5 min read

Spare Change Anyone?

Spare Change Anyone?
South Park might be crude and blunt, but there are real messages there.

If you're interacting with people or systems and you're even slightly interestd in continuous improvement, you've probably tried to change things.

And changing things is hard.

I'm not sure if I'm good at creating lasting change, but as usual, I have plenty of thoughts on the matter anyway.

Wait, Now I Don't Have Any Change Left

I crave effectiveness, which indirectly means that I crave improvement.

When I see something that just doesn't seem like it's the best that it could be, then I start thinking of ways to improve it. It's just how my brain is wired. I imagine there are plenty of people just like me, never quite happy with the way things are, with plenty of ideas about how to make things better.

But ideas are basically free, are having one is only the very first step in a long and complicated journey.

When you're considering change you have to realise that systems and processes often have a real inertia attached to them. If you don't know how to overcome friction smoothly, you risk making a lot of people very annoyed by coming into their metaphorical yard and mucking up the place.

Even ignoring inertia, you also have to be aware that you can't just change things by forcing people to do what you say. It might seem like a great idea if you're in a position of power and people don't have a choice, but that sort of mandatory change won't make the difference that you're looking for, not really.

And you won't always be in a position of power.

So, it's best to figure out how to do it properly.

Can I Just Get Back Some Of That Change?

What I'm about to describe is are some high-level hints and tips that I've been giving to the newer people on my team, who have arrived in a system where there is plenty of opportunity for improvement, so of course they have all sorts of great ideas about how to make it better.

The first tip is to be cognizant of the fact that it is very hard to change something if people don't agree that there is a problem in the first place.

You might see an obvious inefficiency or flaw, but other people might have a very different perception of the situation. Fresh eyes often see old problems in a new light.

So, step one is to find a way to get everyone to agree that there is a problem to solve.

There are a number of ways you can go about doing this, but it's important to speak the language of the people involved. You might need to use data ("Hey, this system is 50% less efficient than it could be") or you might need to use anecdotal data ("Bob is having a hard time keeping his head above water each day"), but as long as you focus on describing and understanding the problem, you'll be fine.

Don't focus on your idea for the solution, or you'll be fighting an uphill battle right from the start.

Once you have alignment that there is a problem, then you can start hypothesising solutions, even if you might already have the perfect one in mind. Get people engaged, do some sort of brainstorming activity, canvas participants, learn about past failed attempts to improve, that sort of stuff.

Not only will you be bringing people along on the journey, which is important for engagement, you'll probably learn an incredibly amount of context. Assuming you actually listen.

With a problem clearly accepted and some potential solutions identified, the next thing is to be clear about how to measure actual improvement. This shouldn't be too hard, especially if you've defined the problem well, because you're probably just aiming to minimise or eliminate whatever its impact was.

Being able to critically and unambiguously evaluate solutions is important by itself, but it's even more important so that you can present the solution as an experiment.

This is the last hint, and it will reduce the friction that you will inevitably get, because an experiment can be questioned and evaluated and most importantly, stopped. This gives an element of psychological safety, and stating it up front is important, even if the fact that it was an experiment was implicit in your mind the whole time.

You definitely want to avoid the expectation that any change being made is just how things will be from this point forward, because nothing is scarier than the idea that things might become worse than they were before.

People will resist that sort of thing vehemently.

Our Workplace Is Going To End Up Just Like This

I've already alluded to friction, but it's time to go into that in a little bit more detail.

If you're trying to create meaningful change, you will have to know how to deal with people who want to resist that change.

Now, first things first, don't automatically assume that someone who is resisting change is wrong. Maybe they tried the same thing before and it didn't work or maybe they had a bad experience that is colouring their perception of the situation. You don't know.

Seek first to understand.

If it comes to light that the person is resistant because they don't accept that there is a problem, then that can be challenging. You either need to double down on the convincing them like you did other people, or you'll need to compromise, let them opt-out and use the experimental approach to win them over in the long-term.

If instead the person agrees that there is a problem, they just don't agree on the proposed solution, then you're actually in a better place. They are engaged and interested in solving the problem, which, if directed appropriately, can be a huge benefit to creating lasting change.

There are two obvious options here: either try to incorporate elements of their solution into the current experiment or put your ego aside and critically evaluate whether there solution is actually better and pivot to it instead.

Compromise works both ways after all.

If you can't elect an obvious solution from the options, then you might also have to run two experiments with the same success criteria, then use data to pick the best approach to apply moving forward. This can be expensive, but it's better than having one solution with poor support. Treat it like A/B Testing.

There is also the chance that a resistant person is just obstinate. Let's be honest, sometimes people are difficult.

This is probably the most challenging case to deal with and it usually involves either forcing them to participate (not fun) or letting them opt-out and then, if the change is actually for the better, assuming they will align over time as the weight of its benefits accumulate.

I Can Survive Solely On Change

It's implicit in anything that I write, but this blog post is intended to provoke thought, not necessarily to be a blueprint for success.

There is a definite gap in my leadership skillset about being an effective change agent, one which I plan to fill.

I've shepherded a decent amount of change in my time, but I think I've mostly used force of personality to do it. I'm a disciplined person who follows through on things, so once I get an idea in my head about a better way to do something, I just kind of start doing it and then bring people along with me, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

I'm not sure I'm following my own hints and tips consistently, but now that I've written this out and explored the topic, I'm definitely going to try harder and aim to not fall back into old habits.

You know, where I just stubbornly thunder forward assuming that everyone will fall in line because I am loud and annoying.

South Park and pun titles aside, homelessness is a real problem, and I can't even begin to imagine what that sort of lack of structure and safety feels like. Atlassian has a strong culture of giving back to the community and it was as simple matter to locate a reputable charity that might be able to help: Orange Sky. I have since assuaged my guilt over the title image and headers using the age-old process of giving money to a good cause.