This title immediately caught my attention. Due to the recent work-related frustrations, I’m on the constant lookout for how to make things better. Peter Smith’s talk “It doesn’t work like that in enterprise” seemed promising. But to tell the truth, I was dissapointed. I think it’s important to sometimes have a rant or a good laugh, share the painful daily frustrations and simply vent the steam, so there’s a place in this world for Dilberts and Expert Beginners. But I’m a bit worried that while many people agree on what the problems are, there’s not much content when it comes to solutions. Contrary to the popular belief, there are some and at the end of the post I recommend my four favourite resources. Check them out!
I dream about the day when conferences will be full of practical advice and sucess stories about influencing change. I want to hear about tools that I can use in various settings, backed by facts and solid research. After all, change is pretty important in the Agile world. But before we get there, the most popular advice remains, obviously…
Get real, stop whining, just deal with it
“If you’re like most people, you face several influence challenges that have you stumped. For instance, at work you’re fighting an uphill battle. You’ve given your heart and soul to a quality-improvement program, but your best efforts to make quality part of the everyday culture have yielded no improvements whatsoever. None. (…) And you can’t fix any of this. (…)
Fortunately you’ve learned to follow the words of a well-known prayer: Every day you ask for the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Somehow that gets you through.
And that’s the problem. It’s everyone’s problem. (…) We tell ourselves that we’re not influencers, and that it’s time to turn our attention to things that are in our control. We seek serenity.”
It’s hard for me to believe that somewhere in the world are developers that use USB stick as a CVS. I feel sorry for them. So what? Should I lower the bar, stop striving for more and be content with where I am now, just because we use Git? Shouldn’t we, as an industry, strive for more? Learn and share the ways to make things better? Constantly get better as professionals and as people?
It’s not only that I believe in the latter. I just can’t be “reasonable”. When I try, I am miserable. My productivity drops. My life sucks. I’m unhappy. So I gave up on praying for serenity long time ago. It just doesn’t work for me. Serenity might make me come to terms with conditions, that I deep inside never will accept. When I get in my “be reasonable” mode, usually after a few days I’m so miserable, that I inevitably go back to my “let’s change something” mode.
I’ve tried it and it didn’t work
The other common theme are experiences of very smart people, who tried, they did their best and yet, they failed. Let’s be honest, changing the world is hard. Changing the way people work is hard. Influencing organizations is extremely hard. It’s natural that people resist changes, because even change on a personal level is hard.
Most people that attempt influencing changes get discouraged, they become disilusioned and bitter, they give up. Instead of trying to change something, they move on and find a place where there’s no need for constant fights. If you’re in this situation, lucky you, that’s probably the best position to be at.
But those kinds of places are quite uncommon and hard to find, it might take a lot of time before you get there. Sometimes it looks good from the outside, but is less appealing when you’re on the inside. Sometimes the stakes are too high and you simply can’t afford to change jobs. Avoiding less-than-perfect places and people sounds good in theory, but is not that easy to apply in practice and you can never guarantee that “moving to a better place”, wasn’t a mistake after all.
But there’s hope
Next time you see a need for change don’t get angry or discouraged when people resist (yeah, I know it’s easier said than done, believe me:)), don’t take it personally. Accept this reaction as a fact, it’s expected. Instead of fighting, prepare for it. Go to the bookstore or open your favourite browser. But this time don’t laugh at the latest Dilbert strip. Don’t look for consolance and understanding. Look for solutions. Somebody already solved all your problems (and more).
We like to believe that we’re unique. We’re unique as people, our work places are unique, our society is unique, finally, our problems are unique. This is true to some extent, but most “unique” parts don’t matter that much. Common themes in problems with management or motivation or leading change are the same, independent of industry, culture or language. You need to adapt each technique to your specific situation, but you can use it anywhere.
Even if you stick to your “I’m different” argument, I think you will agree that most of our/your problems are not as difficult as taming HIV epidemic in Thailand, getting rid of Guinea worm or resocializing ex-gang members. Yet, all those problems were already solved by somebody, somewhere.
Some people (already) know how to do it
“[Looking for serenity] would be a good tactic were it not for the fact that the problems we’ve listed (…) can be and have been resolved by someone somewhere. That’s right. There are actual people out there who – instead of contually seeking the “wisdom to know the difference” – have sought the wisdom to make a difference. And they’ve found it. They’ve discovered that when it comes to changing the world, what most of us lack is not the courage to change things, but the skill to do so.”
I’ve been on a lookout for practical advice when it comes to change for quite a long time. Most of the material is purely motivational, hard to apply. Here I want to recommend four resources that I find most valuable and practical, I’ve learned a lot from them and every time I go back, I still learn something new. Some tips are very easy to apply, others might take years to master, but as far everything I’ve tried worked and helped me.
Those resources are not tied to any specific industry or type of organization. The techniques will work for professional settings as well as dealing with teenagers or issues with a local community.
The most important take-away for me was understanding how many areas we need to take into account, when planning any change (motivation and ability on personal, social and structural level). You can have a quick look at this concept and useful questions at Influence Change Planner handout. If you focus only on one of the six areas, there’s a high risk that your impact will be too weak to influence a lasting change. Remember, change is hard. We should analyze inhibitors in multiple dimensions and use multiple sources of influence to maximize our odds of success.
A big “AHA!” was for me realizing that sometimes change can be really easy, if we focus on the right area. For example, it doesn’t matter how motivated people are, if there’s a structural obstacle to change. Moreover, most of the time we can attempt change in mutliple ways, but some solutions are more effective/cheaper/easier/faster than others. I vividly remember the example where cooperation problems between chefs and waiters were solved by removing the need for direct communication. All they needed was a metal spindle (read the story “William Whyte ‘s 50 Cent Metal Spindle”).
Jurgen is focusing more on management in the context of IT, but also takes quite broad approach. If nothing else, he’s an excellent aggregator of high-quality resources. I found my #1 resource recommended in one of his books.
I think the most imporant things I’ve learned from Jurgen is that – like it or not – we’re all managers to some extent. We don’t need an official title to be leaders and we all are responsible for how our organizations operate. We can cry and whine, we can deny it or we can learn to use it for our (and other’s) benefit.
I also find very valuable the fact that he fully acknowledges that management and leadership are complicated. He looks for inspiration and solutions in various places, focusing on tools that have some scientific background (especially complexity theory). Here’s very practical, so if you are short on time and hate all those strictly “inspirational” pieces, “Management 3.0” might be your new favourite.
I haven’t finished reading that one yet, but I’ve already tried to put into practice one tip. It’s basically impossible to influence change if you enter the group as an “outsider” that always knows better and critizes everything, before even they understand the context and get familiar with the people.
Sometimes it’s very hard to resist the urge to call everbody idiots and just assume that actually, in this situation, we for sure know better. The problem is that even if that’s true, we’ll lose opportunity to share what we know with others. First, we have to take care of the basics. Get to know the group members, get accepted by them, learn about their history and context, make sure that we share the common goals and look for ways to contribute to achieving common goals and priorities.
It sounds so obvious and simple, yet, I don’t know many examples when people really followed this advice. I’ve also realized that I’m not too good at it and since then pay more attention to this area. Even if I can’t wait to share my new super idea, I take a few deep breaths and spend some time learning about the current solution and its context. Sometimes it turns out that my solution wouldn’t fit the constraints that currently are in place. Sometimes it turns out I didn’t understand the problem well, before coming up with a solution.
Well… That was just what I’ve learned from one of thirty essays in this book.
Last but not least, I want to recommend my latest discovery. This is the resource completely focused on software development (obviously:)), but is looking at the subject in very broad terms. Sandro took good care of organizing the content and using phrases that stick. Although I was familiar with most of the concepts even before I read that book, I’ve learned a lot. Some concepts were taken to new depths, others were enriched with new insights and specific tips or new examples.
Two parts of the book, that I found especially valuable were related to recruitment strategy and saying no. Taking responsibility for estimates and project success is a hard topic, controversial. I think that Sandro’s take on this matter is excellent, he skilfully tackled the most common myths and provided tips for dealing with hard situations, that most of us encountered in some form.
Influencing change, be it using new tools, changing processes or modifying communication patterns is a huge, difficult subject. You can pray for serenity, in the end I think that is the easier option. But you can also believe that influencing change is a learnable skill.
If at any point you feel frustrated or simply tired of hearing that “it doesn’t work that way” wherever you are at that moment, open one of those books, watch author’s presentations or read their blogs. You’ll find hope and lots of practical tips, that you can start using straight away.
Even if other people tell you otherwise, remember, there’s nothing wise in giving up. Don’t get discouraged when you fail in your attempts. You will fail one way or another, in one or many of them. That’s a normal learning process. Get up, learn more, practice, adapt and try again. Then share your experiences. I can’t wait to hear about it.