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Why do some products make a bigger splash than others? I recently heard an analogy, which explains why some products have naturally higher market demand than others. The analogy stated that there are really only three macro classes of products; products that avoid problems, solve a specific pain and provide new functionality. The analogy used vitamins, aspirin and the little blue pill as a metaphor for these three categories. Process improvement can easily be classified using these metaphors. As change agents, we can use this analogy as a tool to guide how we conceive and implement process changes within our organizations.

One of the failings of many software process improvement programs is that they are framed as means of avoiding a problem. I call this the futurist point of view. The futurist point of view translates to the “vitamins” for the organizational change world. If I asked you directly I am certain that you would understand the need to take precautions so that the future we will be better. The big unvoiced “however” in your answer would be that it is hard get motivated to make a change now for a nebulous payoff in the future. Just remember the last time you toyed with the idea of starting an exercise program. The linkage between a current change in behavior (taking vitamins) and future benefits is just not direct enough to create a groundswell of acceptance. Bottom-line: Selling potential benefits in the future is it best of times a difficult proposition.

A few years ago I took sales training (and I am proud of it). I learned how to identify pain during the training program. Ask any professional salesperson and they will tell you that an immediate pain is an important motivator to making a sale, maybe the most important motivator. At least 99.9% of the people in the world want pain to go away when they have it, which is why an aspirin is an easier sale than an exercise program for back pain. The “gotcha” is that pain initially expressed is usually not the root cause of the pain (there are a lot reasons for this behavior, but that is topic for another day). The art of persuasion, sales and requirements gathering is the ability to peel back the layers until you can expose the root cause so the pain can be solved, not just masked. The ability to successfully navigate the “pain” conversation to get to the root cause and not irritate person feeling the pain is a skill not consistently found on IT project teams. Bottom-line: I highly recommend a course in salesmanship for all project managers and requirements analysts, make sure your process improvement program solves current problems and always carry aspirin.

I have been shocked and amazed at how the little blue pill and other similar drugs became and stayed blockbuster drugs. Going back to our analogy, the little blue pill represents products that deliver additional functionality. The little blue pill of process improvement projects delivers the ability to either do something that was not possible before, provide greater flexibility in how work is done and/or greater flexibility in the decision making process. I believe that most IT personnel have a bit of a libertarian streak, which conflates flexibility and choice in how we accomplish our job with the functionality of the process. For example, having more than one way to do a retrospective and the choice of which technique to use makes a process for retrospectives better than one without options. IT personnel are problem solvers, solving problems is central to our identity. Process improvement projects that deliver functionality which make it easier (or even possible) to deliver solutions to IT’s customers addresses the core needs of IT developers and IT leaders. Bottom-line: Make sure your process improvement projects make it possible to do work that could not be done before or at the very least provide a more flexible, choice driven approach.

The analogy of vitamins, aspirin and little blue pill frames a discussion that many process improvement leaders do not have when choosing process improvement projects. I suggest that to survive when budgets are being cut, process improvement programs must deliver real benefits NOW, to solve pain IT organizations have NOW, but to be true to our nature, changes must also provide for a better future. These considerations are not just packaging or salesmanship, addressing these considerations is central to providing real value now and in the future.

PS: Take your vitamins, carry aspirin and if you have processes that stay the same for more than four cycles seek medical attention immediately.

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