Pondering the Ponderous

Inertia makes it difficult for large objects in motion to change direction. Large organizations suffer from an institutional inertia that makes it difficult for them to adapt and conduct business in new ways. This can apply to the way mail is delivered, phones are answered, files are stored, supplies are purchased, and a multitude of other areas large and small.

Change is hard, changing how hundreds or thousands of people do their jobs is very hard. People are uncomfortable changing how they work. They may not like everything they are doing or understand it, but at least it is familiar and they know what to do at each step. People are often afraid of making mistakes and losing their jobs. So while the head of the company talks about being on the “cutting edge” and “leading the industry” the workers in the trenches are fearfully looking at the cutting edge and worrying that they are the ones about to get cut.

Education and Exploration

Most large organizations end up hiring workers with less than a Harvard education. These workers are often average folks who are hard working within reason and try to do their jobs well. However, they often lack a greater understanding of the organization and do not like to push boundaries. The average employee is not an explorer. They will learn enough to do their job and no more. They will not look for ways to change and improve themselves or the organization.

If you want your average employee to change you will have to provide an incentive. You can offer educational classes, training seminars, web classes, and other opportunities but the response is generally lukewarm at best. This leads many employers to threaten employees with harsh punishments if they do not participate – “Take the online class OR ELSE!” This strategy, of course, almost never works. On the other hand, employers who offer positive reinforcement for employee learning see better results but have a harder time getting employees started on the right path.

The Power of Why

Small children know the power of the word “Why”. They recognize that that simple question elicites a response in adults and attention that they crave. Asking “why” gives a child with little knowledge of the world a way to ask about things they don’t understand. And they can keep asking almost indefinitely as most parents and babysitters can attest. Somewhere along the way many children stop asking “why”, and that is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

Employees who ask “why” are the ones who keep a company from stagnating and dying. Managers who encourage employees to ask “why” will find that their department tends to increase productivity as processes and common practices are questioned and, if needed, refined. Unfortunately many managers are not secure enough to let their subordinates question anything and everything about how they do business. They are uncomfortable having their decisions questioned and some feel as though asking “why” is disrespectful or undermining their authority. While a natural response for many this is leads to negative reinforcement as employees see their boss’s reaction to their questions or suggestions. Over time those questions and suggestions will dry up.

Your average employees can learn that asking questions and looking for ways to improve leads to more job security and success if they are properly rewarded and reassured. Management can only do this by actively seeking the input and involvement of the workers on a daily basis. Engage employees by sitting down with them as they work, talking about what they do and why. Ask what they struggle with and why. Ask what they think should be done to improve things and why. See the pattern there? Good. These types of open ended questions can get workers in a frame of mind to look for problems and solutions as they work.

The Inertia of IT in Large Organizations

Information Technology groups in large organizations are supposed to help non-technical employees by supplying the tools they need to find and use information to get their jobs done. They are supposed to be the ones who are able to come up with solutions to problems and show others how to do things using computers and other technology. They are supposed to forge ahead and pull everyone along with them. But they don’t.

In large organizations workers often end up dreading interactions with the IT people. The IT people are unapproachable, they don’t interact with the workers on a daily basis, they don’t seem to care about getting things done quickly or efficiently, and they hate change or variation from what has been done before. From an IT perspective this is often reasonable. Non-IT employees are the ones that bring you problems. They break hardware and download spyware. They ask for things you don’t have on hand. Everyone wants something a little different. They can’t operate a mouse much less understand writing complex search strings using regular expressions like they should darn it.

So regular workers don’t like dealing with IT people and IT people don’t want to deal with regular workers. That’s not a healthy arrangement. IT people want to avoid headaches so they push toward keeping everything the same everywhere and avoid change. This is a natural response to keeping up with day to day maintenance of large internal applications and thousands of computers on a network. It makes sense for system admins to insist on reducing variability and resisting change to avoid wide scale system crashes. But this tends to become a rigidity that leads to stagnation and discourages regular workers from coming to IT with ideas for improvement.

It is the responsibility of IT workers to engage regular employees and to help them through the process of turning questions into ideas and suggestions and then into solutions to problems that the IT group can put in place.

So our keys to success are:

  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage employee learning
  • Teach employees to ask “why” by actively showing them how
  • Work with IT to reduce barriers to change and push through the institutional inertia
Kevin Hall
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