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Alligators and swamps: 10 rules for change

“When you're up to your arse in alligators, it's sometimes hard to remember that you're here to drain the swamp.”

I’ve had many conversations about making change happen within organisations. There’s so much noise going on (especially if it’s a problematic customer-facing process) that you spend all your time trying to put failures right and don’t have time to fix the root cause (product design, business process, skills, whatever). Likewise you’re pretty much guaranteed a failure if you put people onto the change project who aren’t ultimately responsible for the new process, who aren’t skilled and talented, who can’t make decisions on design and implementation, and who are tied up in doing their day jobs.

Assuming you are addressing the right opportunity/problem (and that's a whole subject on its own), here are 10 rules learned from running or helping several organisations to effect change in difficult circumstances:
  1. The best person to lead a change project is the person who will run the new process afterwards. Failing that, get someone even more qualified and powerful, not less, to be your change agent. Sitting on a governance committee is not enough.
  2. Give the change leader the power to decide as much as possible, and have fast access to higher decision-makers when necessary. There is no value-add and much cost from constantly briefing and waiting on uninvolved decision-makers.
  3. The project team should be drawn from the best people in the organisation, the ones who will drive the new way, and will likely hold leadership roles in it. Don’t staff projects with your third-rate cast-offs. Don’t rely on contractors for roles that should be held by business experts; use contractors to fill gaps in the operational teams.
  4. Like any major change proposal, nothing will happen unless you dedicate resources (people, time, money) to make the change happen. If you're serious, pull them out of their day jobs for the duration of the project. Expecting people to design and implement a major change while doing their day jobs rarely works, especially when their core process is broken. 
  5. The change leader and the change team must be indoctrinated into the new way of thinking, and become passionate, effective advocates as well as good at their jobs.
  6. Don’t treat change as an IT project, even if largely based around new IT systems. It’s a business project. The best businesses train their business managers in smart project management, process design and change management. These are not IT skills, they are business skills. Having said that, good business-savvy IT people can make great business change people if you follow these rules.
  7. Be ambitious but realistic about what you can achieve with the money, time, resources and ownership support you have available to you. Despite knowing this, I too have sometimes fooled myself or been pressured into going ahead on over-ambitious projects without adequate resources, with predictable results. Heroism, hope and luck are not reliable ingredients for success.
  8. Avoid highly structured project management methodologies. I recommend a much more agile, low-tech approach. Don’t try to specify everything before you start. Have a high level “architectural” concept to guide you, but get going!
  9. Keep the alligators at bay, but focus on the swamp draining. Don’t worry about dealing with the current stream of problems - that’s the job of the operational teams. Put in place some holding plan, but concentrate your best resources on creating the new model that will work. Get it working, put all new customers, and new transactions onto it, transfer all customers without problems onto it, and then, last, not first, deal with the problem backlog.
  10. Notwithstanding rule 9, try to deliver value quickly, in chunks, rather than going for the big bang. Incremental success builds support.
  11. Bonus rule: communicate, communicate, communicate; up, down, across, inward, outward.  Sell the vision, tell people what you're doing and why, keep them informed on progress, and as soon as practicable, let them know if and how it will affect them.
First published June 2008