Friday, March 18, 2011

Change your change management process to support agility

Most organizations of more than one or two people need some sort of process to facilitate change. It really isn't feasible to have 20+ ( or 2000) people all doing their own thing without any way to coordinate things. In order to manage this, organizations invariably institute change management or change control processes.

What often happens is that these processes get focused on eliminating or mitigating the NEGATIVE aspects of change and very often ignore that changes also can have a POSITIVE aspect. In the end, many places end up crystallizing their process, it grows out of control, and it becomes difficult or impossible to create any change without the entire process breaking down.

Why does this happen?

I believe the the fundamental problem is that most organizations ignore the necessity of some sort of change management process (other than ad-hoc) until a dramatic event causes them to rethink their approach. Once this disaster happens, the positive aspects of the previously uncontrolled environment are oven overlooked to make sure they have limited the possibility of bad changes. They often very effectively create processes that bring safety by way of limited change.

Now, instead of making the mission something like "Facilitate positive changes by limiting the negative impact of bad changes", the focus is almost always on something more like "Limit bad changes by making more people be involved with the process". Once you look at the contrast and you can see that there is a "glass half full" approach and a "glass half empty" one. After years of "limiting change" being the driving force, many places end up in a situation where a simple change that could be done by one person in 5 minutes, ends up taking 2 hours spread across 5 teams and 10 people.

This illustrates the second, more insidious part of the problem. Change management processes often become a tool to distribute responsibility. While this can have a positive effect, often it leads to extra expense and time. For example, mandating that it takes two people to launch a nuclear weapon is probably a good thing, BUT, require two people to type a simple memo is probably not the best idea.

Here are a couple of simple ideas to fix this problem:

#1 Change the mission to focus on the positive aspect of change and relegate the negative aspect to a secondary role. Maybe change the name to "Change facilitation" instead of "Change Control".

#2 Take a realistic assessment of the cost of the existing change control process and fairly and objectively weight this cost against the cost of the negative thing you're trying to eliminate. Remember, don't just measure the time it takes to "fill out the request", there's the time to "PROPERLY fill out the request", time for "n" number of people to approve the request, time for someone to implement the request, time to review that the request was properly implemented. There's also the cost of the tool and it's maintenance (or worse yet, the cost of NOT maintaining it). Also be keenly away of the error rate for the existing process or system. I often see people who are shocked when, after assessing their process, they realize that they have a 25% error rate... often this means that a change takes 25% longer and costs 25% more than they originally expected.

#3 Take a realistic view of how much the missed opportunity costs are. At some point, delivering twice as much product may actually outweigh the cost of many catastrophic failures. After all, many organizations survive for years or decades with a bunch of cowboys who really want to do a good job.

#4 Don't be lulled into thinking a complicated highly ceremonious change control process is somehow superior to a simple uncomplicated solution. Often it's better to simply have good traceability and be able to clean up troublesome matters after the fact than it is to require multiple sign-offs and redundant/ineffective approvals for simple things that have negligible impact to your business.

In short, you should use your head and make sure that your change management process isn't getting in the way of being able to respond to business opportunities in a timely and effective manner.

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