Detecting and Invigorating a Complacent Organization

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August 2009

Detecting and Invigorating a Complacent Organization

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Our CIDM theme book for 2009 Best Practices is John P. Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency. In it, he expands on the first step in his process of promoting organization change, which we studied a few years ago in the theme book, The Heart of Change. Kotter argues that without a sense of urgency, organizational change is all but impossible.

What Kotter tells us in this new edition of his change-management work is that invoking a sense of urgency in our organizations is the critical component to change. Otherwise, our efforts to improve efficiency, reduce costs, implement new ways of creating and managing content, and delivering more effective information to our users is likely to fail. The failure occurs because of a stifling complacency, a satisfaction with the status quo that infects our team members and ensures that any disruptive change will be beaten down.

Because I work with so many publications organizations, I have gained a great deal of experience with complacency over more than 30 years. It is most obvious among workshop attendees, but it can also appear when we work with an organization to implement a change through a user study, a task analysis, content management implementation, or a new process. In workshops, attendance is never mandatory, which means that participants have worked hard to convince someone to finance their attendance. They are already willing to think about new ways of working.

In other situations, the people I am working with directly are not those who believe that change is necessary. In these situations, managers or other senior staff members lead the change effort. These individuals strongly believe that change is necessary in their organizations. They feel internal pressure to reduce costs and increase productivity. They have already been subject to reductions in force so that they have fewer resources to do the same or, more often, more work with shorter deadlines. They hear that customers are unhappy with the content they receive, or they learn that the competition with other content providers is increasing in intensity.

In short, the managers and senior staff members feel a sense of urgency. They know that they have to change the way they operate. They are willing to invest in outside help to kick start the change process. Usually, they ask us to prepare a workshop or focus a consulting arrangement on user and task analysis, minimalism, structured authoring, project management, or agile development. They hope that hearing about the importance of change from an outsider and an industry expert will help build a sense of urgency among the staff.

In the best cases, the managers and change leaders have prepared the staff for the new venture. They have let the staff know of the pressures they face from more senior management. They openly and frankly discuss the need to increase efficiency make it very clear that new hiring is unlikely and that more layoffs may occur if they and their team members fail to act. They are not doomsayers but they don’t sugarcoat the realities.

When the managers and change leaders have prepared the staff members, we’re usually to a good position to have a positive reaction on our training. That doesn’t mean that we don’t find staff members who react negatively. In any organization, managers know that some people are anxious to innovative while others are suspicious of change and content to work as they have always done. But, in general, the change atmosphere is positive.

But what happens when the staff members are not prepared? I remember one gentleman who sat in the front of the class with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face to two entire days. In a usability workshop I conducted for programmers at a nuclear power plant, I was confronted on the first day by a participant who argued: “If we are expected to design software in the ways you are recommending, it’s not going to happen here. If the operators need that kind of handholding, they shouldn’t be working here.” Nothing like arguing against usability at a nuclear reactor.

Kotter argues that complacency is not benign in an organization but is dangerous. It makes us ignore all the danger signals that are telling us that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It focuses us inward on our everyday activities.

You may want to begin by uncovering complacency first and then deciding how to combat it.

What observations can we make to uncover complacency? Consider asking staff members questions like these:

  • What constitutes good documentation?If their answers are all inward looking (structured, well-written, accurate, attractive, and so on) rather than outward looking (usable, effective, efficient, minimalist, and so on), you may have a complacency problem.
  • What should the primary goal of information developers and your organization be?If the primary goal is meeting deadlines or if you suspect people are most interested in keeping the engineers or programmers happy, you may have a complacency problem.
  • How important is understanding the information needs of the customer?If people express an interest in customers but are reluctant to take action to interact with customers directly, you may have a complacency problem.
  • After learning that customers do not use some of our documentation deliverables, what should we leave out?If no one can think of anything really significant to eliminate, you may have a complacency problem.

There are many more questions I might suggest to uncover a dangerous complacency in an organization, but you should get the idea by now.

Here’s what I’ve seen about complacency in my interactions with writers:

  • In a minimalism workshop, writers defend vigorously everything they have in their manuals, often blaming the style guide, the editors, or the developers for items of dubious value.
  • Writers argue that their audiences are so diverse that they have to write everything for the lowest common denominator reader.
  • Writers are reluctant to change anything written by a developer except for grammar and spelling.
  • In most cases, the writers are more concerned with meeting deadlines than working on change and innovations.
  • You find greater willingness to get solutions to information requirements from internal sources rather than going outside to the customers.
  • If they learn that customers never use the help system (or anything else in the current deliverables set), they argue that they need to “make people” use the help.
  • If you suggest that customers won’t read 600-page manuals (or longer), they argue that they’ve heard of at least one customer who does so and all existing information is required.

According to Kotter’s thesis, most organizations, especially those that have been successful in the past, are complacent. In fact, he believes the organizations most difficult to change are ones that have been rewarded for past successes. Probably you will find that most people in your larger companies are pretty complacent. They are quite happy to continue doing what they have always done before because it’s comfortable and predictable.

In one organization that has been trying to implement DITA and content management for the past three years, none of the writers are willing to begin pilot projects. They’re afraid that something might go wrong, and they might miss a deadline. As a result, nothing happens and no progress is made. Instead, they meet weekly to discuss the new processes and information model, but they remain afraid. Unfortunately, because they report directly to the engineering organizations, they have no managers who can help them build a sense of urgency.

Fighting complacency and building a sense of urgency in your own organization is not something to put off until tomorrow. A strong sense of urgency is essential to making any progress, to implementing a new process, a new way of working, a new toolset, and a new way of delivering content to customers and working together with other content developers in the larger organization. Without a willingness to change and a willingness to see change as an essential and continuous ingredient of success, it’s more likely that information developers will find themselves out of business.

Among those managers who embrace change and create a steady, reliable sense of urgency, we find remarkable accomplishments and recognition. Luckily, the managers engaged in CIDM are just those change leaders we need in this profession.