Don't Vaccinate Your Organization Against Success

Process Zeal May Be Hazardous to Organizational Health

Change is an inevitable part of the ongoing evolution and refinement of our processes. Learning to implement change successfully is a vital skill for people who would be leaders in our industry. This week, Payson Hall reflects on challenges to implementing new tools and processes and offers caution to would-be change agents: Be part of the remedy, not part of the disease.

While having dinner a while back, Cem Kaner and I talked about the toxic practice of offering too much process information to organizations or individuals that are not yet mature enough to appreciate them. Cem said something simple, profound, and thought provoking: "Not only are the recipients overwhelmed, but also the bad experience (frustration with too much, too fast) inoculates them against future process improvement."

The biological metaphor he invoked for organizations is interesting and instructive. When an organism perceives it is under attack by a foreign element like a bacterium or a virus, the body mobilizes to fight off the infection. This "immune response" is quite fascinating. When the body fights off an infection, it does it in several ways, using a variety of tools.

Some responses are general purpose, like causing a fever. Many infectious agents can only thrive in a narrow window of temperature. When the body detects an infection, increasing its temperature may slow reproduction of the bacteria, which buys time for a more focused and customized response.

Some responses are targeted, like the manufacturing of antibodies specifically designed to bind to the bacterial cells and mark them for destruction by other parts of the immune system.

Not only does the body fight off the infection in several ways, it also "remembers" the event and response at some level. The next time a similar bacterium is detected, the body calls upon the battle plan that worked previously and destroys the intruder much more effectively. This is why vaccines work. Introducing a weakened version of the foreign element into the body mobilizes the body's defenses and teaches the body how to respond. When the "real" agent shows up, the body is ready and remembers what was effective before.

Organizations also have an "immune system." It's their powerful tendency to do the same thing tomorrow that they did yesterday. This creates a resistance to change that can be surprisingly robust. If you think about it, this phenomenon is not so much related to whether a particular change is good or bad. It is mostly caused by people trying to get work done. They tend to rely upon what has worked in the past and resist the disruption to their work that a new process might entail.

Here's an example: Imagine you are behind schedule trying to work through a backlog. A coworker tells you that the next release of the development tool has some neat debugging and tracing features that will save you a bunch of time after you get over the learning curve. Do you:

  1. Stop what you are doing, find and install the software, and read the manual, knowing that the time you save will more than make up for the
  2. Make a note to install the software when this sprint is complete and you have time to play with it a bit?
  3. Make a note to watch for Fred in the next cubicle to install it, knowing that when he has installed it (and stops whining) it will be ready for prime
  4. Politely tell this interloper to go away because you have work to do?
  5. Begin writing a folk song that nostalgically praises the current version of the tool?

Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. It's not that we resist all change just for the sake of being belligerent (although you likely can think of several people who do exactly that); it's more that, if it isn't imperative, we will tend to delay. Repeated by everyone in the organization, this sensible behavior looks like resistance to

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