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Laiserin's Lemma"Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Some Change?"
(lemma: a short theorem used in proving a larger theorem)
Jerry Laiserin

During a recent online chat, graciously hosted by Bentley as part of the ongoing Virtual BIUC Web extension to their dirt-world user conference, a platoon of putatively technophiliac CAD and IT managers and users vented their frustration with what they perceived as blind resistance on the part of presumably technophobic "senior management" toward any change in work process and procedure. Because the same complaint echoed from chat participants in AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure businesses, one may reasonably ask how much of this alleged resistance to change is vertical (industry-specific), horizontal (part of business culture), or a bit of both. How do you change resistance to change?

To paraphrase an observation by Dr. Joel Orr during his online chat, which immediately followed mine, the only place people like to see change is in a vending machine. Sticking with what we know seems hard-wired into our psyches, perhaps as a byproduct of evolutionary natural selection (extreme risk-takers—change addicts, if you will—were less likely to survive and reproduce, thereby diluting the change-friendly element of the gene pool). We tend to design our political, cultural, and economic organizations in ways that make them resistant to change (as they should be, because a healthy conservatism—in that word's apolitical sense—is among the main reasons we create such institutions in the first place). However, too much resistance to even the smallest, most gradual changes is not healthy. It can lead to a stultifying sameness that makes organizations vulnerable to bigger, more disruptive change (just as a static ecosystem with little biodiversity can succumb to catastrophic shifts in global climate).

So much for the horizontal, cultural factors. Going vertical, or industry-specific, we see that professionals, such as engineers and architects, have an ingrained resistance to change in their tools and methods precisely because of the standard of care required of the professions. Similarly, contractors and developers, who are engaged in inherently high-risk activities as their core business, may be resistant to change in non-core business functions (for example, buying new power tools before new computers). Thus, all participants in AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure industries may have seemingly good reasons to be more change-resistant than folks in other, more change-friendly industries such as finance.

Just as we sense acceleration rather than velocity, we may be comfortable with change that isn't "too fast"—with the qualifier "too" varying from one individual, organization, or circumstance to another. What's too much, too fast for me may be too little, too late for you. I may embrace DVD's and MP3's in my personal life, but prefer the technological equivalent of ruling pens on linen in my professional life, or vice versa.

Another useful analogy for this relativistic view of accommodating change is the amusement park roller-coaster. We're all on board for the same ride, but the folks in the first seat of the first car experience both the most exhilarating and the most frightening view (coaster enthusiasts can argue the merits of the whiplash effect to be had in the last car, but let's take that off-line as it would spoil my analogy). A few venturesome souls seek out that first-car experience, most are just along for the ride, and a final few have to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the infernal contraption (which is one reason that larger amusement parks offer a carefully calibrated progression of thrill rides, although it's not clear how anyone can get acclimated to the 90-degree—yes, ninety degrees, as in sheer vertical—first drop of the Knott's Berry Farm Xcelerator in Buena Park, California).

The lesson here for those who bear some responsibility for managing others' experience of change is this: unless you've identified a fearless adventurer or two, don't make anyone ride in the first car of your technological roller-coaster. Most people don't want to peer over that precipice, so don't oversell the current change with vertiginous visions of ever vaster changes to follow.

I'll take the argument a step further: it is senior management's job to shield the organization as a whole and the mainstream technology users within it from the most dizzying effects of rapid technological change, while still ensuring that everyone gets to ride. If senior management can't or won't handle that balancing act for everyone else in the organization, then I'd argue that it becomes technology management's job to manage the change expectations and perceptions of senior management. Hey, and if that doesn't work, hire a consultant.

Let me know what you think.


Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business



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