Sep 072011

Enduring, but wearing down

Would work be any different if we stopped looking at change as something that primarily happens to us?

What if we took responsibility for change, and not just reacting to it?

Governance and change management are important practices in running a business, in managing a department or in leading a team.

Meanwhile, it is easy to feel like the victim when overwhelming requests and obligations leave us struggling to survive the onslaught.

At best, we just want some stability and not to feel so out-of-control.

Change happens

The Industrial Revolutions and 100 years of mass production taught us a lot about management. To keep the machine running, we look for consistency, repeatability and reliability. Standard practices cut the cost of communication and coordination and help the human system function more effectively. It’s all good.

And as good students of Taylorism, we have applied that learning to software engineering and IT governance. We try to manage change… and we try to manage demand.

Of course, it’s no secret that “change happens” in spite of our efforts to manage it. While businesses want to adapt quickly, codifying processes in IT systems produces constraints that never seem to adapt as fast as we like.

So our language evolved to include flexibility and empowerment in our governance and change management processes. We produce channels for surfacing ideas and even set aside time for people to work on “change projects”.

Meanwhile, all the empowerment in the world doesn’t compel anyone to lead or to take responsibility for causing powerful or effective change.

Not simply a matter of perspective

In speaking of a need for change in IT and the preexisting ideas businesses sometimes have about IT capabilities, Eric Brown wrote:

The IT group will never be more than the organization allows it to be. The CIO can try to morph their IT group into something different…and lord knows every CIO should be trying…but until the organization allows the IT group to change we’ll be at an impasse.

Change is good

I accept Eric’s position, though mine differs in a few ways. In a command and control world, the status quo is a constraint on the capacity for any CIO to produce change, even where everybody ostensibly wants it to happen.

The concern I have about this position is that it leaves open the possibility for readers to take on the posture of the victim.

If we start with the assessment that this is a matter of perspective, we’re lost. I’ve seen IT organizations defend their value in “keeping the lights on”, while their business customers are frustrated with what they see as rigid structures and low throughput of the kind of value that they really want from IT.

All our insisting on the value we produce doesn’t change our internal customers’ assessment of us. Only producing value for them (in their assessment, not ours) would change that assessment, and then only with time.

Taking responsibility

In the same post, Eric also wrote:

You want to know why IT is the way it is?   Because that’s the way the organization wants them to be.

The implication is that the “organization” can compel us into this position.

But just as we can’t strictly force someone else to commit or compel their responsibility, neither can the “organization” compel IT to embrace an orientation toward producing value that we don’t choose to accept.

Simply saying that IT “is the way that it is” has implications of its own. Either:

  1. We interpret IT as if it were some “real” thing, with objective and observable properties that are fixed external to ourselves
  2. We take responsibility for having produced it to be that way. (To be responsible is to declare yourself to be the cause of the outcomes you produce.)

In the first case, the “facts” about IT are beyond our influence. Perhaps we ought to give up and find a new line of work in that event.

In the second case, it is not “the organization” that compels IT to be the way it is… we did it intentionally or we allowed it to evolve by inattention or irresponsibility. Either way, we now accept that interpretation and it shapes our thinking and actions from here on.

My starting point is that IT is not “the way that it is”, as some fixed, permanent and objective characterization imposed by others on us. Instead, we are not yet what we are going to be.

Do you see what I'm saying?

Vision is the missing ingredient

Producing a different assessment of IT requires first that we have our own interpretation of the way we want it – we need a vision of the future that is better than the status quo.

We listen for the interpretations others have, but we do not have to accept that those interpretations are either 1) fixed and permanent, or 2) outside our influence.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge called creative tension a “rubber band stretched between our current situation and our vision”. If the organization sees us one way, and we want to be seen another, we have two choices if we are ever going to ease the creative tension:

  1. Give up on our vision and accept their interpretation
  2. Produce plans and act to move current reality toward our vision

We are ultimately responsible for either outcome. In the first, we can take the posture of the victim. In the second, we begin the move from managing change to leading change.

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