Technology leaders — spearheading ambitious multi-million dollar digital transformations — can usually relate to the fear of users refusing to change how they work. You spend a large amount of time, effort and money moving to new mission-critical technologies and platforms to support the business. But these end up stuck, or compromised, when internal users reject the change and stick to their old ways of working.
Failures can be spectacular — valued team members refuse to migrate, and some may even quit the company (or at least threaten to leave) rather than make the move. This can put the entire transformation at risk — at the last hurdle — after months and years of work. At that point, to get past the issue, you’re forced into awkward last-minute compromises — often resulting in technical debt.
Systems are easy, people are hard
This can be especially frustrating for experienced technology leaders. This is not your first rodeo—you know how to handle the technical changes, you’re able to plan it out step by step, and anticipate problems. Even when unexpected things happen, you have a good team around you to troubleshoot and problem-solve. But the real unknown, the critical X-factor, is the users/people involved — who have to adopt and adapt to these updates. And at the last minute, they can put all of your work in jeopardy.
Engineers are people too
When researchers study and analyze this problem, they usually clarify that it’s not a “technology issue,” but a human process. That creating cultural, social and emotional change — is what really enables and accelerates the needed technological change. This is a different discipline, using methods technical people can be less familiar with. A well-handled system implementation or business transformation requires everything from best-in-class messaging, communications, to outreach, in order to bring fantastic results.
The right person for the job
So who should we get to put these approaches into practice? Not to generalize, but unfortunately, developers and engineers aren’t chosen for their skill/experience handling complex human changes. So the key is finding people with the right diplomatic and soft skills to win over a skeptical audience.
Someone has to perform this function in any migration or transformation. People will rarely change themselves without at least some gentle persuasion and messaging. And if you don’t have a dedicated professional with the skills and experience to handle this, you’re relying on people whose abilities are probably more technical than social. That can lead to things being made worse, rather than better.
Your change communications hero
What has emerged from this need is a new specialized professional — dedicated to solving this problem. Part marketing genius, part social worker/guidance counselor, part social media expert. But completely focused on getting the engagement and buy-in of teams when moving to new environments and processes. They are people who have a track record of success convincing people to make changes.
The agile promised land
I remember when I was first introduced to this problem. It was presented to me as an existential one, that could make or break careers. And I suspect it had done exactly that. But it turns out strategy and process consultants are able to turn chaotic and messy things into manageable repeatable environments. To me, it has been surprising how fast you can shift the culture of a 300 person engineering department, simply by being nice and listening to them. By trying honestly to meet and engage with them where they are.
I’ve seen dramatic results as well — migration times shrank, people moved to new systems faster, uptake was rapid. More surprising still, it seemed the only people who complained in the process where the ones who *didn’t* get asked/communicated to! The vast majority simply got on with the work of making the change. Turns out Agile experts and behavioral scientists are right. It’s not winning hearts and minds that changes behaviors — it’s changing behaviors that wins hearts and minds.
Batman or Justice League?
The only question is whether you want to go small and targeted, or big and bold. And much of that depends on your situation. Sometimes it’s a focused need, for example in your cloud or platform teams. They’re often the ones consistently making large changes that affect the broader engineering teams. But sometimes what’s needed is a SWAT team to come in and enable significant organizational change across a sprawling engineering department. To really re-orient them towards a culture of adaptation and agility — and make sure the change is sustainable.
“Help! I need somebody!”
Regardless, if this is something you’re looking for help with, do what true professionals always do. Reach out to other experts who have already figured out how to fix this problem. Often someone with a different skillset than your own.