Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Change management: I'm asking you questions because I'm trying to help you get it right

If you were to say to me: "You have to make the following changes to your library management system," my response would be: "Perhaps. But not yet." This isn't me being precious or obstructive; this is me doing my job. There are times when the brown stuff is hitting the fan and you have to do something in a hurry but most of the time it isn't; and even when it is you need to go back and check your workings-out when the fuss has died down.

If you're working in an ITIL environment — and I am — the assumption has to be that you do what the customer asks, so long as it doesn't screw up the integrity of the system that you're managing. So I'd need to ask you a series of questions to make sure that it doesn't. It's important to point out that under ITIL it doesn't matter whether or not the requested change plays Hob with the business; so long as the system remains intact my job would be done. So, for instance, if you were to ask me to set the library loan period to two hours, with a £100 per hour overdue rate I'd be perfectly entitled to raise my eyebrows and ask: "Are you sure?" but the default position is that the change would be made. The customer is always right, within the confines of their rĂ´le and competencies. (I'm not being "neoliberal" here: "customer" in this context has a particular definition.)

That's the principle of the thing. In reality it's a bit more complicated because we want to avoid the dialogue: "It doesn't work." "It does work, it just doesn't do what you wanted it to do." This is a dismal and unproductive conversation which could do serious damage to the working relationship so we make the effort to avoid it. So I'll ask a few more questions:

"What do you want to do?"
It's astonishing how often this question causes a problem. If you don't know what you want to do, how will you know when you've done it? How will you know if the proposed change will address the issue to hand? And if it is the solution to a problem, is it the best solution? You'd be surprised how often the first applied solution to come along becomes accepted as an essential compnent of the process, regardless of the impact on the efficiency or effectiveness of the business. Just because you know how to pick a lock within two minutes just with the aid of a hair pin doesn't mean you'd necessarily want to throw your front door key away.

"Who does this affect and are they OK with it?"
Systems and services don't live in hermetically-sealed bubbles. At least have a think about who's involved and/or do an outline impact analysis on the back of a fag packet. And do make sure that anyone affected by the change knows about it and what it means to them. If the impacts are big and scary enough you may need to sketch out a communication strategy for them.

"What happens if it goes wrong?"
Give the risks a degree of respect. Don't assume nothing could go wrong or they'll come and bite you on the bum. Make sure you know what could happen if it goes wrong; what the impact would be; and that you have a Plan B, a safety net and/or the capacity to go back to where you started from.

"What do you mean by...?"
Make sure you're talking about the same thing with the same meaning. "Better," "Improved" and "Modernise" are words that should be deprecated in this conversation: what do they mean in the working context? For instance, a set of catalogue records may be more complete, with every tag full of data; or may exhibit a purer adherence to current cataloguing standards; or may be Dewey classified to fifteen decimals, but is it actually better? For whom? You may need to sketch out a quality description document for changes to key data or even a quality plan if you're talking about large-scale fundamental changes.

"How will you know if it's worked?"
Because we want to avoid that dark and dismal dialogue, right?

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