Managing Technical Change: If You Build It … Then What?

The 1989 Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams, rates 7.6 out of 10 stars on IMDB (the Internet Movie DataBase). That’s the equivalent of batting .760 in baseball. Not a bad average by the standards of mere mortals. The film also introduced into the popular lexicon, a statement for the ages, one that connotes the faithfulness required — even as it suggests the potential futility inherent — in adopting hope as a strategy: “Build it, and they will come.” It’s a beautiful sentiment for a movie. It’s a disaster-in-the-making for a business. Here’s why:

There’s only one meaningful criterion for measuring the success of any project: return on investment (ROI). It doesn’t matter if the project is a technical one (implementing a new system, perhaps) or an operational one (process re-engineering, perhaps). In many instances, the only investment heeded or tracked is the initial one; that is, the money and/or time expended on systems, consultants, or both. What’s neglected is the follow-through, whether that entails implementing and optimizing a new system to fulfill the requirements defined prior to implementation — or whether it entails training, coaching, and nurturing people through the logistical and psychological challenges of new processes and procedures. To put it simply: Once you build it, they might not come.

It’s About People, People

In the insurance industry alone, the road to the operational field of dreams is littered with the wreckage of innumerable failed implementations. We most often hear about the spectacular ones, the multi-million-dollar failures that make headlines and bring companies, careers, and psyches to the brink. But there are many others. And while we might categorize them as relatively minor — while they might go entirely unremarked — they’re failures, nevertheless; and failures always are costly. If all that’s lost is time, customer service, and opportunity, even those things find their ways to the bottom line.

Why do so many implementations, so many system replacements and re-engineered processes go wrong? We can name that tune in one word: people. And here’s the dirty little secret: In the preponderance of all instances, personal and professional, people are resistant to change until their fear of change is overcome by the pain of not changing, until they see what’s in it for them, why, and how. The remedy, unfortunately, is a nearly ubiquitous buzz-term. So, it’s rarely taken seriously anymore, and that’s presuming it’s not overlooked or ignored entirely. That buzz-term is: change management.

Success By the Numbers

It may seem difficult to successfully manage the challenges posed by change. Given the multiplicative vagaries of human nature, managing people through change can seem, at least initially, rather amorphous and ambiguous. To add complication to difficulty, the challenge is compounded by the presence of people other than employees. That’s right: There are customers relying on continuity and consistency for whom operations must be maintained with minimal interruption. But thought through logically — in advance of the project — these seemingly complex factors are causes for neither panic nor insomnia.

At risk of seeming simplistic, and while human nature leaves little room for sure things and guarantees, a few precautionary steps can carry almost any project to greater prospects for favorable outcomes:

  1. Change management is not about logistics. It’s about psychology. Inform your people about what’s coming. While you can’t be perceived as being guilty of giving them spin (fake it till you make it definitely won’t fly), present the impending changes in as non-threatening a manner as possible. Explain the nature of the changes clearly. Explain the reasons for the changes even more clearly. Make the benefits that will result from the changes — to all — as readily and apparently accessible as possible. Most important, emphasize the fact that everyone will be affected by the changes, encouraged to contribute, and given ample opportunities to succeed.
  2. Remember that every person learns differently. Provide different means and media in which they can avail training educational information, including on-site sessions; reference guides they can choose to download; self-paced, online training tools; webinars; and others, perhaps, by request. And make sure training and educational material remain available after the changes are implemented. The easier you make it to learn, the easier it will be for people to adapt to the changes — and the easier it will be for them to understand your determination to include them, to have them participate and succeed.
  3. Reward, don’t punish. It’s self-evident that not everyone can thrive in every environment, particularly in an environment defined by change. Attrition and turnover are inevitable and predictable outcomes of any change. But don’t overlook the corollary: You’ll always have people who are inclined to say, “But we’ve always done it this way,” or “But that’s not the way we used to do it.” The other side of that coin is, with change, new stars may emerge. People who’d been marginal performers may suddenly shine, particularly if they embrace the change and find it more suited to their particular thinking, their work habits, and their performance styles. Punishment will make people apprehensive about taking chances to take risks in a new environment. Rewards will make them eager to take ownership and succeed.
  4. Leave time and budget in your change-management plan to accommodate the unexpected and to incorporate the input of your employees and the feedback of your customers — especially if the change you’re managing includes automation. Two tried and true corporate axioms apply here: The first is, “A bad process automated is still a bad process.” The second is, “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.” Preclude both of those, and you’ll go a long way toward ensuring that your people and your project succeed.

Dollars and Common Sense

Does all this seem like just so much common sense? Good. It should. Change management is only as costly and self-defeating as you make it. But if you face it head-on — logically, honestly, and supportively — and if you approach it collaboratively rather than unilaterally, you’ll be surprised at how cost-effective and easy it can be. So will your people. Now that’s a field of dreams.

Go ahead. Build it. Take care of your people, and they will come.

Good luck with your project.

Lisa Smith is a Product Specialist at Brovada, developer of BrovadaOne, a connectivity platform for all insurance transactions and all parties to them — carriers, MGAs, brokers, wholesalers, and agents.