Friday, October 13, 2006

All change

As some of you may have noticed I’ve been blogging a bit more in the last month.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I’ve started using BlogJet – more on this some other time, and second, I’ve got more time on my hands, my employer has downsized and I’m an ex-employee as of today.  This is a blog that returns again and again to the subject of change and here it is again.  My ex-employer has decided on some changes and those changes effect me. 

On the whole I’m skeptical about the power of corporate management to actually change a company, it always seems to me that the guy sitting at the top wearing the CEO hat has little power to change what the guy on the production line 6 layers below actually does.  I’m not saying you can’t, I’m just more of a believer in bottom-up strategy and change than top-down.  However, you can lay people off from the top and that effects everyone all the way down.

Lay-offs are a very blunt tool for this, sure they are a fast way of creating change but they are also a bit like rolling the dice and seeing what happens next.  You can probably have a fair idea what will happen when you axe an entire department or product line but when you pick people from all over the organization what happens next?  Sure you bottom line improves, but how does the organization fill those gaps?  Perhaps more importantly, how do you ensure that some gaps don’t get filled, say, you have decided to stop doing X, you can get rid of the people doing X but how do you make sure the people doing Y don’t try to cover for the loss?

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t downsize.  If improving the finances is the top priority do it.  Neither is it to say you shouldn’t do change this way, rolling the dice, shaking things up will produce change, as long as you have good people in place things should work out for the best.

Actually, I think a lot of change initiatives come down to rolling the dice.  When you introduce a change you can never be quite sure how things will turn out.  If you have a work force that is empowered, act under their own autonomy and are used to having freedom in their work then you never really know how they will react.  Conversely, if you have a work force that just does what is told and lives in fear of management you may well get unexpected behaviour as you ratchet up the pressure and fear.

So what can you do?  How do you weight the dice for a better outcome?

Well, in my model of the world management is like steering a boat.  You have a tiller and you constantly adjust it, so, as a manager you constantly communicate with your workers, you make it clear were you are trying to go and you are constantly applying minor changes to the tiller, a little left, a little right, a gentle touch to keep you going in the right direction – nothing too drastic.

Then you have the oars, one on the left, on the right.  These can complement or contradict the tiller – assuming you have both.  One oar is marked Leadership and the other is marked Authority, sometimes you give it a little leadership and sometimes you apply a little authority.  Hopefully you are going with the current so you can leave the oars out of the water most of the time and just use the tiller.  And thats the other part of the trick, to find the route that allows you to naturally go in the right direction.

Enough of company change, what about me?  How am I facing up to change?

First thing here is that I’ve just been through the British redundancy process.  I’ve seen people made redundant in Britain before and in the US.  The British process used to be a lot more like the US process: “Get your things, leave now” – short and sharp.  Now Britain is more “European” so it involves drawn out consultations.

The consultation process is supposed to be reasonable and fair.  I’m sure it works well if you are a car company and your closing and entire factory with unionised workers.  However, for a small, high-tech company with non-unionised workers its a pain for both managers and workers.

Managers naturally want to get the redundancies over and get the company back to normal.  Workers want certainty – both those staying and those going – but the British process drags it out.  Management are supposed to go into the process with an “open mind” (and can be prosecuted if they don’t) but workers don’t really believe this, they see game play and politics, they see managers stepping through a legal process because they have to with little hope of changing the outcome.

I’m sure some management groups do go into the process with a closed mind and set script but I’m also a believer in Occam’s Razor and I don’t think management start off with some script, stage directions and a pre-determined ending.

(I should make one thing clear, I have absolutely no idea at all how much of an open or closed mind my ex-employers had when they started their process.  I’m optimisitic and think they did have some openness but I have no idea how much.  My comments here are made in general from limited knowledge and experience.)

Anyway, now I’m unemployed and I need to get myself into gear for finding work – or at least earning money.  I suppose I should be spending all my time doing that.  Instead I’m spending a lot of time finalising the arrangements for my wedding next Saturday, on top of that I’m finishing off some writing projects and reflecting a bit on what has just happened – hence this blog entry.

And what next?

Well, I’d like to help companies build great software, and through building great software build great companies.  Both these objectives lead to one thing: building people.

Question is: how should I do this?

Well, I might just go and get myself another job as a Product Manager, a Project Manager, a Business Analyst, a Software Development Manager or something like this.  If you know of such a job call me!

Or, I might set up shop on my own and sell my consultancy services on these topics.

Sometimes it seems like I’ve done everything in software, I’ve been a developer, team leader, product manager, change agent, programmer, analyst, a system administrator, I’ve had a couple of entrepreneurial dabbles and a bunch of other stuff too.

So, if you know of any company that would like a few days advice on how to improve their software development process, practices and strategy let me know I’m available right now.

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