Storage Informer
Storage Informer

Winds Of Change

by on Jul.01, 2009, under Storage

Winds Of Change

EMC logo Winds Of Change

I really enjoy meeting customers. However, not every customer interaction is sunshine and lollipops. Sometimes, the interactions can be tense at the beginning, but result in an extremely productive discussion. I had one of those today, and — as I…

I really enjoy meeting customers.  However, not every customer interaction is sunshine and lollipops. 

Sometimes, the interactions can be tense at the beginning, but result in an extremely productive discussion.

I had one of those today, and — as I thought about it — I realized I’m starting to see this particular situation more often.  It’s a harbinger of things to come.

It Started Out Rough

During a typical briefing, I’m usually asked to lead off the big technology strategy discussion.  It’s usually 45 minutes of private cloud / VCE material, with plenty of time for discussion and debate.

Most of the time, it goes very well.  Today, it didn’t.

About 3 minutes after I got started, I could tell by the body language that something was seriously wrong.  After 5 minutes, the customer intervened.

They were polite, but firm.  They didn’t want to hear about technology, or strategy, or anything like that.

They wanted to know how they were going to transform their organization.

The Back Story

The picture came out over the next twenty minutes.  This group was the core of a completely new IT leadership team that had just been recruited. 

Their mission: completely and radically transform how IT is built and used across a very large and relatively conservative organization. 

Do it quickly, do it cheaply, and please do it with a minimum of risk and disruption, please.

I got the sense that their personal “opportunity” was a great deal steeper and deeper than they had orignally envisioned.

We all sat around the table and listened for a while as they sketched out the obstacles they faced.  Frankly, none of the obstacles really had to do with technology per se.  It was all about re-wiring the “organizational IT DNA” from end to end.

This was not some theoretical, touchy-feely discussion.  This was real, gritty and palpable.

Case Studies and Organizational Learning

They were very clear — no product pitches please.  Instead, tell us what you know about how people have pursued this sort of agenda, what you have learned from them, and help us reach out and talk to them.  We need to talk to practitioners, not theorists.

Right away, I was at a partial disadvantage.  Although I’ve met many hundreds of IT leaders, I haven’t been inside an IT organization for a very long time indeed.  But they were willing to accept that I could act as a reasonable proxy for what we’d seen others do.

One thing we used as a starting point was general agreement that — going forward — their world had to be as virtualized as possible for a variety of reasons.  Using that as a common frame of reference, we could start to share our knowledge and learnings of how we saw other similar organizations grappling with the same challenge.

The other thing going on with this specific customer was an impending data center move.  As those of you who’ve been involved in this sort of thing before, this event can be a wonderful catalyst for change.

Put the two of them together — we’re going to a new location, and we’re going to a new technology — they had the beginnings of a rallying point to focus and drive change efforts — at least, within internal IT.

Yes, it was stressful, but also an opportunity if you think about.

IT Marketing?

We started by sharing that communications — to all your stakeholders — is a do-or-die mission when contemplating significant organizational change.  So much so that we’ve seen IT organizations appoint a communications professional (aka the marketing type) to engage and persuade people across a variety of functions.

I’d consider that a “best practice”, with one caveat.  There are a lot of marketing people who know how to do nice newsletters and websites, but really don’t have much of a voice.  Find a marketing person with a strong voice, and isn’t afraid of using it. 

Yes, I know it sounds ludicrous that an IT organization would hire a marketing professional (don’t we have enough of those running around?) but they’d already considered this proposition on their own — we just confirmed their suspicions. 

And, it logically follows that if you’re going to accelerate organizational change, you’re going to be doing a lot of communicating, and that can be a specialized skill.

What’s In It For Me?

If you’re going to be asking different audiences to take on substantial changes in the way that they do things, you’re going to have to sell it to them.  Very often, the message fails on this basis alone.

We see it all the time, e.g. “we need to save money on IT!”. 

Now, if I’m a business user of IT, that sounds like IT’s problem, and not mine.  Other than good corporate citizenship, I am not prepared to take on significant change and put my world at risk just to help someone in another corporate function save a few bucks.  Go solve your own problems, I’ve got mine.

Now, come back to me as a business user and tell me that I can get what I want faster, my stuff will run better, there will be entirely new capabilities that I can put to use, I’ll have access to tools and resources I don’t have today — well, now I’m listening. 

And if it’s cheaper, so much the better.

I’ve seen IT organization create a “heat map” of different external stakeholders — business users, finance, legal, internal IT factions, etc. — and craft short messages for each around a given initiative that not only answer why the company is doing it, but specifically what’s in it for them.

And, if you find this exercise unduly difficult, you have a far bigger challenge on your hands :-)

Back to the customer discussion, they were able to quickly tick off a list of key stakeholders, and offer a few statements about what would be in it for each of them.  That’s good.

Building The Shiny New Thing

There seems to be two generic approaches to getting people to use new infrastructure and processes. 

One is the classic “let’s move everything to the new world” approach.  Big lists, complex plans, daunting obstacles, unknown risks — this stuff is very hard on the brain.  You set yourself up for people to resist.

There are some situations where there is no other viable option, but — in many cases — there’s an incremental approach that has more to do with social engineering than project management.  And I have personal experience that it works very well indeed.

Consider building the shiny new thing on a small scale — maybe a small, internal private cloud.  Or, perhaps, a new self-service operational process.  Anything at all that represents a significant departure from traditional approaches — it really doesn’t matter.

Put some cool people on it.  Give it a nice internal brand.  Use terms like “pilot” or “proof of concept” to keep people from jumping off cliffs. Communicate widely what you’re doing and why.  Make it look like fun, rather than work.

When it’s ready, invite people to try it out.  Enlist internal champions to provide coaching and feedback.  Ask various executives to give the project a mention in their forums.

If these people like what they see, they’ll tell others, who will be curious as well.  Communicate frequently, openly and transparently to anyone who’ll listen or read.

Over time, more and more users will show up on the shiny, new thing — and less investment will be put into the dull, older thing.  Over time, you make the new thing even more attractive in a variety of ways, and the old thing even less attractive.

It turns out that give people a choice and encouragement is a better motivator than giving people a mandate and consequences — even if you have to orchestrate it a bit.

It turns out this customer was just beginning to build the new, shiny thing.  It was funded, and the pieces were starting to come together.  But I think they got some value from the perspective around “how” rather than “what”.

Acknowledge Resistance From Within

There are many progressive IT organizations that embrace change.  And there are more than a few who tend to resist any change whatsoever.  This was a big concern for this particular customer.

It’s one thing to convince the business to look at IT differently.  It’s another thing entirely to convince IT to look at IT differently.  This somewhat paradoxical behavior is not unique to IT people: I’ve seen it in HR, legal, manufacturing, engineering, sales, etc., e.g. everyone has to change but me!

There’s a variety of techniques I’ve seen IT leaders use to combat this problem — rooting out the ringleaders, constant and patient communication, incentive and recognition programs — even bringing a small crew of managed services contractors to show how things *could* be done.

Frankly speaking, there’s nothing specific to IT in this discussion — the same techniques work for any organizational leader to bring the function along to a new world view.  The simple approach is to acknowledge it’s a problem, and have a plan to deal with it. 

Celebrate Wins, Share Challenges

Organizational change is helped by fostering a spirit of trust.  Communicating to everyone openly and honestly fosters that feeling of trust.  The best examples I’ve seen are quick update emails, written in a conversational style, that celebrate a few wins, and acknowledge a few things that didn’t go so well.

No one wants a glowing, overstated and one-sided report of how great things are going.  I would be immediately suspicious of any such communication, simply because that’s not the world we live in, right?

Most IT organizations aren’t aware of how they are perceived by the rest of the business.  Understand how people view your IT function (right or wrong), accept it, and work to change it by adopting a new communication style.

Network, Network, Network

Some of the most impressive IT change agents I’ve met are networking experts. 

If your mind immediately went to protocol stacks, you missed the point — these people are social animals.  They build relationships across the organization in a variety of places, and they build relationships outside their company, hopefully with people who are doing much the same thing as they are doing.

I believe EMC — as a vendor — has a role to play in making personal introductions that go beyond the standard customer event or reference list.  We know many IT leaders who are driving change in their organizations, and some who are doing it quite well.  And we owe it to our customers to help connect people in ways that make sense for them, not us.

Control The Rate Of Change

Too much change, too fast — and people lock down.  There’s a natural speed limit to what each of us can accept in rates of change.  But those who are driving change sometimes aren’t aware of how people are reacting to things. 

One of the more effective things I’ve seen done is to enlist frank and confidential feedback from the people you’re working with.  Use a neutral third party if you have to.  Think of it as a speedometer on your car — you need to know how fast you’re going, especially if you’re over the limit.

There’s More, But I Think You Get The Idea

As a vendor, it’s pretty obvious that entirely new technology implies entirely new operational models and entirely different value propositions for the people who actually use this stuff.

And, as we accelerate the pace of technological innovation (currently running at a breathtaking clip), it’s inevitable that we will be called upon to accelerate the pace of organizational change as well.

From the vendor side, we can’t give the standard answer of “use our professional and consulting services”.  That’s a pat answer, and not entirely satisfying.  We need to complement the external consultant with additional resources, perspectives and relationships that helps our IT leaders manage both kinds of change proficiently at the same time.

And I think I’ll be having more of these discussions in the future.


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