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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Looking for Bad News

According to John Kotter in his seminal book “Leading Change” most organizations tend to be complacent and avoid bad news. Back in the 1980s, I was with a corporation that bought into the concept that expressing issues as “problems” was bad for organization morale and increased anxiety among employees and depressed creative solutions. The recommendation by the psychologist that proposed this issue was to substitute the words “challenges” or “opportunities” for the word “problems”. That substitution became a policy at this particular company and we were all advised to use the word “opportunity” instead of the word “problem”. I’m not sure how seriously we in IT took the edict. There certainly were a lot of jokes and sarcastic comments made about problems and opportunities, but in the end the substitution did take effect and most people were in fact using “opportunity” instead of “problem”. I don’t know whether employee morale improved, or anxiety decreased, but there certainly was an attitude that things were getting better around at the company, because we had no problems to talk about. Of course with no problems to talk about, there was also no compelling reason to make change, since change only occurs when a problem has been identified, and that led to a form of complacency. And this is the issue that John Kotter was talking about.
Change becomes very difficult if everyone is satisfied with the way things are. There seems to be a trend in many organizations to shield managers from bad news. This is especially true in IT where the engineers would rather solve a problem then bring it to management’s attention.
Business analysts confront this issue on a regular basis. A business analyst is told to find a way to improve a business process and when gathering information from the system users in the process workers finds that they have no need of improvement because everything is going fine.
While we tend to avoid seeking out the bad and try to follow the good advice for making friends and informing people which is to look for the good in everyone, as business analysts we should be looking for things that are not right, processes that could be improved, systems that are simply “bad”: not flexible enough for today’s business, too slow to keep up with the competition, to archaic or clumsy to use it efficiently (even though the users of the system may be completely satisfied with it because they have learned to overcome its idiosyncrasies), or simply not in tune with current technology.
To get the necessary changes approved and implemented we need to address the problems as problems. “Opportunities” can be skipped, delayed, subjugated to other opportunities, or simply ignored. After all, missing an opportunity does not hurt, it just does not help. A missed opportunity may fall into the category of “coulda, woulda, shoulda”. But a problem has to be addressed because failure to do so will hurt.
Of course, we as business analysts have to recognize that we will not be the most popular of people when we present the “bad news” to management. But often, as Kotter suggests, may be the only way to make effective change to the organization.

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