At the end of a race inertia might not be enough!

At the end of a race inertia might not be enough!

Audio Version on SPaMCAST 197

Changing how any organization works is not easy.  Many different moving parts have to come together for a change to take root and build up enough inertia to pass the tipping point. Unfortunately because of misalignment, misunderstanding or poor execution, change programs don’t always win the day.  This is not new news to most of us in the business.  The question I pose is what should happen after a process improvement program fails?  What happens when the wrong kind of inertia wins?

Step One:  All failures must be understood.

A critical review of the failed program that focuses on why and how it failed must be performed.  The word critical is important.  Nothing should be sugar coated or “spun” to protect people’s feelings.  A critical review must also have a good dose of independence from those directly involved in the implementation.  Independence is required so that the biases and decisions that led to the original program can be scrutinized.  The goal is not to pillory those involved but rather to make sure the same mistakes are not repeated.  These reviews are known by many names: postmortems, retrospectives or troubled project reviews, to name a few.

Step two:  Determine which way the organization is moving.

Inertia describes why an object in motion tends to stay in motion or those at rest tend to stay at rest.  Energy is required to change the state of any object or organization: therefore understanding the direction of the organization is critical to planning any change. In process improvement programs, we call the application of energy change management.  A change management program might include awareness building, training, mentoring or a myriad of other events all designed to inject energy into the system, the goal of that energy is either to amplify or change the performance of some group within an organization.  When not enough or too much energy is applied, the process change will fail.

Just because a change has failed does not mean all is lost.  I would suggest that there are two possible outcomes to a failure: The first is that the original position is reinforced, making change even more difficult.  The second is that the target group has been pushed into moving, maybe not all the way to where they should be or even in the right direction but the original inertia has been broken.

Frankly, both outcomes happen.  If the failure is such that no good comes of it, then your organization will be mired in the muck of living off past performance.  This is similar to what happens when a car gets stuck in snow or sand and digs itself in.  The second scenario is more positive, and while the goal was not attained, the organization has begun to move, making further change easier.  I return to the car stuck in the snow example.  A technique that is taught to many of us that live in snowy climates is “rocking.” Rocking is used to get a car stuck in snow moving back and forth.  Movement increases the odds that you will be able to break free and get going in the right direction.  Interestingly, the recognition of movement is a powerful sales technique taught in the Sandler Sales System.

Step Three:  Take smaller bites!

The lean startup movement provides a number of useful concepts that can be used when changing any organization.  In the Software Process and Measurement Cast 196, Jeff Anderson talked in detail about leveraging the concepts of lean start-ups within change programs (Link to SPaMCAST 196).  In this essay, I suggest using the concept of minimum viable changes to build a backlog of manageable changes.  The backlog should be groomed and prioritized by a product owner (or owners) from the area being impacted by the change.  This will increase ownership and involvement and generate buy-in.  Once you have a prioritized backlog, make the changes in a short time-boxed manner while involving those being impacted in measuring the value delivered.  Stop doing things if they are not delivering value and go to the next change.

What do you do when inertia wins? Being a change agent is not easy, and no one succeeds all the time unless they are not taking any risks.  Learn from your mistakes and successes.  Understand the direction the organization is moving and use that movement as an asset to magnify the energy you apply. Involve those you are asking to change to building a backlog of prioritized minimum viable changes (mix the concept of a backlog with concepts from the lean start up movement).  Make changes based on how those who are impacted prioritize the backlog then stand back to observe and measure.  Finally, pivot (change direction) if necessary.  Always remember that the goal is not really the change itself but rather demonstrable business value. Keep pushing until the organization is going in the right direction.  What do you do when inertia wins?  My mother would have said just get back up, dust yourself off and get back in the game; it isn’t that easy but it is not that much more complicated.