Why IT change can't be projectised

 

Q&A with author and consultant Don Reifer.

Don Reifer is no stranger to the ins-and-outs of large software projects. He is a prolific author on software management, maintenance, costs and business cases and has this year put pen to paper for his latest 192-page outing on change management.

Software Change Management: Case Studies and Practical Advice on Microsoft Press is Reifer's second book release in as many months. It features 11 case studies to illustrate possible paths towards real and sustainable change.

iTnews caught up with the author for some key take-outs from his latest venture.

iTnews: Perhaps you can start by talking me through the origins of the latest book for Microsoft Press. How long has it been in development and what did you set out wanting to show?

Reifer: For the last 40-plus years I've been a change agent working within organisations and then a consultant advising organisations on how to make changes. I'm a numbers guy, too. I've been someone who has used the numbers to help justify the changes and make them compelling to management.

I've been thinking for about five years about the book and I started writing it earlier this year. Really the book is a compilation of case studies. When I thought about change management there are lots of articles and people who talk about it, but they talk about it in the abstract. The real genesis and focus of the book is to provide examples, positive and negative, that can act as models for people who are going about trying to introduce change into a wide range of organisations.

iTnews: The book asks two questions, including 'Why is it so difficult to change organisations?' Are you any closer to answering that?

Reifer: Yes, because it's helped me to crystallise many of the thoughts that I had in my head. When you try and communicate them in writing it's a different process than trying to do it as a consultant verbally. You have to set the background for the situation, you have to set up all the obstructions, obstacles and situational awareness in the case. That was the fun part of writing the book - trying to couch the example in a way that the messages for each of the 10 cases communicated. And each has a different message.

iTnews: Is there much in common between approaches by those who are successful at implementing change? And likewise, for the problems they face?

Reifer: There are many common themes. The most common is that people don't want to change - it's hard to change, people resist change. Even if there's a good business case associated with the change, the resistance has to be dealt with. That is the most common theme of the book.

iTnews: How can a CIO or IT project manager begin to combat that resistance?

Reifer: There are a whole range of tips in the book. First you have to recognise what the resistance is, and resistance can come from the top as well as at the bottom. Often what I recommend is a middle out strategy where you work with the project leads who are responsible for P&L [profit and loss], and then you educate the managers, the seniors. I use the word education because that's important. Then you motivate the people on the line by providing them with a better way to do their job. You incentivise the middle by providing them [proof of how] this is going to lead to economies and efficiencies, and you educate the seniors by convincing them that this is going to make them more competitive.

iTnews: Did anything surprise you in terms of some the hard-won lessons reported by your case study participants?

Reifer: When I wrote them down on paper the biggest surprise was how difficult it was to actually get the change implemented. You can start a change initiative but you have to keep the momentum rolling. A lot of people go ahead and do all the pre-work but they basically fail or fall down on the post-work. That's probably the biggest surprise - that you have to keep doing it and keep selling it and pushing to keep that momentum going because the moment you leave it people will move on to other things and the initiative may die.

iTnews: So it can't be implemented with a project mindset?

Reifer: Yes. One of the issues you face when you projectise it is that the project works in an enterprise and a lot of the enterprise systems need to be changed in order for the project change to materialise. There are organisational and enterprise-wide issues that need to be tackled along with the project issues even when you're trying to localise the change.

For example, [take] an accounting system. You're trying to capture the benefits of the change by capturing improvements at the project level, but if the accounting system doesn't support you, that's something you can't do. If you haven't developed a champion and a sponsor for the change, you have no one to buffer you from the attacks from other people. The money is finite so if there's money allocated for change there are other people who are opting for that money or there are other people who that money has been taken from, so all that has to be dealt with. All of those issues are brought out.

iTnews: The book deals with software change management. Is there any variation in the way that change rules apply between software developers and organisations that code internally or outsource to third parties?

Reifer: The classic principles apply but you have to adapt them for the software world. [In] the software world .... you're dealing with ... people who are under the gun, trying to do a good job, and the worst thing you can tell them is, 'Hey with a short schedule and not enough people we're going to implement changes'. I spend one chapter - the second of the book - on the theory of change management. But really that's not the emphasis. Most books on change management emphasise the theory and the processes, and they throw in examples, and they're good - they give you reasonable examples. But this is a practitioners book for a software practitioner that says here's the theory, here's lots of examples, learn from them. It's a different approach.

If you look at the cases I put in, there are developer, government and contractual cases. I put in the full realm - COTS/supplier management, one with cloud, one with agile management, teaming issues.

It isn't the classical thing [with books] of 'I'm bringing in a new methodology'.

Software Change Management: Case Studies and Practical Advice and associated instructor guides for educational institutions are released at the end of the month. The print edition is $US29.99 by pre-order.

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