It's All About Change ... Or Is It?

Change. It's Inevitable - Get Over It.
Resistance to Change. It's Inevitable - Get Over it.
~ Ninja, 2009

When it comes to axioms of human nature, truer words were never spoken. Change agents are always at work, and whether they be in the form of a competitor's knowing or unknowing acts, or be in the form of deliberate or seemingly random self-organizing in the business ecosystem, change agents can work more quickly that a speeding hurricane to undermine the position of the "top dog". If it is ignored that there is a constant assault by change agents, then in a matter of a few years, a "top dog" may be overtaken or displaced by the upstart that knowingly, or even unknowingly, offers something cooler, faster, or more productive; or, in some cases, offers something that is even of lesser quality and lesser cost, e.g., compact disks.

Turning now to the second axiom concerning resistance to change, it (resistance to change) is the very reason why some companies fail. Essentially, as it pertains to existing business enterprises, and especially those in the "top dog" position, although management reads words such as these that exhort them to embrace change, the fact of the matter is that embrace is difficult, if not impossible, when your arms are already carrying something else. Indeed, in many cases, the consequent natural inertia of the "big organization", doing "big important things" thru the agency of its "big administrative and technical departments", acts to carry it in the same "big direction" as before. Just as battle ships cannot turn of a dime, so too the large organization.

Thus it is that a more nimble organization - many times the rogue, the underling - is able to knowingly or unknowingly navigate around and to the top position because of the very fact that they do not have in place, ossified and cumbersome business processes that have to be undone before doing something else - i.e. they do not already have their hands full because they have no baskets to carry. Essentially, whether by design, or by accident/luck, they start out either doing that very "something else" that will be discovered to be of value to the market, or they are able to quickly discern, process and react to the signals coming from the market, and regardless of which it is, be it their "smallness", or their deliberate or accidental actions in the market, or their nimbleness, they have a competitive and dangerous advantage over the "top dog" having layers of bureaucracy and complacency.

Bringing things home to the placement of the xGEL LabMate™ software platform for speeding up things in the geotechnical testing laboratory (a place where they test dirt samples), I have encountered both wholehearted acceptance of change - and wholehearted resistance to change. Believing the adage that building a better mousetrap would result in people beating a path to my door, I started out naively thinking that everybody would embrace the idea of automatic data collection (my software) as the long sought for profit booster. I soon found out, however, that some the very companies that seemed of the sort that could most benefit from my "change", were the very ones that resisted the most, or were the least interested. Not too put too fine a point on things, I soon found that "size of total benefit" does not translate to "readiness/willingness to adopt" and indeed found that in the general case, it is the opposite that is the norm.

It was only after a placement at one of the early adopter companies, and a discussion with one of their lab testing technicians, that I came to thinking more deeply about the two axioms and their relation to what it was that I was trying to do. What happened was that this technician told me that at first he was a little bit resistant to having our software in his lab. Pretty expected, as all management books tell you to expect some push-back to new ideas.

What he said next, however, was a bombshell to me. Instead of saying that he was concerned that the software would crash, or would have bugs, or not have the features that he needed, he told me that he was fearful of it because it would eliminate the time that he spent doing paperwork!!!!! (Remember now, that our software is specifically built to eliminate the paperwork.) He went on to explain that as a senior lab tech it was his job to make sure all the test results were correct and that it was important to him that the engineer be able to read his hand written report. He went on to tell me that he took great pride in doing this part of his job (having "good looking paperwork") and that he also used the time spent in filling out the forms as his "chill-out time" to think about other things, not only things happening in the lab, but also in his personal life. He further explained that even though he saw the software as a threat to his existing way of doing things, that on using it he saw that it was easy to use, and, since he was all about "good looking paperwork" and saw that the software produced crisp "good looking" reports, he was able to take his mind to a place where he was OK with doing things differently. He also said that since the company mission was all about turning out the work, that he could live with giving up his "chill out" time.

What a gold mine he had just opened up to me, for he gave me a penetrating insight to a true users mind-space and showed me something that I would have never seen or considered otherwise.

In discussing this event with other engineers, their eyes roll up in their heads and, with a shake of their heads, they indicate "incredulous". So it is for engineers. However, turning to two of my other colleagues that were non-engineers, but instead were psychologists and into all that touchy-feely stuff, their eyes become intent, and after a nod of their heads they indicate understanding of what is going on.

As to what is going on, they tell me that, in particular, people that live "in the real", as opposed to "in their heads", get satisfaction out of the physical motions and activities that make up their "real" world. In the instant case, they explained that it is only natural that this lab tech is, in part, a good lab tech because he likes the handwriting part of what he is doing and because he likes the other actual physical and time consuming activities that make up his job. Thus it would be, that if a tech gets satisfaction out of the "feel" of rolling a PL, or the "feel" of the wrist action as he manually cranks the LL device, then that very satisfaction, and the threatened removal of it, would be an impediment to the adoption of a PL rolling tray or a motorized LL device.

I guess a good way to bring this home is to consider a lumberjack, who on being offered a chainsaw, will refuse to use it, citing danger, breakdowns, smoke, etc., when in reality the reason the refuses to use it is that he remains a lumberjack swinging an ax is because he derives a sensual pleasure out of feeling the weight of the ax as he accelerates it to the trunk of the massive tree, and as hears the "thunk" of the blade bite into the wood. Give him a chainsaw and all that is gone. THAT is why he will not use the chainsaw and note well that it has nothing to do with danger, breakdowns, or smoke. To him, being a lumber jack is about more than the pay at the end of the day, or the number of trees felled, and even if part of it is about the pay or trees felled, the point is that there is a part of his job that comprises these sensual pleasures.

That there is a sensual aspect of the job is what was being told to me by this lab tech. He was telling me that he likes working with his hands ,and that introduction of a labor saving device is a threat to what he likes. That I better take this into account is an even more important lesson - not only for me - but for anybody that tries to introduce something new -especially when it comes to introducing new processes to field personnel who, indeed, are field personnel because they like the very manual nature of their jobs.

An interesting closing note to this is that when we were first developing the xGEL LabMate™ it did not have any ability to print out any of the data forms or the summary sheets. This seemed like a no-brainer because the entire purpose of the software was to eliminate the paperwork. Lucky for me that one of my colleagues, Rick Klamm, one of those down to earth guys (what being a geologist and all) took me aside and told me that I really needed to include paper data output as part of my "paperless" software solution because engineers like to have something in their hands that they can touch and feel. Little did I know that lab techs might not only also want paper, but also want to continue manual form filling because it made them feel good to run that pencil lead ... and here I am, trying to push electronic data collection!

I love my job!