Resistance is Futile … But People Do It Anyway

The following is an edited version of my response to a question about experiencing the value of systems in an organization.  You can read the original post and my full response HERE.

Clutter - Veronidae on WikipediaI have repeatedly experienced the impact of well-designed systems on work flow, collaboration, and business outcomes, but one experience always sticks out.

A national social services organization implemented a comprehensive and standardized work flow and data organization system which included what some called a “micro-manager” approach to how people structured their work days and how they retained or deleted/threw away information generated in the course of business.

The goal was to standardize our work, get on top of data curation, and to become a more agile and flexible organization. After the inital design and training by a consultant, I and one other person had to actually implement the system, first in our corporate office and with regional staff, then later in field units.

The resistance was fierce from some quarters and usually focused on one or more of the three issues below.  As I worked with these main types of resistance for over four years, I came to some realizations:

You are treating us like children by forcing us to file everything the same way”

Standardization is often seen as a threat or, at best, an inconvenience.  Most folks do not like to be arbitrarily required to do the same thing as everyone else.

You mean I can’t talk to anyone when I’m working?

People crave connection and may not understand the impact of social conventions.  Your “quick chat” just to be friendly may be a disruption to their concentration and focus.

“I already have a system that works for me, so why should I change?”

Individuals who already have their own solutions may not think much of your solution … and they may have a better solution for them individually.

The most effective response to all this resistance, at least in my case, was to clarify and reinforce the reasons why we chose to move to this level of standardization.  

This meant consistent and continual emphasis in both formal and informal communications at all levels of four primary rationales around implementation of this new and disruptive system (roughly paraphrased below):

1) Increased standardization helps everyone understand their personal, departmental, and organizational workflow more easily and quickly. When you understand the system well, you can use the system effectively.

2) Systems work best when everyone works the same system, which requires some sacrifice from some folks. Your system may work best for you, but this is often because it is what you already know.  The organizational system has to work for everyone.  (BTW, these are the people I recruited to serve as “experts” to help me carry out the system.)

3) When everyone across the organization clearly understands the rules and guidance for what information to keep, what to get rid of, and where to store what you keep, things work better.

4) Change is hard and may feel uncomfortable. This is natural and to be expected as we shift to a more clearly defined system.  This is also especially true when part of the change threatens our natural tendency to be friendly, even at the cost of effectiveness.

Many felt that the idea of overtly protecting their time when focusing on important business work was “unfriendly” and a few just declared “I could never do that.”  This was a tact decision to put the business of the organization, which was in fact a mission-driven religiously affiliated organization, on a lower priority than a casual interaction with a co-worker who was just “saying Hi“.  

Communication is not about quantity, but about the quality of messages sent and received.  

A reality is that organizations do not either have or not have systems. The worst company in the world has systems … they just don’t work very well:).  Our culture encouraged employees to consider themselves “family“, which was nice, but also resulted in a variety of ineffective work practices.

BONUS POINT:  Not all systems are formal.

Implementing an effective formal system requires us to root out all the informal or even secret systems which have developed over the years.

Remembering a powerful experience that was really more about people than about systems in the Heartland ….



Image:  Veronidae on Wikipedia