is in a position to objectively measure and quantify critical aspects of the job (the easy part) and communicate them with sensitivity and understanding to the client team members (quite difficult – this is where consultants make their money).  The overall goals are the same – the team wants to do the job better and the consultant wants to help them achieve the target.  The team provides the experience and the knowledge, while the consultant provides the tools to separate what they know from what they think they know.  And if there’s anything that recent psychological research has shown, it’s that we think we know significantly more than we really do.

It can be quite uncomfortable to face the cognitive dissonance that comes from raw data highlighting your mistakes (my next model is already off target, and I’ve barely scratched the surface).  But if you are truly dedicated to constant learning and becoming an expert in your field, the hard lesson comes with a big payoff – more efficient operations, better control over variances, and improved morale as problems are anticipated and handled at the source rather than after the fact.

American Education? February 28, 2012

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Seth Godin has just posted what he calls a “30,000 word manifesto” on public education.  I’m sure that it applies to similar systems anywhere, but it is especially pertinent to us Americans.  The problems that he describes are all the more striking when compared with our experiences here in Australia.

With a daughter in high school here, we observe every day the different attitudes toward school, work, university education, and standardized testing.  All of us are the products of an educational system that was founded to produce productive citizens.  But this comes at a price.

I encourage you to take a look at Seth’s short piece, and think about what we expect of our educational system (and, by extension, many of our other American institutions).  He encourages you to comment and discuss this very important issue.  We owe it to ourselves.

A direct link to the PDF version is here.

Improving People, Improving Organizations January 16, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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If your life includes teaching, coaching, or mentoring (and, I claim that everyone’s does), there are many occasions during which learning “plateaus”.  That is, there will be times when it seems – to the student at least – that upward progress has ceased.  Student pilots study and expect this as part of the learning process.  Instructors are taught to use such times to work on other topics and let the difficult issue temporarily drop in priority.  This is done because the human brain often takes time to assimilate and synthesize the thinking required for complex tasks.  There are biological limitations to our capacity to learn.

But what about the learning environment (i.e., the workplace)?

Funny enough, individuals don’t work in a vacuum within their organizations.  Not only will each person learn and develop at different rates, but the organizational culture will almost assuredly change much more slowly.  Each new bright spot of success brings with it the realization that not everyone is “seeing the light” in the same way.  Like a religion, there will be fanatics and disbelievers.  But within any given organization, the fans will quickly become frustrated and disillusioned if the rest of the group doesn’t catch up.

What’s happening here?  Again, we have our own brains to blame.

We are wired to believe our way is the right way.  When those around us don’t agree, it creates a conflict, called cognitive dissonance.  When working in an environment of change and – ostensibly at least – improvement, this becomes more difficult to handle, since we must now reassess our co-workers as we and they change together.  Who is working with me, and who is against me?

This is the point at which the organizational leadership is critical to both harness the power of those bright spots and to convince everyone else that the change is really the right thing to do.  Without this commitment, those who have improved – by whatever objective measure you choose – will become more frustrated at the lack of progress around them.  At worst, they become so fed up that they leave the organization.  That leaves you, as the leader, with a less and less motivated team and a more toxic environment in which to make any change.

The forthright commitment from all levels of the organization is critical to keeping those “early adopters” of change from disillusionment and to keeping everyone else headed in the same direction at the same time.

Plan, Do, Check, Act October 2, 2011

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Organizational change is always difficult.  The best laid plans will never be a match for individual human variability.  Change is messy and merely a series of compromises that gradually bring everyone along on generally the same path.

So when managing such change, it is vital to communicate early and often the plan and the next few critical steps, as well as a few distant milestones.  But also make it clear which targets are not set in stone and are subject to their own change as time goes on.  Otherwise, you are just another manager selling the “change du jour” with less and less credibility every time the plan is adjusted.

Everyone resists change.  Not only that, but those in the organization will seize any chance they can to discredit the agents of that change in order to preserve the status quo.  It may indeed be a case of shooting the messenger, but that’s not material to the case.  By consistently following the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (and making it transparent) you can demonstrate that everyone is subject to the same rule of change – flexibility and compromise need not be synonymous with being wishy-washy or a flip-flopper.

Change the World December 7, 2010

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What does it mean to “change the world?”  What comes to mind when we hear this phrase?  Does it mean literally the entire globe, all life, the environment?  Or could it be one of countless subsets, from all humanity to a single country, or even just one community?  Is it a revolution or more of a step in the direction of some unreachable ideal?  Is it a vaccine, or clean water, or democracy?  What about education or the internet?  Do we all have a part to play in changing the world, or are some of us merely spectators?

If someone truly does change the world – however that might be defined – do they receive compensation commensurate with the change?  Does a teacher’s pay reflect their contribution?  Does a doctor’s?  Do we value something other than change on one hand, but wish for change to occur nonetheless?

Why do volunteers, missionaries, and other non-profit entities seem to have visions of changing the world that for-profit enterprises seem to lack?  Does government act as an agent of change, or of stability?

Commonality March 23, 2010

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One of the best ways to spark innovation or creativity is to look for parallels in other industries.  Doing so, it doesn’t take long to see that seemingly disparate fields share more than meets the eye.  Last month’s Insider’s View column touched on this topic as related to safety cultures in heavy industries like mining and construction.  But it goes much deeper than that.

Most organizations must deal with difficult changes.  “Change managers” are those who have effectively harnessed the business, psychological, and sociological aspects to bring about real, lasting behavioral adjustments.  In all cases, true effectiveness comes from finding personal motivation (or negative consequences) to gain support and buy-in.

What about when that change manager (who may simply be a line manager or other supervisor) moves on to other things?  Will the process remain in place?  If done properly, it is possible to implement systems that encourage innovation and ideas – and more importantly, provide an outlet for them within the organization.

This is the common thread among virtually all industries.  As groups of individuals, different organizations still must reflect the norms and behaviors present in the work force.  When it is necessary to change them, it doesn’t matter if you are a small, boutique firm or a multinational oil company.  Change isn’t easy, but it can be very powerful.  Making positive use of this power is the real goal.

Golden Hour November 30, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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It has been, to say the least, an interesting year.  In retrospect, it should have come as little surprise that the last two columns dealing with motivation and stress struck such a chord with several readers. The recession has affected us all in various ways, from dropped projects to layoffs to outright business closures. As amazing as it may seem, there are still organizations that continue to grow and thrive in this environment — not because of luck, but because of careful, measured moves in the right directions over a long period of time. If yours is not one of them, I suspect you know of examples among your competitors, and it is difficult to avoid envy and admit that someone else has something that you don’t. (more…)

Engaging the Next Generation September 18, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Fifteen years. How much can we accomplish in such a short time? As I write this, I just read President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. His words are likely to be clouded by the bickering that inevitably seems to take center stage these days. However, regardless of your politics, his thoughts reflect many professions’ struggles with how to motivate the next generation(s) and encourage study of subjects that don’t seem to hold quite the value they once did — especially math and science. Engineers are no strangers to this debate, and some have taken proactive steps to preserve the integrity of the profession while encouraging and attracting new entrants. (more…)