Don't Forget the Losses


Starting a new way of doing things implies ending the old. People may accept that as obvious, but they often forget that endings bring with them losses. Using an example about adopting software inspections, Lee Copeland urges organizations to acknowledge the losses people experience when they leave the familiar behind.

Recently, I was chatting with Dorothy Graham about her experiences in helping companies adopt inspection processes. She was surprised that even with all the evidence showing the substantial benefits of inspections, many of her clients never fully succeeded with the process. I asked her how she dealt with the losses involved. "Losses?" she exclaimed. "What do you mean, losses? Inspection provides wins, not losses."

In his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, William Bridges presents a model of the change process that distinguishes between changes (external events) and transitions (the psychological process we go through to adapt to changes). Generally, when we want to implement a change, we start with the outcome we desire (such as implementing inspections). This is not effective. The real starting point must be the ending you have to make in order to leave the old way behind. Successful transitions require us to let go of the old reality before we can embrace the new.

Transitions require endings, and endings bring loss. But people don't like endings and they don't like loss. Endings are often uncomfortable, and sometimes they are painful. Bridges concludes that nothing undermines organizational change as much as the failure to consider who will have to let go of what when change occurs. I challenged Dorothy to consider the losses felt if inspections were implemented.

As change agents (and that means all of us, not just managers, who want to assist in changing our organization), we have a number of strategies we can use to help people make transitions easier:

Identify who's losing what.
Ask the following questions: What is going to change? What losses will be felt? Who is going to have to let go? What is over for everyone? Listen carefully to the answers. Accept the reality and importance of the responses. Don't argue with what you hear. It may not be your reality, but it is theirs. Dorothy responded, "Oh, yes. I can see that. The developers could feel losses, couldn't they-loss of autonomy, loss of trust, loss of creativity, even a loss of power. This may explain why they're not always enthusiastic supporters."

Don't be surprised at overreaction.
People are reacting to loss, not to the change being proposed. Again, don't argue with what you hear. It's their world, not yours. Overreaction may also be a sign of unresolved losses of the past that are resurfacing. Acknowledge these feelings openly and sympathetically.

Expect and accept the signs of grieving.
In her landmark book On Death and Dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross detailed five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These do not apply just to the terminally ill; they apply to the grieving of any loss. I asked Dorothy if she had ever experienced denial in the organizations she was assisting. "Oh, all the time," Dorothy replied. "People say things like 'Inspections are okay for everyone else, but not for me' or 'It's fine for other projects but we don't need it' or 'My code doesn't need to be inspected.'" Then I asked her about anger. "Oh, sure. People may threaten to quit if their work is subject to inspection. People have stormed out of inspection meetings and not returned for days." My questions about bargaining and depression also brought familiar responses.

Mark the endings.
Human beings are ceremonial beings. We use ceremonies to mark endings and beginnings. We've all attended weddings, funerals, baptisms, first communions, bar mitzvahs, graduations, retirements, and so many others. My favorite ceremony is the one Cortez held for his men when they landed at Veracruz in their quest to conquer Mexico. He burned their own ships! It was certainly a ceremony that marked an ending (we're not going back) and a beginning (onward to victory). Dorothy told me about an organization she worked with that took the last page of code that had not been inspected and the first page of code that had been inspected (with all its defects marked in red), framed them, and hung them on the wall in the hallway in a ceremony that marked an ending and a beginning.

Treat the past with respect.
Never denigrate the past; honor it for its accomplishments. Many people, in their enthusiasm for the new, ridicule all of the old way. Instead, credit the past and honor its contributions. Acknowledge it as the foundation upon which future success will be built.

Give people information.
People crave information. Give it to them. Tell them. Tell them again. In situations involving loss (and its associated stress) people will misunderstand and forget. On the other hand, don't substitute half-truths or untruths for unpleasant information. If you don't know yet, just say so. Dorothy and I have heard statements such as, "They don't need to know. We'll tell them when the time comes. It will just upset them now," "We don't know all the details ourselves yet so there is no point in saying anything until everything has been decided," and "They already know because we announced it. Besides, that's their manager's job."

Dorothy told me she learned a lot from our conversation, and she summed it up nicely: "It's easy to become so focused on the technical aspects of the inspection process and the benefits to developers, testers, and the organization in general, that the human process of loss isn't considered. Yet I can see now how critical it is for successful implementation of inspection and other things."

Dorothy's experience had been all too common. Most organizations start with the beginnings they wish to make and pay no attention to the endings. Then they wonder why change is so difficult to implement. But now you can be more successful because you understand change and transition; because you understand that all transitions require endings, and endings bring loss. So don't forget the losses: deal with them in an open, honest, and sympathetic manner, and you will help your organization make the transition.

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