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Archive for Change Management:

November 21, 2010

By jleffron


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Change Management, Learning

Snake Oil, Skepticism, and the End of Discourse

There must be something going on in the hive-mind that is the internet.  I’ve run across a half dozen references to skepticism in the past half hour.  All of which reminded me of something I wrote a while back.

It’s not any easy thing to be a skeptic.  It’s quite common for someone to express skepticism about something new, and then find themselves in a hailstorm of irate responses along the lines of:  “Oh, they’re just hidebound old fogies who can’t accept innovations or new ideas.”   Maybe, though, there’s a reason they are skeptics.  Maybe they are all for innovation, but are simply asking the right questions because they are just a little better and faster at analysis than the average bear.

People like new ideas (or even old ideas that have been dressed up in bright new clothes).  There is always that hope that there is that magic solution, that the “next great and wonderful thing” will actually live up to it’s promise and transform the world, or at least the workplace.

So “New” sells.  It sells books and products, it generates prestige…  And those who are clever enough to say “yeah, this is great in concept, but how are you going to handle…?”  tend to be dismissed as too old fashioned or resistant to change simply because it is human nature to want that new solution to be perfect; we like the fantasy (or cling to the hope) that somewhere there is a ‘silver bullet’ solution.

This is a big problem, because it removes the opportunity to address those potential pitfalls at an early point of adoption, often preventing bigger issues downstream.  We’ve all seen the “next great thing” fail to live up to it’s promise in the workplace, in education, in technology. And some of those failed initiatives need not have failed, perhaps would not have failed, had both the proponents and the skeptics sorted through issues at the front end instead of writing each other off as unrealistically naive and cynical respectively.

All of which begs the question: When did phrases like “Can you give me some data?”, “How does this really work”, or “There are some issues that need to be addressed”, start being heard as wholesale rejection of an idea?  When did human minds become so narrow (or egos so fragile to criticism) that the standard response is that anything but absolute acceptance is deemed as condemnation?

It points to a larger problem – the end of discourse.

Fingers could be pointed a lot of ways in this.

Educational systems that purport that they want students to “learn how to learn” but don’t teach them logic or rhetoric or any of those other old fashioned topics that allow for examination and conversation around all angles of a situation?

The business world, where the model has shifted from building businesses that will last and thrive for years to come, to merely seeking to make the best possible numbers for this quarter.  In this situation people want a quick win; there is no time for, and no interest in, real long-term viable solutions.  This model is not only systematically starving and killing off the flock of geese that lay the golden eggs, it also effectively puts employees in a perpetually defensive posture where opposing views or mention of flaws are viewed as threats to one’s career.

Regardless the origins, this is a problem that needs to be addressed because it is bigger than “Is [insert innovation here] good or bad or neutral?”   If we can’t ask real questions, it’s going to be pretty tough to distinguish between “snake oil” and a good idea that needs refinement.  A lot of good ideas are going to get lost in the shuffle if there is not room to ask the hard questions that will take those ideas beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm to a point where they can reach their full potential.

November 19, 2010

By Michael Effron


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Change Management, IBP/S&OP, Learning

The (Re)Learning Organization: Beyond the Training Department

With all due respect to Peter Senge, I think that in many cases we don’t need a “Learning Organization” as much as we need a “Re-Learning Organization”. Please don’t misunderstand this and think that I don’t believe we should create Learning Organizations, I can be a die-hard idealist and I love the vision of

…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

But I think that this overlooks the time dimension of business.

Everything Changes. Everything Remains the Same

As I look back over the past 25 years, I realize how many things I’ve learned through a series of transformative business initiatives. Quality Improvement (what is now called Six Sigma), Problem Solving and Decision Making, S&OP/Integrated Business Planning (IBP). All of these were major corporate initiatives which provided extraordinary benefits.

And then we moved on. Some retired, some moved to other companies, some were downsized. And the corporation remained.

The belief seems to be that the learning remained with the company. But the reality is that the learning remained with the people, and the company only retained the learning as much as it retained the people, and perhaps even only when it retained the people in the same roles.

We see the symptoms of this all the time. “The process degraded.” “We used to be good at this.” “We stopped doing that years ago.” Is there any less need or opportunity for six sigma improvements, or integrated business planning? I don’t believe so, but those people moved on, and the organization lost the learnings and ability.

I think we forget that the things we learned were acquired over time through many projects and initiatives. I look back to how I learned Continuous Improvement. A corporate initiative was started, sponsored at the highest levels. It wasn’t for any noble reasons, it was because one of customers told our CEO that, compared to all of his other suppliers, we had the worst quality. This put the wind in our sails, and we were off on an important journey. An outside professional came in and taught a group of us the principles and mechanics. We started up some pilot projects, and each of us was given the time needed to complete them. More importantly, we learned through our mis-steps and our successes. Our professional returned and gave us more education, and we became internal experts who could train others as a part of their job. We could have received this training on day 1, but without the prior experiential learning we would not have been successful. And through our own trial and error, we truly learned how to both do and teach. We launched more projects to expand the knowledge, experience, and benefits until three years later we touched nearly every employee in the company.

And then I moved on into another role, and stopped teaching and coaching others in the process and techniques. The company stopped creating new internal experts, until finally the next generation of people had no one to teach them the language, the techniques, the mind-set, and the benefits. And the process faded away. Not because the processes and cultural improvements we put into place were no longer needed, we simply forgot to teach the new people what we had learned.

A Re-Learning Organization

I would posit that in this age of increased mobility and short tenures with companies, the biggest barrier to corporate success is the loss of what the company has learned. We need to create re-learning organizations. Of course it’s impossible to transfer all internal knowledge, but we need to identify those critical learnings that need to be sustained, transferred, and enhanced; starting with the learnings from business initiatives such as Six Sigma, IBP/S&OP, and Marketing Excellence. And who can identify these critical learnings and acquired knowledge? This clearly resides with the people doing the work, either the internal experts who lived through the initiatives, or the functional experts who have learned or developed the “tricks of the trade”.

To become a Re-Learning organization, our companies need to make a few key investments. Most importantly, they need to allow employees to spend time learning, from both the delivery and acquisition sides. At it’s best it would look like what Senge described, ” …organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire…” But at a minimum, they need to set the expectation and provide the time for the experts to share their knowledge, and for all employees to learn in both formal and informal situations. Additionally, companies need to make their leaders accountable for the learning of their people. This should not simply be passed on to the training department to manage for everyone, the experiential knowledge resides in the minds of the functional employees and cannot be captured in a training manual or PowerPoint presentation. The functional leaders need to continually provide the opportunities for experiential learning, both within their function and cross-functionally. While we cannot continually create the implementation experience for everyone, we can provide the projects or events through with experiential learning will occur.

Re-Learning Realized

You might think that this is just idealistic thinking, but I’ve seen companies succeed with this, and experienced it personally as well. In one business, the S&OP process was sustained and improved, even as General Managers came and left. They had one individual was the torchbearer for over ten years, and he coached each new GM and any other new employee in the “way that the business run’s through S&OP”. In another business, the Six Sigma process was in use throughout every department even though the original implementation occurred many years earlier. Here the torch was passed to new members of the leadership team. These examples highlight the two elements that I see time and again in Re-Learning organizations: a deeply held corporate belief that the “things we learned and the way we do things” are integral to the business’ success; and a torchbearer who ensures that everyone is taught the key learnings when they join, and then applies those learnings in the course of their work.

Building a Re-Learning Organization isn’t difficult, it simply requires a clear view of what needs to be sustained, and the personal leadership and commitment to sustain it.

November 18, 2010

By jleffron


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Change Management, Learning

Should it Scale? Non-scalability as a reality, not a problem to be solved

I was reading a post by Bob Marshall, nodding in agreement with much of what he wrote.  I’m not in the software development business, but I often see the  same problems that he describes relating to good work:   [those who] “know how but can’t anyway because of where they work, who they work for and because of all the monkey-wrenches being lobbed into their daily routines…”   He was speaking of the software industry, but what he describes is not an uncommon issue, in any field.

I’ve run into similar scenarios, and one common factor among them is the general perception that every solution, every process, every approach, ought to “scale”.   Since, in most business circles, continuous growth is viewed as not just good, but essential, the desire for universal (and infinite) scalability of processes and procedures is understandable from the standpoint of efficiency.  Scaling may well streamline administrative functions (legal, HR, finance), but it is important to recognize that if certain aspects of a business are readily scalable, others (e.g. Operations, R&D), perhaps, are not.  This non-scalability may not indicate a problem to solve, but a natural attribute of how human beings and communities really work. Companies see themselves as a single expansive entity (and therfore embrace the model that universal, one-size-fits-all procedures are beneficial to organizational effectiveness), when in fact they are often effectively a bunch of boutique organizations welded together in a common enterprise.  If you talk with people in different functional groups of an organization, you know this; each group sounds like it works for a completely different company than the others.  What are often called silos are really the front doorsteps of the different small communities.  And how one group learns or produces will not translate directly to how another group does. Whether the boutique (or community) model is most “efficient” on an algorithmic scale, isn’t the point.  The point is that it is how human beings actually interact.   No matter how much you scale up an organization there will always be points of functional disconnect between groups in their specializations and one-size-fits all codification of the larger organization.  Humans will continue to interact in small connected groups and build their own, most effective approaches.  Universally scaled-up practices, while efficient, will not necessarily prove effective with respect to quality or productivity within the smaller, organically formed segments of an organization. Maybe the key to bypassing the “monkey-wrenches” that stifle good work is to recognize that learning design or software design (or any other business activity) should not be presumed to be infinitely scalable.  It’s always going to be a balance between efficiency and effectiveness.  So keep the uniform approaches in the arenas where efficiency matters, but also determine where effectiveness is the greater goal than efficiency, and shape the policies to match how the work really happens.