Last week I was on the road on the first of back-to-back visits with some of our newest customers. I have participated in these software conversion projects for nearly half a decade now, and even the smoothest conversions present challenges to everyone involved. After five years at my company, I have several thoughts on the common struggles both the vendor and the business will face during a conversion project, and how those challenges should be addressed. I will be compiling these thoughts into a video series which will be available on this blog in the coming weeks.
It was because this conversion series has been on my mind that I saw an allegory for software conversion projects during one of my commutes to the site last week. I was driving through a typical Kansas rainstorm…typical for Kansas meaning that the rain would alternate between barely needing the windshield wipers and can’t see the side of the road for the downpour of the rain. It made the drive on the Interstate a challenge not only for me, but for all of the others on the road with me that morning. But as we all headed towards our destinations, I noticed three distinct responses to the heavy rain bands that severely limited all of our vision.
The Safe Players
The Safe Players were the cars who had pulled over to the side of the road when the rainfall became too much of an obstacle for them. In the interest of their safety, and I’d like to believe for the safety of others on the road, they had pulled onto the shoulder of the interstate with their hazard lights flashing. “Don’t proceed!” they told us. “Visibility is limited and we do not know what is ahead!”
This is probably the safest course of action in the situation we found ourselves in. I would advise others of the same thing; if you do not feel comfortable driving, then pull off to the side and wait for the storms to pass. I do not see these people as being weak or being cowards. Everyone has a different threshold for discomfort, and they should stop when that threshold is exceeded beyond a reasonable measure.
But my mind went back to the many software conversion projects I have worked on. There are people in every conversion who are the living, breathing version of these Safe Players on the side of the interstate. Conversions can be messy and chaotic if they are poorly managed, and faced with that kind of opacity and chaos some employees will simply disengage until they feel it is safe for them to re-engage with their work and with the project. It’s an understandable response to the very real threat they feel because of the change that is often being foisted upon them without their approval. Make no mistake, when I see this happening, I know immediately that there has been poor, or perhaps no efforts made towards change management at all during the conversion.
My heart bleeds for these people when I see it. Not only because it is completely avoidable, but also because of the harm and further stress they are inflicting upon themselves by their natural instinct to remove themselves from the situation until the skies clear. By disengaging, they will be stuck sitting beside the interstate in their own job, left out of crucial decisions they may need to be a part of as the rest of the team finalizes workflows and functionalities. This will haunt them long after they have re-engaged in the process. You can sit on the side of the interstate in the rain, but by doing so you not only delay your arrival, you prolong your time in the worst part of the storm.
These are the people you pray you don’t find in the ditch in another hundred yards after they pass you in the monsoon at well above the speed limit for perfect weather conditions. The people who don’t seem to notice that visibility has been limited, or that the situation has changed. They just continue to drive the same way as they would on a perfectly dry interstate, heedless of conditions. They are a hazard not only to themselves, but to everyone else on the road as well.
I have also seen many of these types during software conversion projects. They do not care that a new software solution is coming in. They are going to continue to do their job the same way they have always done it, thank you very much. These Daredevils are disengaged but for a different reason: they are actively disengaged. It is not a protection mechanism as it is with the Safe Players. In my experience this is often driven out of a combination of fear of the unknown/fear for their positions, haughtiness that someone else is telling them how to do their job, and pride that makes it difficult for them to admit that there may be a better way to do their daily work. It is a complex mix of emotions that makes the Daredevils some of the most challenging to win over.
Their refusal to acknowledge the changing conditions around them presents all manner of risks not only to the project, but to the organization. Continuing to do things as if nothing ever changed not only can be ineffective and waste time, it can actively lead to serious errors or breaches of data. Because this tends to proceed from a place of both fear and anger, emotions which are very contagious, it also makes them dangerous to the culture of the organization.
This was my response to the changing conditions on the interstate. A pragmatist acknowledges that the conditions have changed by lowering speed, turning on headlights and windshield wipers, turning off the cruise control and asserting manual control over the vehicle. But they do not stop. They do not pull over to the side of the road waiting for conditions to improve, because they know that while these rain bands are a serious business, they tend to be very short. Rather than sit waiting for the storm to pass, they put down their heads, focus on the task at hand and before they know it, the world around them lightens as they emerge from the other side.
As long as there is at least one Pragmatist within the software conversion project team I am working with, I worry far less about the quality of the conversion. The Pragmatist is skilled not only at keeping the Daredevils in-line, but also in bringing along the Safe Players. If Pragmatists are properly empowered, they can focus the group towards the end goals and lead them safely to the other side of the storm.
I do all that I can to empower the Pragmatist I find in any software conversion project. Even if the business environment is a challenging one and they are not empowered from their own leadership, I can and have used my position as an SME from the vendor side to give them the empowerment they need to be able to guide others towards the goal. Sometimes it takes a pep talk. Sometimes it takes a strategy session. Sometimes it takes a frank analysis of the reality of the situation and adapting as needed. Normally it takes a mix of all of the above.
Which response to do take when times get rough? Are you a Safe Player? A Daredevil? A Pragmatist? And which of these would you rather be?