There is a cartoon doing the rounds on social media. In the first frame, a business leader asks his staff, “Who wants change?” Every hand shoots up. In the second frame he asks, “Who wants to change?” Every hand stays down. This dichotomy is commonplace; businesses are caught between the drive for change and a strange reluctance to actually implement it. Here’s a case study in how fear sabotages business change.

Businesses are caught between the drive for change and a strange reluctance to actually implement it.

A company I once worked for sold an enterprise software package to a manufacturer in Oklahoma. Shortly after go-live, I was advised that the client wasn’t happy with the way the Accounts Receivable (AR) module functioned.

So I hopped on a couple of planes and made my way out to Oklahoma. I presented myself to the Finance Manager, a laconic Texan whose drawl was regularly drowned out by the supersonic jet trainers landing at the nearby air force base. I asked him what was wrong with our industry-standard AR package. “You’ll have to ask Arlene.”

Belly of the beast

I ventured further into the belly of the beast—well, the AR department—and there was Arlene. She looked like she hadn’t moved off the same stool since 1963. I repeated my query and received in reply a long list of faults. One by one I picked them apart, explaining how the outcomes she required could be achieved with the standard package. As I did so, Arlene’s explanations changed. Instead of trying to present her objections logically, she lapsed into “it’s always been that way” and “that’s how it is ‘round here.”

I returned to the Finance Manager and explained that all the issues could be handled with procedural, rather than programming, changes—or they could spend thousand of dollars on the modifications Arlene deemed imperative. He waited for the windows to stop rattling after a T-38 took off from the airbase then reluctantly scowled, “You’d better do what Arlene says.”

Groundhog Day

I flew out knowing I would be re-implementing 1950s business practices and programming limitations from long-dead software systems. Instead of using this opportunity to streamline their procedures, the manufacturer was stuck in the software equivalent of Groundhog Day. It’s a situation I’ve seen many times in my 25 years implementing enterprise software.

Why does it happen?

Arlene’s fear is key. Due to a combination of age and ability, she is never going to be promoted beyond the role of AR guru she has occupied for years. The one thing Arlene has that the business wants is her knowledge of AR in its current state. Change AR and what does Arlene have to offer? Fear grips her and she unconsciously starts undermining the new system. Before long she has a laundry list of faults and—as she is the AR queen—no one has the confidence to challenge her. Arlene’s fear infects ever-higher management levels and before long the new system’s potential advantages have been sacrificed to the insecurities of a single staff member.

Just as Arlene’s fear is the key to the problem, so it is to the solution. Instead of giving her the power to hijack systemic change, she should have been the first to receive training in the new system, perhaps even made responsible for training the rest of the team. She then retains her AR guru status—and her value to the business—as it transitions into a new world. Prioritising wellbeing delivers increased staff engagement. And it facilitates business change.

Image by Alexas Fotos on Pixabay

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.