Five things to remember when trying to change a company
One of the recurring things I've seen at companies large and small is that they often have really great people who don't necessarily have the breadth of experience to push processes in the "right" direction. It's happening a lot less in software circles than it used to, in part because people move around so much, and they build big boxes of best (or better) practices. Still, some people will only have experience moving between suboptimal environments, some will have long-term engagements that simply don't expose them to new things, and others will be the kind of stakeholders that by default won't expose them to alternatives (specifically, small company owners).
Let me make it clear that I'm not dogging these people at all. As I've said before, questioning everything in order to innovate is exhausting. Furthermore, we're all a product of our experience. Frankly we're often too busy executing what we do to stop and take a look around and see if we can do things in a better way.
This means that you might come into a situation where you can clearly see how changing some things around would benefit the company and everyone involved. The hard part isn't a technical problem, it's a people problem. You have to deal with a mix of personalities, and people are naturally adverse to change to varying degrees. Here are some tips you can follow to make those changes start to roll.
1. It's not about you.
I think your gut reaction is to throw your hands in the air and say, "You're all wrong, do it my way!" I'm guilty of that. It's a career limiting move, certainly, but I don't have to explain why it isn't effective. Your motivation for changing things can make for a great resume bullet point down the road, but ultimately, to keep the cause focused, you need to make your desired outcome all about the team or company. Remove your own ego from the equation.
2. Campaign, don't order.
If you were running for office, you wouldn't put all of the voters in a room and tell them to vote for you because you've got it right, and your opponent has it wrong. That wouldn't work. When you're trying to change processes, the more radical the change, the less likely you can get people in a room and get them to agree with you. I've made that mistake, too. It doesn't matter how logical you are, or the data you have to back up your position. The crowd will beat you down.
Instead, once you have some understanding about the people involved, you can go to them individually, and explain to them why you want to make the change. Get them to understand why it's good for them, and it's good for the team. Repeat that process, and you'll start to get momentum and consensus.
3. Don't try to be the life of the party.
When you enter a new social situation, or start a new job, you don't show up and try to be a big hit with everyone. Even if you have decision making authority (or pour the drinks), you quietly hang out in a corner and observe what's going on. The same thing is true when you're trying to change how things operate. You need to build rapport, understand who the players are, see the vision of the business.
4. Consider the context.
Early in my volleyball coaching career, I came up with a system derived from a number of things I had seen at different levels of the game, packaged it up, and decided to go all-in with a team to try it. The results were astonishing, and I felt like I cracked the code.
The next year, I tried to do the same thing, and it was falling flat. Once I stopped and looked at what was failing, I started to realize that everything I knew was still mostly correct, but I had to make some changes to apply to this different set of girls. You have to make the same changes when you're trying to apply a process you know to be better in a new environment. Taylor the process for the people and context.
5. Incremental change is easier than the big bang
This one is the hardest. We're anxious to institute massive changes as fast as possible because we want the better outcome as fast as possible. Make no mistake, people are going to get in your way, and fight you at every turn if you try to change everything all at once.
It's easier to break things down into smaller chunks and attack them separately. If you're really slick, you might even be able to do a number of these chunks concurrently, with different people involved. That's when you're a process changing ninja. They don't even know you're there.