Improving Personal Capability to Embrace New Ideas

We held a push-up competition several years ago at my house. Some of my sons could easily do 20 push-ups, but one in particular couldn’t do any (he was … 7?). “Dad, I can’t even do one” he said to me. “That’s because you’ve never tried,” I replied. “Work on doing one. And then tomorrow do one again. And the next day again. And the next day, try to do two.”

And so he did. And he could. And now he can do more than all of us. There was a time that he was doing at least 100 every day, and tracking them annually on a spreadsheet.

You can’t ask someone who has never practiced push-ups to drop and do 50. But you could ask them to try to do one, or half of one, or half of one on their knees.

What’s true of push-ups is true for embracing new ways of working at work. You can’t ask someone who has never practiced the skills of working collaboratively to switch it up from 0% to 100%. That’s too much change – too much progress even – in too short of a time span.

But you can ask them to do one thing today, such as:

  • Read a blog post and write a thoughtful comment.
  • Save an in-progress document to a SharePoint document library, and allow others to read the not-yet-finished document.
  • Ask a question in Yammer, not in email.
  • Search for expertise on Office 365, instead of asking someone nearby.
  • View a plan in Microsoft Planner, and move one of the items they are working on to a new column (bucket).
  • Create a OneNote notebook and use a page for taking notes at their next meeting.

And then again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. And then two the next day. And then a bit more on those two the next day.

Before you know it, they’ll be chomping at the bit for more for themselves and their team, and you won’t be able to keep up with demand.

Who Switched the Drawers?

I have 21 drawers by my office desk. These hold stationery, paper, books to read, pens and pencils, pocket knifes, old thumbdrives, book manuscripts, keys, cables, in-progress projects, client-specific items, old journals I haven’t scanned yet, charging adapters, and much more. Each drawer has a particular focus, and over time and with repeated usage, I get pretty good at knowing where a given item is located. Repetition builds and extends recollection, so that I’m not usually rummaging through all 21 drawers to find a given object. For the drawers I use frequently, I know where to find what I’m looking for.

But the drawers are inter-changeable, so one can be withdrawn easily from one drawer unit and put into another one. So it’s entirely possible – and I’ve done this multiple times over the years – to re-allocate where each drawer is. Some items move to the top of the drawer stacks, others move towards the bottom.

And what chaos it creates. Now I’m usually rummaging. Now I’m opening each drawer in quick succession to find the object I’m looking for. Now I’m annoyed because something has moved, even though it was me who moved it – for a good reason. But once again, it’s a short-term pain and things settle into a new pattern; I know where to look, I can quickly locate each item, and I’m ready to work.
Making improvements to my drawer allocations has similar short term impacts when improving work through new tools like Office 365. While the baseline toolset is roughly the same – Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook – achieving the impact and improvement requires changes in behaviour.

From hiding files on a personal drive to hosting them in SharePoint or OneDrive.

From controlling the world through Outlook to collaborating with the world through Teams, Yammer and Skype.

From relying on intentional search in SharePoint to resting with intent-aware serendipity via Delve and the Office Graph.

And then once you have developed a new rhythm, Microsoft changes things. Moves the drawers, as you will. A new feature here, a deprecated feature there, and a moved around feature over there … and the new way of working you were developing gets disrupted (slightly or more severely). But persevere. See the change, understand what it means for you, and keep going. Because truth be told (apologies in advance, I couldn’t resist saying it this way) – mark my word here – if you want to excel, you will need to change your outlook on toolset change and just flow with it individually and within your team.

The drawers might have been shifted. But you can still do your work with agility, flexibility and awesomeness. It will just take a few days to recapture your rhythm.

A Better Word Than Change?

Change. Doing something different.
Learning. Mastering a new area. Building new knowledge and skills.
Progress. Moving forward. Usually has the sense of an envisioned destination towards which the movement is being made.
Improve. Become better.
Better. More desirable, satisfactory, or effective.

What’s that old saying about “the only things constant in life”? Death is one. Taxes is the second. Change is often appended as the third (although I’m sure we could add Chuck Norris jokes there somewhere). The first two are on the negative side of the scale; things we’d rather avoid, or minimise. So why is change there too? Is it equally negative or to be avoided? It would seem weird to put something delightful along with two more negative items.

But then again, when I look at the list of words at the top of this post, perhaps the word and its connotations are negative. There’s a sense of different in the word “change,” but no sense of goal directedness or a better destination. At worse it is just different, and thus annoying, disruptive, and unsettling to the way we live, work and contribute.

And yet few of us don’t want the other four items on the list. To learn to become more. To make progress towards goals and dreams. To improve the way we work and live, and thus the contribution we make to the world and our loved ones. To get better today than we were yesterday. To do better work, to become capable of adding more value to others, and to increase our ability to be and do.

Change? No thanks. I’d rather make progress, improve and get better (which the astute reader will immediately recognise as all requiring change – but change as a process of enablement, not a destination to pursue).

Maintain and Step Up

The Stages of Change model I reference in User Adoption Strategies has a final stage called “maintenance.” The intent of this fifth stage in the model is that the change introduced is done repeatedly, not just once. That the change in behaviour becomes the new way of living or working, not a one-time experiment that’s quickly done and quickly forgotten. It’s the building of momentum after getting the bike going, of not smoking on day four after three no cigarette days, and of closing the rings on your Apple Watch again today. It is about starting a chain of change and not breaking the chain today.

Maintenance is an essential stage in change, and arguably it is the most important stage because it’s the cadenced practice of change that’s makes change the new reality. A change embraced is a change lived daily, not a magical place to visit on vacation once a year.

My question, then, is whether there’s a difference between “maintenance” and “settled”, and how to embrace continuous improvement while maintaining what you’ve already conquered? To maintain something is to keep the object or practice at a particular level of quality. There is no sense of pushing beyond a pre-determined level though; maintenance is about prior levels, not new future possibilities. To become settled in doing something is to continue in a prescribed way – a settled way of life. Again, there’s no sense of pushing forward.

Perhaps the way to reconcile maintenance and continuous improvement is to see a stair case of change. To make a change is to climb to the next step. To maintain the change is not to step back down to the previous step. To embrace continuous improvement is to develop the skill to stay on the step you’re currently on, but also to look towards the requirements of the next step.

Maintain and step up.

Maintain and step up.

Maintain and step up.

Slinging Mud

I was talking with a colleague last week, and asked about a recent learning and development program on change management he attended. He said that in his discussions with prospective clients about adoption services for Office 365 he was often asked: “Is this real change management, or just adoption?”


After I wrote my book on adoption strategies, I fielded a similar question in workshops and consulting engagements. “What’s different about adoption strategies and change management?” (for consistency, that should really be “adoption management” not “adoption strategies”). My answer was always to this effect:

Too often change management is practiced as an afterthought, and one email from the CEO is viewed as enough to have done ‘change management’ (ticked the box). I used a new term to force a re-think about what’s actually involved in helping people to embrace a new way of working with collaboration tools and approaches.”

I have spent the better part of the last decade in research and writing mode to create a strong foundation to help adoption strategists and adoption managers practice their craft better. That is:
User Adoption Strategies, with a model and a set of strategies for approaching adoption of collaboration tools. One of the reasons for writing this book (and the first edition in 2010) was that organisations were fixated on training as the answer, and that just didn’t work (very low effectiveness).
Collaboration Roadmap, providing the strategic view on how to conceptualise the approach to and use of collaboration tools. There’s a lot of strong guidance in this book around change and adoption.
– three books on using real-to-life scenarios (an adoption strategy) to create the context for adoption activities. These books focus on vision and possibility, not click-here-and-then-here training. See Seamless Teamwork (SharePoint 2007), Doing Business with IBM Connections (Connections 4.5) and Re-Imagining Productive Work with Office 365 (Office 365, at May 2016).

At their best both change management and adoption management aim high and for a similar goal: to create beneficial change by setting up the context, equipping people with competence to embrace the change, and providing craft skills to make the changes the new and accepted way of working. But here’s the rub in the mud: at their worst, change management is practiced as a one-time email from the CEO, and adoption management is practiced as training.

To those practicing change management at such a low level, go learn the craft properly.

To those practicing adoption management as training, go learn the craft properly … or find yourself a new field. Stop inflating your training business by calling it adoption. While training can and should be part of managing adoption, it is never the full story. And we should never accept any training program in an organisation unless we first understand the place of training in the larger adoption picture: context, competence, and craft.

“Adoption is just about training.” Not so much.

Improving Things for Knowledge and Information Workers

Knowledge and information workers don’t produce physical product. They are paid to use their brains – leveraging a domain of knowledge, ways of thinking, ways of approaching a problem, ways of creating solutions to problems, and so on. There’s a mental process at the core of how such people deliver value, even if there’s a physicality to how that value is delivered (such as a document, report, slide deck, article, etc.).

The “factors of production” for knowledge and information workers are intangible and largely invisible. Yes, there is likely to be a computer and smartphone (among other devices), some apps, a line of empty coffee cups, and … perhaps some pens, paper and Post-It Notes. But these are only supportive of the knowledge and information process, not primary to them. The primary tools are mental thinking models, learned patterns of approaching a problem, and concentration to build mental models and solve problems in the mind.

How do we improve the productive capacity of a knowledge and information worker? It’s a tough question since so much is intangible and invisible, but my answer is that strengthening the processes that form the intangible and invisible is the primary way of doing that. Which means:

  • Better ways of thinking about problems, such as better questions to understand the problem domain, better content mastery in the domain itself, and better ways of structuring what you hear and learn. Idea mapping, mind mapping, and even dialogue mapping provide tools for doing this. As do checklist to prompt and guide thinking, so as to ensure nothing is neglected.
  • A greater ability to concentrate and focus on problems and finding answers to problems. This could be clarity on what the problem is (hence reducing mental confusion), or a concentration-friendly environment in which to work with few interruptions and distractions. Like seeds in the garden, mental models and ideas need quiet space in which to grow and develop, and interruptions break them very quickly.

If we accept the above as being true, then the prescription for most knowledge and information workers would be:

  • Health and wellbeing are essential. You can’t perform at work if your body is stuffed. Fresh air. Walks. Exercise. Good nutrition. Enough sleep. Etc.
  • Providing the space and place for practicing knowledge and information processes is essential. Such work spaces should prioritise focus, concentration and quietness when required, and the ability to interact with others as and when needed. But interruptions, disruptions, and unwarranted / unwanted background noise are minimised or eliminated.

I have spent much the past couple of decades consulting on approaches for strengthening collaboration, and I do believe good tools and better approaches help with knowledge and information work. But there is an equally – or more so – complement to opportunities for collaboration, and that’s space for solo work. Of ceasing to talk and starting to work.

P.S. So the nuance is about relative importance, and that you can’t have all collaboration nor all concentration in the quietness. Both are required. But open offices, social media, enterprise social tools, apps with relentless notifications, group chat tools and more … have pushed the modern worker too far into the realm of collaboration. We need to find a new balance that actually works.

P.S.S. Ask yourself this question: What would enable me to improve my work? In 2018, is the answer more collaboration, interaction, distractions, disruptions and interruptions? Or something else?

What is Working? A Question of Discovery

One of the questions to ask when evaluating a current work activity or process (at whatever level you engage with that – e.g., business model, system) is what is working? What is going well? It is important to note that this should only ever be a question of discovery, not a discovery of the unquestionable. The form of every activity or process can be analysed for current performance outcomes – the good, the bad, the challenging. But when the activity or process is changed, the set of outcomes will change too, and the promise of doing re-imagining right is that the collection of outcomes become better over time – even though they are likely to be different.

One method for asking what is working is called Appreciative Inquiry (see Wikipedia or Rob Lambert’s article on LinkedIn). The intent of an appreciative inquiry session is to focus on the current positive outcomes – to create a place for talking and discussing these. The meta-intent is to force participants to think at a different level, and to avoid fixating on what is not working in the current activity or process. Maybe it’s the re-imagining equivalent to expressing gratitude and being thankful during the day: the discipline forces us as individuals to pay attention to the multitudinous good things in our lives, rather than the problems and challenges that your relentlessly in your face. Gratitude is a way of shifting what you pay attention to, without diminishing the reality of the problems. When your mindset changes, your emotions shift, and thus your capability to respond (rather than react or lash out) shifts too.

Appreciative Inquiry isn’t just a “what’s wonderful with this” love-fest though. It creates a base of shared discussion around what is working, and then shifts to a space for contemplating what could be better. It’s the pull of the vision of the future, the pull of the idea of excellence, the pull of the thought of becoming a better functioning team / group / process / business … born of a confidence that we have already created something good, and thus have the skills to push towards something greater. Under this approach, it is a question of discovery.
To be avoided, as I mentioned above, is that asking what is working becomes a discovery of the unquestionable. The idea that because we value today’s outcomes (rewards, good things) so highly that we want to preserve indefinitely and at all the costs the current stream of benefits. Without change. Without progress. Without any sense that it could be even better than it is today, although different. Otherwise we become trapped like the monkey, or caught by the endowment effect, and thus the current good thing that we have today traps us from ever moving forward.

[1] To catch a monkey, they say (never done this myself, despite living in Zambia for almost 4 years when I was younger), you make a hole in a gourd (or coconut if you have one), fill it with sweets or nuts, and then tie the gourd in a tree. Monkey-to-be-caught comes along and puts a hand into the gourd, grabs the contents in his or her fist, and then can’t pull out the now filled hand. They won’t let go, and then neither will the hunter. What’s currently good (the sweets) robs forever the monkey of the greater good (freedom tomorrow and the next day and the next day). See the movie version (using a termite mound) or the sermon version.

[2] The endowment effect says that we place a higher value on something we already own than what it is actually worth currently. See Louis Chew.

Goals Not Tools

Several years ago at the Australian SharePoint Conference (hosted by ShareThePoint), Lou Zulli presented a session called Making Sure That the SharePoint Solutions Your Team Has Created Don’t Go to Waste. One of his points created an a-ha in my head. This was his point:

Make things easier. Eg., teachers were asked to store all of their course materials electronically. The original intent was to scan everything in. Instead, developed a new application using InfoPath, with lookups, pre-population of the form based on lookups. Unintended consequence – teachers are now collaborating with other teachers, because they can see what others are going to teach. And it’s cross-disciplinary, eg., science working with maths.

This was my train of thought …

1. When the focus is on introducing a new tool, you will look at what is currently done in the work process and find the new equivalent way to do it in the new tool. While there are benefits in having course materials available electronically, much more could be done.

2. The more could be described as improving the process, as Lou’s team did in developing a new InfoPath application. SharePoint provided many more options beyond just storing a scanned image file; the process could be re-imagined as an online app that took advantage of the capabilities of SharePoint. But something greater could happen too.

3. The something greater was when the goal changed – to that of cross-disciplinary collaboration. We often break the world into easy to digest chunks, and start thinking in content silos, but there’s a lot of overlap and cross-pollination that happens from having a wider perspective. Education is taught in subjects, but life is not experienced that way. What Lou’s team did with the InfoPath form brought back something of the origin story of education.

And then this was my a-ha moment – a new way of seeing something I’d already written about in several of my books (see image above):

1. If you focus on the goal (outcome), process improvements and tools are just implications. If the population of affected people embrace the goal, the change to process and tool are just implications / consequences. No big deal.

2. When you focus on the process improvement, the tools are just implications. You have to be careful that you don’t optimise an increasingly irrelevant process, however, and the need to change process design may be questioned.

3. When you just focus on introducing a new tool, you have the highest likelihood of either resistance to the proposed change, or that the tool is embraced in the most basic way possible. It doesn’t change the process. It doesn’t affect the goal.

Thanks Lou.

From Changing Tools to Making Progress – Improving Amenability

In Part 1, I introduced the three slices of the existing setting, and asked how far a change of some defined kind would go when introduced. I outlined some possibilities, and likened the situation to adding an effervescent tablet to a glass of water (as a liquid, or when partially and completed frozen).

Let’s play with that idea. If the water is partially or completely frozen, what options do you have to make the glass of water more amenable to the effervescent tablet? I came up with four options:

1. Warm up the surrounding environment. For example, put the glass into a bucket of warm water.
2. Smash and pummel the ice, ideally after you’ve removed it from the glass though.
3. Warm up one slice and allow that to slowly change the rest.
4. Superheat the soon-to-be introduced change. This requires imagining the tablet as a metal disc (stretch here) that could be heated in order to have an immediate effect when added to the top of the frozen ice.

Since we’re not actually interesting in the glass of water and are only using it as a metaphor, what could those four strategies look like in an organisational setting?

1. Warm Up the Context. Start talking about the need for change. Start modelling the new behaviours that will be required for the change to be successful. Hire new people into the team or group who have different expectations and mindsets, and who have some experience with similar changes in other settings.

2. Smash and Pummel. Implement a very disruptive change that breaks apart the existing setting. For example, fire half the team and bring in new talent. Or de-establish the team entirely and force everyone to re-apply for their jobs, with new job descriptions on the table, and all jobs open to new comers as well. Include new ways of working as part of the new job descriptions.

3. Warm Up One Slice. Change the office layout to facilitate new interaction models and collaborative occasions. Or introduce training sessions on a continuous improvement methodology, and explore how this could be applied to the tasks done in the unit. Or run a workshop on team culture, get an assessment done, and start exploring how to improve the cultural tone / smell of the unit.

4. Superheat the Change. Become an over-the-top evangelist and champion for the upcoming change, hyping it as the best thing ever. Drink the Kool-aid. Go full out on buzzword bingo. Set a high bar in terms of what it will do.

My assessment is that a mix of #1 and #3 would be most effective. #2 could backfire significantly, and while it may be eventually required, shouldn’t be the first strategy to try. And #4 is pretty much doomed to fail, because while it will have an immediate effect on what it touches initially, it is most likely to be neutralised fairly quickly, but not before you have turned the initially people against the rest of the team, and vice versa.