Changing a Culture happens one tiny procedure at a time

oil_tankerWhenever I am involved in the deployment of an enterprise-wide system I’m reminded of an analogy attributed to Buckminster Fuller (You remember Bucky. He’s the fellow who came up with the idea of geodesic domes.) Anyway, the story is about turning a ship. You see, when a ship is very large, say the size of a super-tanker, the size of the rudder to turn it must be correspondingly large. The problem is, that a ship such as this underway causes so much water pressure on the rudder, that the force required to push it against the water to turn the ship is incredibly large. So, someone very clever invented the “trim-tab” A trim-tab is a little rudder on the rudder and it seems that if you push that rudder in the opposite direction you want to go, the main rudder can be moved outwards with almost no effort at all.

Ok, cute story, but what does it have to do with project management software and enterprise systems? Well, everything.

The biggest issue with deploying an enterprise system is not the perfect selection of functions against requirements, it’s changing the corporate culture. For anyone working in a medium to large sized organization, you know that comparing the intractability of a corporate culture to the momentum of a supertanker is not at all inappropriate.

Over the past few years I have seen many, many fine individuals break their spirit over this issue. They know they’ve picked a product that will answer their firm’s needs but are unable to get it implemented throughout the organization. No matter how much force they mustered, it was never enough to ‘turn the ship’. The selected software ends up either completely abandoned or being used just by the core implementation team, another element to add to a fractured systems environment.

In those organizations where an enterprise project control system has been successfully implemented, inevitably, the corporate culture was changed a step at at time.

Operational procedures are business’s ‘trim tabs’ for corporate change. Now, lest you leap forward and think, ‘Great, tomorrow I’ll get started on a new procedures manual with hundreds of procedures to make people comply with our new corporate culture.’ or that you think you can mandate a corporate culture change by simply making a procedure called “change your cultural habits”, think again.

The changes that will be most effective will be insidious yet impactful. I was recently privileged to be in a conference session with a number of experts in the deployment of enterprise-wide project systems. A couple of their comments are worth noting. One of these experts described how their organization had designed a “knowledge base” of lessons learned on past projects. For some time the knowledge base had been established yet no one ever seemed to have the time to contribute to it. If there were lessons being learned, they weren’t being made available to future project managers.

The expert in this organization (you’d recognize this three-letter firm if I mentioned it), decided on a small change in procedure. Inside the contract for the project management consultants, a new line was added, identifying the contribution of lessons learned to the knowledge base as a deliverable part of every future contract. Hmmm, guess what? Suddenly every project management consultant seemed to find some new time. No contribution, no final payment for the contractor. This wasn’t a big corporate decision, Moses was not required to come down the mountain with stone tablets, it was a little one-line change to a contract template that turned the ship… a trim tab.

The other expert in this session had project managers who were not contractors, they were employees. Holding back payment in this scenario could not be one of the options. In this firm, a similar impact was made. On the project manager job performance review form, a new line was added. Project managers were now to be graded in their contribution to the project management process. Surprise, surprise, within a few months, project managers seemed suddenly interested in a process that they would have been hard pressed to identify in the past… trim tab.

What I like about both of these examples is that they started surreptitiously. All too often, when organizations attempt to implement a system company-wide, it starts in one of two ways. If the system originates from the mid-levels of the organization, then it rarely comes with the authority to deploy with every department and every user and often stalls within a close-held group. If the system originates from a high-level of the organization, then all-too often it comes with too heavy handed an approach. While upper management almost always has the authority to impose a structure, if it tries to impose a change in culture without considering the human impact, it runs the risk of creating “covert saboteurs”, staff who pay lip service to the new system yet make every effort in the background to stick to the old ways.

Culture change can be a sensitive thing. If imposed too quickly or too drastically, employees may feel threatened, their familiar world turned upside down. The most impactful changes are usually those which sneak into the system and the best way to deliver those changes is through small changes in procedures. Changes that at first glance don’t seem to change anything significant.

If you’re interested in change in your own organization, start looking for those trim tab opportunities. Ask yourself what change in function or practice would result in behaviour that would contribute to the deployment of our enterprise-wide system. Then, before implementing that change, ask yourself what the likely reaction would be to implementing that procedural change. If the reaction is likely to be major, you’ve not found a trim tab, you’re trying to push the rudder itself.

Of course, sometimes there’s simply no choice but to go with the brute strength approach. For example, organizations faced with a shortening calendar before the year 2000, find themselves implementing complete overhauls or replacements of core organizational systems. Where changes might have been better implemented over time, these firms must drive quickly, pushing the system in where it is required. If this is the scenario you’re facing, then other methods can mitigate the potential negative impact. Skilled ERP implementors use focus groups and familiarization sessions in part so that nervous recipients of the new system can express their concerns and have their issues answered by people with the control to deliver answers.

No matter what your situation, keep looking for those unique and powerful opportunities to enhance the situation in your own organization through the smallest of changes, the trim tab.