SQLServerCentral Article

Managing Change


Change is inevitable... Change for the better is not.

(Jeff Moden)

Time has taught me to view change (and the decisions that drove change) in a more kindly light.  Things that seemed desperately important then seem less so now.

Put it this way, Betamax always was a superior format to VHS but the world went with VHS.  Some of you won't remember VHS/Betamax even means but that doesn't matter.  What is important is that we enjoyed the movies of that age.  It is much the same thing with tech choices currently fueling passionate debates.

Experience has shown me the difficulties in making changes, both as a manager and as a member of staff.  The technical bits were the easy bit, the social and cultural changes required were orders of magnitude harder to put in place.

I found evolutionary change far easier to accept and support than revolutionary change.  Revolutions are rarely blood free affairs, even those that are well organised and executed.

A well organised revolution (the rarity)

In nearly 40 years I have seen are barely a handful of well organised revolutions .  I should like to share one that sticks in my mind.  The CEO assembled his team carefully.  They came up with a simple, clear mission statement, strategy and programmes of work aligned to the strategy.  These all dovetailed together.

Everytime the CEO or his team spoke or interacted with staff they found a way to relate what they were saying back to the mission statement and strategy.   This meant that everyone knew three things

  • How the projects they were working on aligned to the programmes of work
  • That the programmes of work aligned to the strategy
  • The strategy was moving us towards the stated mission

The CEO personally sponsored the staff and management training programmes that were needed.  Again, these were clearly aligned to the new strategy.

As Patrick Lencioni describes it, the management team were over-communicating organisational clarity.

I am not saying that the changes were easy but at least we had the clarity of what we were trying to do, and why.  People were lost who we would much rather have kept. Some felt the end result of the required change was not where their dreams lay.  Others, through no fault of their own, will be let go as their roles, and even departments, were no longer required.

Chaotic IT revolutions (the majority of them)

I think that, in hindsight, the organisational revolutions I would deem chaotic have at least two of the following characteristics.

  • No obvious benefit to the customer, either directly nor as a result of change.  What your customer's want to buy must be the star you steer by.
  • Technology driven and/or trying to disprove Fred P Brooks "No Silver Bullet"
  • Lack if clarity, even as to why the change is happening, much less the what and the how
  • Poor communication from above
  • Evidence that managers are also not clear on the change they have been asked to manage.

Revolutions are striding into new territory so clarity and ongoing communication are essential to avoid the impression of an ill thought out whim from the C suite.

Staff reaction to revolution

Staff turnover is going to be higher in such times.  I've already mentioned choice and redundancy but those can act as catalysts for others to reassess their jobs too.

Different people have different views on change.

  • It is good
  • Probably good but I need to see evidence
  • Likely to be bad and I need to be convinced
  • Change is always bad

I don't think it is fair to say that DBAs are Eeyores,  gloomy and resistant to change, but we are cautious.  The disciplines of our jobs require us to consider how things can go wrong and mitigate for them.  As a DBA if your databases that are ticking over nicely, easily coping with peak load, stable, secure and reliable you are going to want to know why anyone would risk throwing that away.  You are going to want to know what problems your organisation has that would be solved by a technology change?

Let us consider two approaches to getting people to change.   Conversion and coercion.

The Conversion approach

The example I gave of a well organised revolution demonstrates the conversion approach.  Making sure that people understood

  • Why change is necessary
  • What is needed to make that change
  • Where the changes needed to take place
  • How and why they were important to success
  • What the measures of success would be

Management make a significant upfront investment in time and effort.  The return on investment is that people in the "Change is probably good" camp agree that they have the evidence and are fully signed up to the revolution.  The people who think the "Change is probably bad" are thinking, "but this one shows promise and I can get behind it".  The majority actively support the changes required and will continue to do so of their own accord.

I would favour the conversion approach because one thing you need in a revolution is momentum.  Revolutions require amounts of effort that cannot be sustained in the long term.  If they get bogged down then they fail.

The Coercion approach

The coercion approach is when you demand compliance rather than earn conversion. People who have been coerced will backslide into old ways of doing things unless they are forced not to.  They may even find ways to resist the change.

  • Working more slowly than usual
  • Raising blocking issues that they could resolve for themselves
  • Saying things "I am waiting for a decision from person X" though person X has no awareness of that their decision is a blocking issue.
  • Making lists of activities they have to do before they can do what you demand of them

Coercion burns a huge amount of energy for both the people doing the coercing and those being coerced.  Companies may choose to use interim managers for such a change because coercion is toxic. It is a "win at all costs" strategy.

Legitimate cases where a coercive approach is the right one.

  • When the change required has to be achieved within a tight deadline.  There simply isn't time to win everyone around to a new way of thinking.
  • When the objective of the change cannot be reversed.  Imagine being coerced out an aeroplane with a parachute.  Once you have left the aeroplane it is physically impossible for you to reverse the decision, even though you were not the one making the decision.

From a leadership perspective I would say that conversion demands that you be at your very best, whereas coercion demands  your worst.

Advice for those of you undergoing a revolution

With big change comes big opportunities.  You will be stretched beyond what you thought your limits.  There is nothing like it for personal growth.  Whether that is right for you, only you can say.

Take time to think what the world will look like after the change.  How does that make you feel about your place of work?

Ask what will you get out of the change? What will you learn?  How will it stretch you?

Grasp the opportunities presented.

Look at the points I raised  under the "conversion approach" heading.  How many apply to your change? Are the ones that are missing red flags for you?

Don't be an unwilling passenger in a revolution.  Either commit to it and help it succeed or update your CV and start looking around.

Be an honest actor because resistance is futile.



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