Two different but related posts got me thinking over the weekend. Jack Vinson writing Necessary but not sufficient, 2nd pass revisited the theory of constraints (a concept he introduced me to a couple of years ago – thanks Jack!). And the New York Times ran an article – Can you become a creature of new habits – about how our brains resist change.

The theory of constraints (ToC) assumes that, in order to improve, you must remove a constraint that limits performance relative to a goal. Often, the constraints are methods that are no longer effective. Four simple questions can identify the problem and what you need to do about ‘it’:

  1. What is the power of the technology?
  2. What limitation is being overcome?
  3. What old rules were followed because of (or are now causing) the limitation?
  4. What new rules need to be created?

A few SharePoint projects would benefit from this approach, along with ideas involving a 2.0 label 🙂 Here are the 4 questions again, using a (simple) example of adopting social media tools – wikis, blogs, social networking and news feeds:

1. What is the power of the technology?

Discover and benefit from expertise within (and beyond) the organisation; Become more responsive to feedback from customers, suppliers, partners and employees; Engage a community and create better products

2. What limitation is being overcome?

Our organisation chart does not reflect our expertise; Our customers use Internet tools that have enabled them to become more informed about our market and business than our employees; We are slow to respond to feedback and our last product missed market expectations

3. What old rules were followed because of (or are now causing) the limitation?

Rigid management hierarchy for product planning; Controls limiting access to the Internet (preventing access to news feeds and social networking sites); Approval required before publishing content or responding to web queries

4. What new rules need to be created?

Flatter organisation structure for decision-making; Encourage honest feedback; Open access to Internet tools to track customer, market and competitor intelligence; Policy for writing and responding to blogs and other social media

When I talk with organizations about the benefits of social media tools, questions 3 and 4 are either ignored (even actively avoided – “Not our problem, we’re just doing the IT bit”) or embraced a little too literally – nuke the old ways and force people to work completely differently. Both approaches will likely create problems.

And that leads on the the New York Times article. According to brain researchers, once we’ve developed habits, they are permanently ingrained in our heads. (It’s easy to forgive, hard to forget.) Trying to kill them off is pointless. Instead, we develop new habits that simply work with and/or bypass the old ways. Perhaps a similar approach needs to be taken when introducing new ways of working with information, given people are usually still involved somewhere in the process.

To demonstrate, here’s another (simple) example: Using SharePoint to replace traditional file shares. Popular with organisations who need to implement some form of information life cycle management (e.g. version controls, metadata to classify content). This can’t be done on file shares but it can with SharePoint. The implementation plan often involves banning people from saving documents on file shares and forcing them to use SharePoint instead. It’s a painful and disruptive process, first impressions usually go along the lines ‘I hate SharePoint’. Not a great start for a new system. And it doesn’t have to be that way. The most successful switch from file shares to SharePoint I have witnessed was from inside Microsoft. Because there never was any official switch. People discovered it was easier to manage and share stuff in SharePoint and naturally gravitated – the new habits didn’t kill the old ways over night, they worked in parallel with and bypassed them to the point the old ways became ineffective, redundant and no longer needed.

Back to our social media example. I’ve used this reference before, taken from the New York Times (free subscription required to access) – Here’s an idea: Let everyone have ideas. Rite-Solutions introduced an internal stock market that allows all employees to submit and vote on new ideas. The limitation they recognized:

“At most companies, especially technology companies, the most brilliant insights tend to come from people other than senior management. So we created a marketplace to harvest collective genius.”

The technology to do this is easy enough to implement. But it only works if you address questions 3 and 4 from ToC. In this example, Rite-Solutions didn’t nuke their management hierarchy and create a free-for-all. Somebody still needed to make the decision. The difference was that management had to learn to accept the evidence supporting a product idea, even if they themselves did not believe in its potential:

One of the earliest stocks (ticker symbol: VIEW) was a proposal to apply three-dimensional visualization technology, akin to video games, to help sailors and domestic-security personnel practice making decisions in emergency situations. Initially, [CEO] Mr. Marino was unenthusiastic about the idea — “I’m not a joystick jockey” — but support among employees was overwhelming. Today, that product line, called Rite-View, accounts for 30 percent of total sales.

It takes a lot of humility for management to acknowledge they are not always right (and no longer have to be). In this example, the old ways remain – there is still a management hierarchy – but it now bases its decisions on evidence gathered in new, far more democratic, ways.

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