Overcoming Organizational Inertia

15 July 2004

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Last week I had a one-on-one meeting with the CIO of one of my clients, a major financial services firm. During our conversation, Ron asked for advice about transforming his organization. By this time, I’d been working with Ron’s team for about six months, and the team had made remarkable progress.

As part of the diagnostics phase of this engagement, we gave them templates that they used to gather profiles on more than 50 of their IT projects. From this sample, IT productivity trends lit up across the organization. It was a beautiful thing — this “health check” showed their proficiency across several major lines of business. Their projects included new development, minor and major enhancements, and package implementation projects like SAP, Oracle, and Siebel.

As expected, there were strong pockets of performance. In other areas, their practices weren’t achieving the results they wanted. For example, one major initiative was about six months late and overran its budget by about US $10 million. While there were several reasons for this, a poor estimate was most of the problem.

There was also a large overlap between the requirements phase and design/coding — the net effect was a lot of rework. It showed up in higher bugs during testing — about four times the industry norm. But all these things were correctable. (Right now, three of my clients are dealing with exactly the same organizational dynamics. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which the main character played by Bill Murray wakes up to find out that it’s the same day, over and over again.)

The good news was that many of the problems could be avoided in the next release. A game plan was put in place. But changing the culture would be tricky. In addition to raising individual skills, Ron wanted to build “institutional skills.” This would mean that the company would have core practices and knowledge frameworks in place — an infrastructure with reusable templates — so it would be less vulnerable to staff turnover.

Yet one burning question for Ron was how to accelerate the pace of change. The problem was inertia. Habits and practices in this company were deeply ingrained in many ways — radical change all at once might not be practical or easily sustainable. I told Ron that a metaphor to think about was one’s own personal health.

Suppose you’d spent years developing bad eating habits. You also worked long hours routinely, skipped exercise all the time, and didn’t get adequate rest. If the result was that you’d become severely overweight and unhappy, one option for radical change might be something like gastric bypass surgery. It might work, but it could also kill you. I told Ron that companies sometimes try the corporate equivalent of this by outsourcing everything after years of unhealthy habits. There are times that this might work; other times doing it poorly just about kills them.

Another approach is to eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest — one day at a time. Most folks don’t like to hear that. As a culture, we want the quick fix. Making a tough lifestyle change is hard. It often takes an honest look in the mirror, and then admitting to problems with less defensiveness and denial, and then making genuine lifestyle changes. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare.

I said to Ron that he could consider changing every project and training everyone, but that’s not realistic either. Or you could “seed” the organization with new practices.

In many ways, the companies’ own project profiles yielded answers. Some were pinning the scale with high productivity. There were best practices right under their noses. Other projects were outright stinkers. It was clear what not to do there.

But in terms of “seeding” the organization, I recommended that Ron borrow ideas from one of my favorite books, The Tipping Point — How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell describes how certain types of people play critical roles — these are folks known as “Connectors” and “Mavens.” For example, Paul Revere was such a person. He knew just about everybody (being a connector) and he was also someone with extensive information about the British (as a maven). He knew what was going on and whom to tell. When Revere embarked on his midnight ride, change happened rapidly. Another colonist, William Dawes, also made a midnight ride. But not being a connector and a maven, he didn’t have the same results or subsequent notoriety.

I told Ron that it would be wise to leverage Gladwell’s ideas, tailored to the IT organization. It’s possible to coach people who would be connectors and mavens, and have them “seed” the organization on its top 10 projects (the ones with big money riding on them). That, in my mind, is an efficient way to accelerate change.

We’d already established the “present state” of IT productivity across 50+ projects and compared them against industry trends. The idea would be to turn the connectors and mavens loose, shifting the dynamics of the organization, one project at a time, and then measuring again against the initial baseline. (The process reminded me of the period when my cholesterol dropped 50 points in three months and then another 50 points after another three months as I made lifestyle changes.)

This would apply if you were making changes internally, but the same logic applies for companies that choose to outsource.

Ron went on vacation and promised to pick up Gladwell’s book for the beach. It’s the only piece of reading that I’d recommend for vacation that might be remotely work related. Word is out among the direct reports that Michael Mah gave their boss homework over his vacation. I wouldn’t quite put it that way. It’s more like getting inspiration while having fun along the way. The more fun I have planting new ideas in my mind, the less I call it work.

Getting better work done, faster, with less effort, is really what productivity is all about. The same applies to management. Turning a large organization that has lots of inertia is hard. But planting seeds using connectors and mavens is easier. In time, others witness success and want in on the action — they copy their friends. When this happens, change starts to accelerate throughout the organization. Then, you’ve successfully tipped the scales.

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

© 2004 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved.