Fear can be good. Fear of predators kept our early ancestors alive. Fear of future problems keeps people from signing contracts that could create financial difficulty. However (and you knew this was coming), fear can also stop people from moving forward when it would be to their advantage to do so.

True story: a division of a large company was instructed to implement a new software system to increase production. This was going to add more workload to two departments. Corporate tried to help the division rebalance workloads, and supplied training and new procedures. Unfortunately, despite the fact that two sister divisions had already implemented the new software successfully, irrational fear of the new system took root during the months that preceded the implementation. The closer the go-live date got, the more afraid people became. With less than a month to go, they put it off for two weeks, then for another week. People said, “We’re not ready… We haven’t been trained enough… We need more people…” And some mid-level leaders said, “We’re supporting our people. They’re not ready.” The division’s CEO finally said, “We’re going live. We’ll work things out.” So they went live, with extensive on-site corporate support during the first week. Many of the people were actually relieved, because the uncertainty was finally over and the wheels had not fallen off. But at the end of the week when nothing bad had happened (yet!), one of the senior clerks opined, “This is like being on the beach after an earthquake. Just before the tsunami hits, everything is very calm, then the water draws way out to sea…” And this was duly repeated throughout the division, re-kindling the fear.

Yes, there were hiccups as the division adjusted to the new system. Like all systems, it was not perfect. But the fear was counterproductive; it caused great angst and hurt morale unnecessarily. FEAR can be a mnemonic for False Evidence Appearing Real. And that’s what it was in this case. In this case, the best path forward was implementing the system, because more delays would have only increased the fear.

So how does your organization deal with fear?

Gary Langenwalter

Walking the Tightrope

Leaders walk a tightrope – balancing the need for change against the willingness and ability of the organization to implement those changes successfully.

Since “change imposed is change opposed”, how can a leader bring change into their organization? Especially if the change will add even more load to key individuals who are already stressed out. If the leader insists on implementing the change, the best people might leave, causing their work to be split among the survivors who already feel overloaded, thereby increasing the probability that they might leave, too.

One approach is:

· Focus on the vision and mission of the organization. If the vision and mission is to use the organization’s products and service to help make a better world for our children, it is one (major) reason why the employees work there. Seeing how the proposed change will help them accomplish their mission will be an incentive to implement the change. However, if the vision and mission is to maximize return to the shareholders, this tactic will probably not be very effective. (Incidentally, contrary to what most people believe, data conclusively show that for-profit companies that honor people and respect the planet deliver substantially higher returns to investors. Thus, for-profit companies can have vision and mission statements that truly engage their workforce.)

· Ask what the individual is currently doing that can be 1) discontinued, or 2) offloaded to another person. Discontinuing is the better alternative, because then the total workload actually diminishes. Value Stream Mapping is a Lean tool that can help an organization see what adds value to the customer (and should be continued), and what does not add value to the customer (and therefore is a candidate for discontinuation). Offloading is less desirable because it merely shifts the work, and because most people (including the “offloadee”) have little or no slack in their workday.

This approach works because it honors the people and works with them. It’s the antithesis of the corporate version of the Golden Rule – “The person with the gold makes the rules!” This approach is better for the long term than forcing change, because forcing change frays the underlying relationship and goodwill, which is the foundation upon which all organizations operate.

What do you think? I’d enjoy your feedback, or, even better, an e-mail exchange (gary) or phone call (971-221-8155)

Gary Langenwalter

When You’re in a River of Flaming Shit

When I was the IT Director of Faultless Caster Corporation in Evansville, Indiana, I led a cultural transformation by implementing a new enterprise (ERP) system. About ¾ through the implementation, it felt like we were being nibbled to death by a school of rubber-toothed piranhas, and frustration was climbing to dangerous levels. In the weekly Steering Committee meeting, the VP of Sales and Marketing asked the inevitable question: “Hey, I’m not sure this is a good idea. Why don’t we just go back to the old system?” The CEO replied, “When you’re in the middle of a river of flaming shit, you gotta keep paddling toward the other side.”

We kept paddling, the new system came live (only a couple weeks late), and paid itself back in a year with increased sales, reduced costs, etc., etc., etc.

I draw on this and comparable experiences when I find myself in a similar situation. That’s when I get really “persistent” and continue paddling toward the other side. (Other people are mule-headed and stubborn, I’m goal-oriented and persistent.)

Have you ever been in the middle of a river of flaming shit? I’d enjoy hearing your story. I’ll buy the coffee.

Gary Langenwalter, 971-221-8155