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A Twelve Step Program For Identifying and Eliminating Organizational Change

By BrightCrayonLLC in Culture
Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 04:30:47 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

No matter what side of the management / engineering fence one is on, there comes a time when one may need to stay right where one is, or to engage in the fine art of stalling. Before the reader passes moral judgment on a word with such pejorative connotation as "stalling," let him stop and reflect on reasons that he might want to stall.


There is a saying in medicine that ninety percent of one's practice is keeping the patient comfortable while the disease runs its course. In other words: stalling. Many non-medical problems are self limiting: software manufacturers routinely choose not to fix bugs in their products, preferring instead to offer an "upgrade" which promises that the old bugs will be fixed. Once again, stalling is the hero.

Of more interest to readers of this paper is what one ought to do about those nagging waves of technology and process that frequently crash into the shores of corporate America: TQM, CQI, function point analysis, Meyers-Briggs, Personalysis. Managers may know from experience that these ideas will be more of a spray than a tsunami. Most people know that no matter what happens to the "program," anyone could be remembered as the person who stood in the way.

So what does one do?

If twelve step programs work for alcoholics, gamblers, and sexual special interests, the approach can surely be adapted to mere work and its problems. [2] We know that one can't make progress until one admits that she has a problem, so we must all resist the temptation to use the ostrich's technique for stalling. Stalling can be an activity unto itself; a career path. The reader should not associate stalling with mere inactivity. Even the doctor hands out pain medication to keep patients comfortable while they have the flu.

The Twelve Steps

Step 1: Call a meeting and avoid unrest by assigning the zealots to the cause. It is best to do this in a large public forum. Justification? It is easier to keep an eye on the agents of change if they are all in one place.

Step 2: Give "them" enough budget and enough staff that they can make slow, but inconsequential progress. Sometimes dragging one's feet costs a bit of money, but consider the costs if there were to be real change. Also, by giving the enemy even a small amount of money, one can eat up some of the zealots' enthusiasm with their need to do some real world activities like tracking costs. There is a side benefit: it will be easier for the boat rockers to attract still other wanna-be zealots to the cause.

Step 3: Constantly request more data and more studies to be given to management. As George Bush, Sr., once said "I care." [3] Sure, it is hot outside, but global warming needs to be studied so that we can put our very best people on the task. Once again, real progress will be slowed by the need to constantly provide new data.

Step 4: Now we get to the need for some subtlety: Divert attention by sending the zealots to discuss their ideas with the people who are responsible for the status quo. In some companies, this is called "buy-in." In others it is called "participating in a culture of consensus."

Consensus and change are mortal enemies! It is paramount that the zealots not be able to make progress too quickly, otherwise they will attract converts to their cause, not just other zealots.

Step 5: If a little buy in is good, more is surely better. Request an ever increasing perimeter of buy-in. It is difficult to get a significant number of people to even agree on what to eat, or what time the meeting's pizza ought to arrive: even 11:30 and 12:00 are unlikely to be resolved by suggesting 11:45. By expanding the required buy-in, a talented manager may intensify the loss of momentum.

Step 6: Now that the zealots have sought buy in, it is time to turn the tables: Frequently mention roles and responsibilities. This is a bit of a CYOA tactic because it is a virtual certainty that almost any idea (good or not) can be injured by either talking of roles and responsibilities or buy in. Suggest to the group of zealots that they reorganize, and clearly define their roles and responsibilities for the difficult crusade that lies ahead.

Step 7: This step represents both the halfway mark, and a change in tactics from passive to active. Perhaps the most important thing is to resist any temptation to criticize the agents of change. Instead, refute new ideas with arguments centered around lack of "organizational maturity." Nothing deflects criticism of executive actions quite as well as saying that the idea is good, but the organization is not up to carrying forward.

Step 8: Search for experts. Almost by definition, any new idea is not going to have a significant number of people who are experienced practitioners. We are reminded of advertisements in the San Jose Mercury News during 1997 looking for people with five years of experience in Java. [4] Subject matter expertise sounds like something that is needed, even if it really unneeded and impossible.

Step 9: There is some chance that this step may be skipped. It is also possible that the project's members may be stronger than thought. So, force the zealots to distinguish their efforts from the ones already in the works before proceeding, even if it is known that the distinctions are trivial. i.e., play dumb. A request for proof of the uniqueness of an idea is always a good tactic, since it can't be done.

Step 10: In all likelihood, there are multiple objections to the vector of change. It is important that one never appear to side with vocal opponents, but in the interests of fairness, give them a full public forum. Appearing to be even handed is crucial, and will actually help the eventual refutation. If one is fortunate, it may appear that the argument against the new idea is so powerful it has actually changed a leader's mind! Henry Kissinger describes this technique at length in his book on his White House years as Richard Nixon's Secretary of State. [5]

Step 11: Success (or is it failure?) is almost at hand. Carefully avoid appearing to endorse anything personally so that one can be promoted along with all the other non-participants. Having a project commit suicide on one's watch is not that big a deal, but murder is a crime even in corporate life. If it has not already been done, assign ownership and responsibility ... modestly deny all proposals are one's own, whether pro or con. After all, there is no greater abdication of management responsibility than assigning ownership.

Step 12: Once everyone is near exhaustion, it is time to act with mercy. Call a meeting to cancel the effort because it has been researched thoroughly and it has been discovered that it just won't work. Rather than allow a cause to be determined by the rumor mill, be sure to ascribe one directly. Good options are because the organization

(a) is different, or ...

(b) is too young, or ...

(c) has a unique culture, etc.

Blaming the organization while preserving its culture generally produces good results. Additionally, running the corporate culture up the flag pole makes it hard for even dedicated agents of change to not appear treasonous.

In a final act of compassion, one has the opportunity to provide for a Diaspora that finds homes for the zealots ... in other departments.


[1]The Red Queen, from Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 2, by Lewis Carroll.

[2]Ernest Kurtz, Not-God, a History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hazelden-Pittman, 1998. ISBN: 0894860658.

[3]George Bush, Sr., speaking to employees of an insurance company during the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

[4]San Jose Mercury News, January 12, 1997, Classified Advertisements.

[5]Henry Kissinger, The White House Years, Little Brown & Company, 1979; ISBN: 0316496618.


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A Twelve Step Program For Identifying and Eliminating Organizational Change | 28 comments (20 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
Also (none / 0) (#1)
by Zxaos on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 04:04:08 PM EST

Shouldn't this also be under humour?

You and my fists are going to have a discussion on the nature of truth.

+1, It's Funny 'cause It's True (3.00 / 2) (#3)
by thelizman on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 05:53:01 PM EST

If I didn't know any better - and in truth, I don't - I would guess you were a seasoned veteran of the vast labrynth of corporate politics. Your insight here is turly worth of the saltiest middle managers and their polished wing-tipped loafers.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
Warning (1.00 / 14) (#9)
by Forum Moderator on Sat Jan 29, 2005 at 02:36:12 PM EST

Listen closely:  you have been closed away from society for so long, you can not function properly.  Basic social skills passed you by and never looked back, whether that is because of sheltering parents, or some other depraved reason.  The point is, you do not know how to carry yourself and essentially "act" when in the presence of other human beings.

First thing to do is cast aside all the misconceptions that the world is an evil and scary place.  This will be hard at first, but rise up, create a personality for yourself, and begin to live!  You're still fairly young yet are just learning how to have share your thoughts with others.  Hope is not lost, although you may think so; try to remain positive as you enter into social situations.

Also remember that you come from a place which promotes anti-social behaviour, words are discouraged, and emotions repressed.  Observe others, watch how they act, listen to what they say, and study their behavioural methods.  Mimmick those around you, find someone you're comfortable with, and get them to go over the essentials of everyday living, such as eye contact, smiling, saying "hello", shaking hands, and generally "living" with your own kind.

Don't delay; a second is too late, and a moment is not soon enough.  You must adapt to society, and the social standards of living.  Communicate, make yourself heard, introduce youself, and most importantly, create for yourself an identity that was taken from you at a young age.

You have potential thelizman; do not rob the world of what you could offer it.  Everyone here at my forum is behind you.

This is a warning; you need to change immediately else your posting privileges will be revoked.

[ Parent ]

How to do the opposite (2.50 / 2) (#8)
by cronian on Sat Jan 29, 2005 at 12:54:47 PM EST

We also need an article on how to effectuate organizational change. How you defeat this strategy if you want change?

We perfect it; Congress kills it; They make it; We Import it; It must be anti-Americanism
There are already tons of books (none / 0) (#10)
by adimovk5 on Sat Jan 29, 2005 at 06:34:40 PM EST

Do you really want an article on a subject that is flooding the business world? Organizational Change is a widespread management tool. A large portion of it is dedicated to countering resistance to change. The author here is making fun of Organizational Change by offering a defense theory to counter the offensive theory.

[ Parent ]

"effectuate"? (none / 0) (#15)
by lucius on Sun Jan 30, 2005 at 11:37:08 PM EST

Wouldn't it be easier to say "affect"?

[ Parent ]
It would (none / 0) (#19)
by anonimouse on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 11:20:36 AM EST

But criticising George Bush's dupe account is not a way to get ahead in life.
Relationships and friendships are complex beasts. There's nothing wrong with doing things a little differently.
[ Parent ]
Not the same meaning (none / 0) (#20)
by cronian on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 02:12:53 PM EST

"Affect" means to cause influence, and it implies action, and possibly somewhat direct action. By "effectuate" I mean to cause a specific effect, through action direct or not, along with no action at all. Also, since "effectuate" sounds more complicated, I think it also more clearly implies the need for potentially requiring complex machinations.

We perfect it; Congress kills it; They make it; We Import it; It must be anti-Americanism
[ Parent ]
so you mean (none / 0) (#21)
by klem on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 02:36:43 PM EST

"effect" a change

[ Parent ]
Meh, post your qualifications (none / 0) (#12)
by Adam Rightmann on Sat Jan 29, 2005 at 09:09:35 PM EST

If you stated you worked at a fading steel age giant, or perhaps HP-Compaq, we might understand why you didn't like change, it didn't work for you.

Nice Sentiment (2.00 / 2) (#14)
by Peahippo on Sun Jan 30, 2005 at 03:10:55 AM EST

But when your desk job gets offshored, leaving you to meet a $180K mortgage on an $8/hr security job, you might start to suspect that resistance to change could serve a useful purpose.

A Job: It's only important when YOURS is threatened, eh?

[ Parent ]
Become One (none / 0) (#17)
by jeroen94704 on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 06:38:50 AM EST

One should also try to reduce the number of times one uses the word "one" in one's articles.

Seen this one before (none / 0) (#18)
by triptolemeus on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 08:43:21 AM EST

It's called the dilbert principle

Countering Fads - "No" Works (none / 0) (#22)
by cdguru on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 04:50:23 PM EST

One of the most important aspects of any software development manager is the ability to resist fads. Most anyone that has been around for a while has seen this. Some one comes along and says they found this wonderful new technology that we should all be using and it is sooo very wonderful it will instantly make all of our lives much simpler.

Admittedly, it is new, it is shiny and potentially useful. Maybe even revolutionary. Except, by virtue of it being new, nobody knows much about it. No matter how much someone thinks they know about it. Microsoft has turned out an array of these wonderful-sounding things that, when looked back upon five years later have turned out to be, well, less wonderful. So has every other company out there.

The main thing that I see here is the whole 12 step program is necessary when the politically well-connected zealot is born. Suddenly, you have a project (or company) destroying wave that the CEO has fallen in love with. For no logical reason. Of course, we hear how wonderful it will be and how much this will save - after the staff completes their education so they can use this new thing.

I've found that this can be nipped in the bud a little sooner than the whole 12-step process when the zealot is less politically connected. You can just say "No." Maybe even forcefully "Forget about it. Wrong time, wrong project."

Sadly, when the devotee is politically connected this 12-step program is an excellent roadmap to saving the project and/or company.

Anyone have good stories about the torpedoing of an entire company because of an addiction to "new" stuff that nobody knew anything about? There is a really nice Arthur C. Clarke story about a war being lost because of such an addiction. Some even say that this was why Hitler lost WWII. Let their lessons not be lost on you.

"Management by Airline Magazine" (none / 0) (#24)
by badtux on Tue Feb 01, 2005 at 03:12:41 AM EST

Reminds me of when one of my old bosses came to me with this new-fangled "Linux" thing that one of our customers had mentioned to him. I looked at the man incredulously and stated bluntly, "We have our hands full with the job of maintaining our own software without taking on the job of maintaining a bunch of unsupported hackerware downloaded off the Internet too. Come back when you can find me a real company that sells and supports this 'Linux' thing."

Of course, eventually he did just that :-).

The point being, I suppose, that wiz-bang new technologies are all fine and dandy, but it takes a while for them to reach the point where they're usable for anything but doorstops. Take Java, for example. Please :-).

- Badtux the Managed Penguin
In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin
[ Parent ]

Ringi (none / 0) (#23)
by Dogun on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 11:05:21 PM EST

For some reason this makes me think about ringi - a practice a lot of Japanese companies have where memos regarding potential initiatives start at the low end (or, at least, appear to), and advance upward through management after there is substantial agreement at some level. Eventually, someone makes a decision on the subject, but everyone has been involved in it, so the majority opinion has a good chance of winning out anyhow. Then you stage a bunch of meetings afterwards to make sure that the zealot's toes who have been stepped on understand the reasoning for the decision and can express *whatever*. I find it so ironic that organizations have to invent procedures that look like they are to initiate change but are actually there to reduce it.

What did the Red Queen say? (none / 0) (#25)
by LaundroMat on Thu Feb 03, 2005 at 05:54:16 AM EST

What's the [1] footnote referring to?

"These innocent fun-games of the hallucination generation"

Alice in Wonderland (none / 0) (#27)
by vectro on Wed Feb 09, 2005 at 08:50:59 PM EST

See here, though the Red Queen doesn't actually show up until Chapter 8.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
left out one on step 12) (none / 0) (#26)
by m a r c on Wed Feb 09, 2005 at 07:21:04 AM EST

Which is that the organisation does not have any budget at the current time. Considering that the zelots have little understanding of exactly how much budget is available and where it is allocated, it is a quite plausable explaination.
I got a dog and named him "Stay". Now, I go "Come here, Stay!". After a while, the dog went insane and wouldn't move at all.
Brilliant (none / 0) (#28)
by 1318 on Sat Jun 25, 2005 at 03:17:32 PM EST

I love this kinda stuff.

"So then, why don't you die?"-Antisthenes

A Twelve Step Program For Identifying and Eliminating Organizational Change | 28 comments (20 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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