Change me

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I have a theory. It seems that most people learn something in their early to mid 20s, and then spend the rest of their career happily doing the same thing over and over again. This might be anything ranging from developing a certain type of software application (thee tier Java web shops, COBOL transaction processing […]

I have a theory. It seems that most people learn something in their early to mid 20s, and then spend the rest of their career happily doing the same thing over and over again. This might be anything ranging from developing a certain type of software application (thee tier Java web shops, COBOL transaction processing solutions, Zachman …) or IT desktop management and support through to retail management or running a typing pool. Once they’ve established what it is they do they just want to keep doing it, hoping that the world will remain as it was in their early adulthood.
People don’t like change, usually as change often forces them to redefine what they do, their role in an organization and the value they add. People are hired and rewarded for what they did last week, not what they might do next. Change also involves a lot of effort. If an IT department defined itself as an asset management function (buy/build application, install application, run application, retire application), then how will it react to the introduction of software-as-a-service?, Workday and and the like will probably fall into the responsibility of the CFO or under general manager for a line of business, appearing as a line item for employee support costs rather than as a major CAPEX expense. What does an IT support department, defining themselves in terms of the certifications they hold, do when we decide to give up our reliance on owning the desktop and help employees buy their own PCs? People often think that change is a threat, forcing them to go back through the pain an effort of finding out what they will do for the organization going forward.
There is a lot of talk of Gen Y, digital natives redefining how we work and live our lives, and how this makes older generations redundant, or even irrelevant. This just doesn’t ring true; wasn’t the same thing said about about Gen X and (gasp) even the baby boomers. The current changes we’re seeing do not represent the final transformation of society. Who would have thought of smart phones 50 years ago (though they are scarily like the communicators for the first series of Star Trek)? Who knows what technology will look like in the next 50 years? While Gen Y has more than a whiff of the arrogance of youth at the moment (something every generation is guilty of), pointing out that many folk in the older generations are reluctant to change, just wait a decade or so when Gen Z (or whatever we end up calling it) arrives on the scene and Gen Y realizes that their digital native skills no longer matter. The world will have moved on, but most of Gen Y (or Gen X, or the baby boomers) will not have.
Our problem is that change has become a major business driver, and the pace of change has increased to the point where we are seeing radical change within a single generation. We’re all racing to find the edge that will get us on top of the competition. This ranges from small innovations, tweaking and optimizing our business or creating new product categories, through to wholesale market creation; remember that Microsoft came out of nowhere to blindside IBM in the 80s, and then Google did the same thing to Microsoft in the 00s.
If change is the driver in our organizations, but our organizations are resistant to change, then the biggest challenge we face in not technical but the strategy we use to manage change. It’s quite easy to define a technically and economically possible solution that would provide a boost to our business, or even deliver a step change in capability. But if we cannot get our organization to deliver and then adopt the solution, all our work will be for naught.
The first thing I think we need to do is realize that change is an ongoing processes, and so should change management be. It’s not a one shot affair where we hire some external organization to come in and transform us, and it’s not something we should only worry about every two to four years. The second is that we need to make change something our people want to do rather than something we do to them.

Toyota led the way here some time ago with the creation of quality circles and empowering employees to take responsibility for improving what they and their team do. I remember a trip to one of the Toyota plants in the southern US where I was lucky enough to see one of the production lines. Off to the side were stacks of different colored tubs holding the seat belt parts, one color for each car model. Apparently only a few weeks before they had been stacking the parts by type, but this lead to mistakes when workers grabbed the wrong parts. The solution, thought of and implemented by the team on the shop floor, was to head down to Walmart, buy some tubs, and to presort the parts into tubs by car model. Rather than having to make a bunch of decisions on which type of seat belt and fittings to grab for the next car, they make a single decision on which tub to grab based on the car model. (The LEAN folk here tell me that this is a common sort of story.) The team on the shop floor defined themselves in terms of what they were going to improve today when they went into work, looking for opportunities to innovate rather than resisting it.
So what does this mean for the IT department? No matter how important our success is to the success of the company as a whole, IT is a cost center; value is created at the business coal face, not in the IT department. It’s not our job to deploy the new Enterprise 2.0 solution that will revolutionize the business and then force the business to change. We need to focus on the users, rather than thinking in terms of technologies and IT assets, understand the challenges they are facing and provide them with tools and techniques that they can use to innovate themselves. IT as facilitator rather than asset manager. Or as I heard in the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum the other day, give them they structure they want and focus on managing the flow rather than trying to force them to do something a particular way.
Modern IT provides us with a wealth of opportunities that our current asset centric approach to prevents us from leveraging. We need to get out of our offices and cubes and embed ourselves where the workers are, where the value is created. If we create an environment where we define ourselves in terms of how we will help the organization evolve, rather than in terms of the assets we manage, then we can convert change from an enemy into an advantage. Our team will wake up every morning eager to get into work, just like the team on the shop floor at Toyota.

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