Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

Jumping off the waterfall and moving to an Agile approach is an exercise in organizational change, and let's face it: human beings hate change. From the earliest caveman to his modern equivalent in the ratty "Evolve or Die" T-shirt, the whole of human history is a long, losing battle against change. Empires rise and fall, civilizations are built up and ground into the dust of the ages, but one constant remains: there's always someone at the top trying to get everyone to knock it off and be satisfied with the way things are.

Of course, few people will admit this dirty little secret, even to themselves. We like to think of ourselves as dynamic go-getters, innovators -- dare we say it? -- change agents! No one wants to be accused of perpetuating the status quo, making the same old mistakes in the same boring ways. The truth, though is that we like things in their places: this always goes there, my project dashboard is always green, and I always do that on Tuesdays at 11:00. It's simple, it's clean, and it means that we don't have to think about it anymore. Change it and you're making us work.

So what's a consultant to do? Our entire industry is built upon the myth that change is good, even desirable. We've convinced people that, not only do they need to change, but that they would enjoy it if they had any sense. We're supposed to thrive on change, to drive progress into organizations, to innovate as easily as breathing. We're catalysts in khakis.

So how do you do it without everyone hating you, or for that matter, without hating it yourself? Consultant, consult thyself.

First, acknowledge the change-hater within. Even the most dynamic people have to struggle not to let their minds grow stale. The innovation becomes the process, which becomes the best practice, which becomes "the reason nothing ever gets done around here." Most people are good for one truly disruptive innovation per decade; the rest of the time is spent polishing the message. Even professional catalysts can fall into a pattern of how they implement change that can be as inefficient as any static process. Recognize that you, too, are inclined to seek your own personal status quo, and then you can do something about it.

Use your experience, but don't live by it. Please, put the cookie cutter away. Your experience should be a foundation upon which you build to reach greater heights, not a pattern that you mindlessly repeat in every situation. Every new environment calls for a new approach, so before you whip out that template from your last project or start telling that long story about the last data warehouse you built in COBOL, ask yourself, "What's different about this situation and what's the best way to solve this problem this time?" Now you're ready to…

Start every day with a blank sheet of paper. Yesterday's best practice is tomorrow's case study for failure, so don't let the routine lull you to sleep. Every morning, look at what you're doing and ask yourself, "Isn't there a better way to do this? Can I make this simpler, faster, cleaner? Why are we doing all of this? What purpose is it supposed to serve, and is it serving it?" Even when you don't find anything to improve, the very exercise will keep your mind alert for new opportunities.

Take baby steps. The resistance you face will increase exponentially with the amount of disruption you cause, so start slowly. Remember, not everyone is as dynamic as you are. Even if your ultimate goal is to remake the company in your own image, start small and be prepared for resistance. As a sculpture is shaped by a thousand blows of the chisel, so an organization can be remade with a thousand small tweaks.

Finally, recognize that not all change is good. Change for its own sake may increase billable consulting hours, but it doesn't necessarily make things better for the company. Weigh the cost of your innovations before you make them and be humble enough to recognize that not all of your ideas are brilliant. If the pain of the change outweighs the immediate benefit, then let things be. You'll have another blazing flash of insight tomorrow.

Our friend in the ratty T-shirt is right: we must constantly improve if we plan to survive, in business as well as in life. But we want evolution, not revolution, and we want everyone to come along for the ride.
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