Coming out of business school, somebody once told me, “If you design a solution correctly, everybody can be a winner.” It was up to the solution designer to capture every user’s requests, wants, and needs and to piece them together into a solution that creates high value for all of them. Soon after, I entered the real world of system implementation and I soon realized that this advice was purely, 100%, unequivocally wrong.
In the real world of solution design and implementation, executive management, middle management, and rank-and-file often have very different and competing goals. Executive managers typically value reporting and metrics. They want to capture every piece of data that might possibly be used for some type of analytical reporting at some point in the future. Executives tend to drive systems towards analytically powerful, but overly-complex systems.
On the other hand, rank-and-file employees typically value efficiency, ease of use, and collaboration. They want a tool that actually speeds up their job and helps keep them on the same page with other team members. Rank-and-file employees tend to drive towards automated, efficient systems with very little analytical power and accountability. Middle Managers are usually trapped somewhere in between, having the unenviable task of reconciling one group to the other.
So what is a QuickBase developer to do? Far be it from me to offer a solution to probably the most difficult problem in change management; however, the following observations have been helpful to me.
Step 1: Accept Reality
First, I have found that after a new system is put in place users can be grouped into one of three categories:
- Winners: Users who gain high value from a system
- Losers: Users whose jobs will temporarily be made more difficult by the new system.
- Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers: Users who will gain some value from the system, but will also have some difficulty adopting it.
It is impossible to design a system where at least one user group does not face challenges. The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner we can design strategies to manage the effects of change on this group. This is very evident in sales automation systems. Most systems on the market are geared more towards executive management and middle management. It is usually an uphill battle to explain to a sales rep, who is used to capturing their sales quickly on a paper form and letting an admin deal with organizing the data, that they gain value from now having to logon to an online system they don’t yet understand in order to enter their leads. Or even worse, now they need to fill out a paper sheet on the road and re-enter it into the fancy new sales system. But what about the value they perceive from having a place to manage their contacts and follow ups? My experience is that most sales reps already have sophisticated and effective ways for managing this for themselves.
So let’s face it, management are the winners in most sales systems, not the sales rep. If you were to build a sales system geared towards sales reps, management would most likely have to make major tradeoffs in the type of reporting they will see. Still not convinced? A major goal of sales systems is pipeline reporting. What value does a sales rep get from having to login to the system and update their “Expected Close Dates” every week? In this instance, I posit they get limited value. Let’s be honest with ourselves that each group expereinces solution changes very differently, so we can plan how to maximize overall value to the organization as a whole.
Step 2: Choose Your Winners
Your next step is choose which user group will be your winners. In some cases, this will already be chosen for you. If you are hired by executive management and they are providing your requirements, you have no choice but to gear a system towards this user group. In other cases, it will be less clear who your winners should be.
Who is the optimal user group to build a system around? I don’t think there is a single right answer to this, as this is largely determined by the organizational situation. My personal view that no matter what user group you target as the Winners, it is often optimal to convince executive management that they accept the role of Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers. This creates an environment where management is accepting trade-offs, resulting in a more balanced system.
Step 3: Maximize Value to the Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers
Next, you should try to create as much value for the Sorta’ Winners/Sorta’ Losers as possible. The goal of course is to win as many of these users over to your side as possible. It is the battle for the heart and minds of this user group where the true success of the system is decided. For QuickBase, this is easier because it was designed to be simple yet powerful for end users and it also enables them to create their own solutions.
Step 4: Plan for your Losers
Best case scenario, these users will grumble about the system, but comply. More often, they will vocally complain about the system, but comply. Worst case scenario, they will actively sabotage the implementation of the new system. The absolutely worst thing you can do with this group is ignore them or refuse to accept that they exist, though this often seems the path of least resistance. Their anger will grow and possibly spread to other user groups. I have found it helpful to listen to their issues and actively communicate the benefits of the system to the organization as a whole. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least they feel listened to. I also try to make concessions when possible and keep them in the communication loop. I have had varied results with this, but it always turns out better if I acknowledge them.
What do you think? How do you handle change management, especially user groups who will lose from your system?
Also, if you are interested in this sort of stuff, you should read Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter, whose ideas I borrowed freely.
About James Cosman
James is a Solution Architect at MCF Technology Solutions, a leading provider of cloud computing services (most notably QuickBase). His core competency lies in translating stated business needs into tangible, value creating applications. His MCF team is based in the great city of Houston, Texas and he holds an MBA from Rice University. Go Owls!