From the Director
As I’m sure you all know, the theme of the 2003 Best Practices conference is Innovation: Making It Happen. The emphasis of the conference is on the “making it happen” part. We can all happily dream up new things to do in our organizations, but actually proposing the right innovations and then getting people to adopt them often proves difficult and frustrating.
With the Innovator’s Forum, immediately following the conference, we will help put concrete plans together to support new ideas. As part of the planning, I’ve been reading many articles on successful change. One of my favorites is “Tipping Point Leadership,” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne (Harvard Business Review, April 2003, Product 3353). Kim and Mauborgne are management professors at Insead in Fontainebleau, France.
To prepare their article, they conducted an in-depth study of William Bratton, who served as police commissioner in New York City in the 1990s and was instrumental in lowering the city’s crime rate. They sought to understand how he accomplished the turnaround, especially in such a politically charged environment as New York. The tag line of the article reads
“How can you catapult your organization to high performance when time and money are scarce? Police Chief Bill Bratton has pulled that off again and again.”
In my welcome address at the Best Practices conference, I will discuss in some depth the four steps that Kim and Mauborgne outline. These steps are distilled from Bratton’s work and help us transform the tipping point from an interesting concept into a workable program for change.
I’m most interested, at present, in the first step in the process, called Breaking through the Cognitive Hurdle. The authors explain that most people involved in decision-making about a change don’t respond to sensible arguments, extended examples, or even dollars and cents. Even the bean counters, who complain that they are interested in the numbers, won’t act if they don’t understand the problem or believe that any change is necessary.
Bratton’s technique, at the core of tipping point leadership, is to help key decision makers actually experience the problem. Without a lesson in reality, the need for innovation never catches on. For example, Bratton decided that he had to convince his senior staff that the public’s complaints about the subways were meaningful. They simply didn’t think the problem was that serious. Besides-New Yorkers always carp about the subway. Big deal.
Convinced that making the subway safe was the highest priority in the turnaround, Bratton required that all his transit police officers commute by subway, himself included. None of them had ridden the subway in years. Not until they saw the graffiti, experienced the lawlessness of the gangs, and got mired in non-working equipment themselves did they understand the public’s point of view. And, only then did they agree that something needed to be done.
Bratton had gotten his officers over the cognitive hurdle. They had to gain a visceral and cerebral understanding of the problem before they were ready to respond to new ideas. A colleague of mine used a similar tactic a few years ago to convince his mechanical engineering staff that they had to redesign a critical piece of equipment used in treating gravely ill patients. He had feedback from users that the equipment was difficult and slow to adjust, resulting in unnecessarily long treatment times. They reported that patients, already anxious about their illnesses, were further stressed by the ill-adjusted and awkward equipment.
His problem-the engineers weren’t especially concerned. So the technicians had a problem with the usability of the equipment. Couldn’t they just be trained better? Our colleague used a drastic approach to move his engineers through the cognitive hurdle. He took them out to customer sites and had them experience the problem firsthand.
If this sounds somewhat like a customer site visit as part of a usability study, you’re right. That’s exactly what occurred. The engineers observed the users trying to adjust the equipment. They played the roles of patients, enduring the long adjustment periods flat on their backs with heavy lead weights on their bodies. It wasn’t pretty. The experience changed their entire perception of the problem. They came back committed and energized about redesigning the equipment immediately and correcting all the adjustment problems.
Experiencing a problem firsthand can be a life-altering experience. I worked with a team of software programmers designing a medical-records system. It was clear from a first view of the prototype software that they were completely oblivious about the users’ world. The prototype was completely unusable to anyone but the designers. I suggested that they visit some users, conveniently located across the street from the software-development department. They took me up on the suggestion.
Months later, meeting the same programmers over lunch in the cafeteria, they told me that the meetings with users and the direct observations of their work had “changed their lives.” These were senior professionals, committed to doing good work. They simply needed to break through the cognitive hurdle.
I invite you to consider ways in which you can help decision makers in your organization overcome their reluctance to support innovation and change. Have they tried to find information on the corporate Web site? Do they know how it feels to use the products the company develops? Have they seen people at work having difficulty learning what to do?
In information development, we tend to be a bunch of introverts who sincerely believe that if we work hard and keep our noses to the grindstone, someone will notice our good work and reward us. Well folks-it ain’t gonna happen. We need to sell the ideas we have for making things better, after we’re certain, of course, that the ideas are better for the customers and the company, not just for us.
Because this is the last issue before the September Best Practices conference, you’ll have to attend to hear my view of the rest of the hurdles. Register today at <www.infomanagementcenter.com/conference.htm>.