21 January, 2016

Constituencies of change - be prepared to rip the plaster off.

Two recent conversations about how to drive change drew me to observe that any change agent often has to deal with and manage several constituencies:
  • The early zealots: eager proponents and advocates, but they may want you to fire everyone else who doesn’t ‘get it’ straight away.
  • The nervous approvers: They need selling on the rationale, and are nervous about the change, but consultation, communication, confidence, consistency, and constancy of purpose will bring them aboard. They get very anxious when others don’t ‘get it’, and expect massive efforts to keep everyone happy.
  • The passive acceptors: They may question the rationale first, but, as the change becomes embedded, just accept it and forget about it.
  • The late converts: They fight the change tooth and nail, but as they see things start to work, they become its most ardent enthusiasts, and stop worrying about those who have yet to see the light.
  • The smart leavers: Strangely, these often often understand the rationale for change, but for various reasons, it’s not for them, and they move themselves on to new jobs (where they often adopt new ways anyhow). You remain on good terms with them.
  • The bitter hangers-on: These are the ones who hate the change, and constantly bemoan it. They’ll never be converted, yet they stay on, becoming increasingly bitter and twisted, undermining everything and everyone, and constantly demanding your attention to their grievance.
It’s important to figure out which constituency someone is in, and manage them accordingly. If you’ve got a bitter hanger-on who can’t be turned into a late convert, try to turn them into a smart leaver. Otherwise, put them out of their misery - get them out as fairly, humanely and quickly as possible. The success and well-being of the team, the change and the business are more important than wasting time and energy on a cause you can’t win. It’s like removing a sticking plaster - a quick rip is less painful in the end.

First posted 28 March 2008

13 October, 2015

Ada Lovelace - IT superhero

© Sydney Padua

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.  Ada, Lady Lovelace, is widely recognised as the world's first computer programmer.  Born in 1815, Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet, who abandoned Ada and her mother just after Ada was born. Probably in reaction to Byron's "poetic madness", Ada's mother insisted Ada be taught "rational" subjects, and she received tutoring from some of the finest intellects in Britain. She was, by many accounts, a mathematical whizz.

Ada became a friend and collaborator of Charles Babbage, and she devised the programs for his Analytical Engine.  Although Babbage's machines were never built, recent experiments have shown they would have worked, and he is regarded as the inventor of the first programmable general computer; hence Ada's honorific as the first computer programmer.  She described herself as an "analyst (and metaphysician)".

When I first started in IT, the gender ratio was much more balanced than it is today, largely because IT was a new industry that had to take bright brains wherever it found them.  There was always a strong contingent of bright women, but over time, the gender ratio changed dramatically, and IT morphed into an male geekdom.  Fortunately that's changing again, and it's fantastic to see so many female IT engineers, leaders and entrepreneurs today. The world is full of budding Ada Lovelaces.

Which brings me to Ada Lovelace, IT superhero.  If you haven't already tried them, have a look at Sydney Padua's comic novels about Lovelace and Babbage.  Steam punk, derring-do, Victorian melodrama, and guest appearances from the great little hero himself, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  And for the geeks of whatever gender, working animations of Babbage's computer. Enjoy.

22 August, 2015

Setting the tone

Some staff have an unfortunate sense of what’s appropriate. How you react will set the tone of your organisation. Your people will watch you closely to pick up that tone.
  • A customer mailing list file called “ratbags” (or somesuch). As soon as I saw it, I insisted the name be changed. There was some shame-faced bluster about it just being someone’s silly sense of humour, but a glowering look stopped that. The word went out - always treat customers respectfully.
  • Walking past some staff drinking wine at their desks in the middle of the afternoon, I came back. simply said “That’s not appropriate” and walked off. The wine was gone in a minute and the staff later apologised.
  • On hearing that I wanted a more effective approach to late payment for electricity supply rather than simply cutting off customers’ power, the team leader responsible for credit control and payments proclaimed that “they’re all liars, and it’s the only thing that works”. I said I doubted that, and asked him to produce an analysis of the past year’s late payers and their frequency. Out of 40,00 customers, approximately 10% had been referred for late payment - most only once, and only 200 were chronic bad payers. He acknowledged he was wrong, but didn’t change his approach. He didn’t stay long and we made credit control part of a new customer service approach under a team leader who saw her job very differently, looking for ways to help customers not fall behind.
  • On hearing a product manager suggest that we make unsubstantiated claims in our product specifications, I respond “We don’t lie to customers.” On hearing the justification that “everyone else does it,” I reply “I doubt that, and in any case I don’t care. We don’t lie to customers.” That product manager didn’t last long either.
  • A product development team, given the challenge of designing a new antenna product platform at half the cost of the existing platform, started calling itself the CNA team which, on hearing for the first time, I learnt stood for “Cheap and Nasty Antenna”. My instant reaction: “You will drop that name immediately. I never want to hear it again. From now on, you are the EYE team - Elegant Yet Economic”. It not only set a different expectation for the new product platform; that name became a badge of honour and they still called themselves the EYE team years after that particular project had successfully finished.
You don’t always have to be quick on your feet; sometimes, a measured reaction is appropriate. Sometimes you’ll want to take a more consultative approach; asking people to think about the matter and decide what’s appropriate. But an instant reaction sends a very powerful message, as does a direct order, especially if you don’t usually act that way. Importantly, be consistent. And always remember, who you hire or fire, who you give an important project, who gets promoted, rewarded or praised - these all send important and closely-watched signals. What you do sets the tone.

Update in answer to Josh Forde
Jim : What do you think gave you the authority to do that with other people? We all have situations of seeing behaviour that we disagree with but don’t always feel we can effectively confront it or that we carry the respect to do so. It can’t be just about being the boss, it has to resonate with something larger than that?:
Good question, Josh. Actually being the boss does give you positional authority, but you use it carefully, and it only works well if it is backed up by personal authority - being assertive rather than authoritative, having confidence and conviction, and having earned respect for your past actions, knowledge and demonstrated behaviour. That’s something you build over time. Even if you don’t have it yet, it’s never too late to start. Most people recognise valid thinking when they see it, and although you may not persuade them this time, you’re building a personal ethos and reputation which will evolve into personal authority as a formal leader or as an important and respected influencer. And sometimes, all it takes is for you to speak out; you’ll be surprised at how often someone else jumps in to support you - the world is full of good people who want to do the right thing.

First published 28 November 2009