One of the most difficult challenges teams face involves requiring team members to change or redo their work. Once a task or work product is near completion, requests for change can be seen as a productivity drain and as an assault on the quality of the original work.
A little over 10 years ago, Alan Cooper asked an intriguing question that helps to demonstrate the dilemma faced by teams and team leaders.
Which is harder to change: a program with 1000 lines of code or a 1000 square foot slab of concrete?
If you said the code was easier to change you are dead wrong. In order to change a slab of concrete all you need are Jim and Larry, a jackhammer and a six-pack of brewskis for Miller Time. Jim and Larry will never ask “why?” You don’t have to justify the changes to them to get them to work. They’ll just start bustin’ and stop when they’re done. Whereas to change the code, you have to deal with a programmer. You have to convince that programmer to change it. He will be reluctant to break working code. She will need to have things explained. He will disagree with your reasoning. He will be argumentative. She will give you several difficult-to-dispute reasons why you are wrong. Even after you extract agreement he might change his mind without consulting you and do something different than you expect.
No one can blame the programmer, or your fellow team members, for not wanting their efforts to be wasted. However, let’s face it, change is the only constant in most organizations these days. Companies must adapt priorities and processes to meet ever-evolving market conditions; the needs of clients change causing modifications in work orders; untold disruptions spur design revisions and new expectations for team projects.
So how can teams attain the needed changes without disheartening team members and undermining the culture of collaboration?
- Communicate early that change is expected throughout the project. This will help ensure that team members are not surprised by requests for revisions.
- Build flexibility into designs and plans. Successful teams not only decide on Plan A as a course of action, but they also identify Plans B and C (or more). Alternative plans provide teams with ready-made options for making adjustments, and they reinforce the view that no single strategy is so set-in-stone that it cannot be changed.
- Identify and openly discuss potential change needs as early as possible. Teams that keep abreast of relevant environmental conditions can often anticipate a need for change well before an actual request for change is presented.
- Make the team responsible for deciding how to address new demands. In communicating the need for change, managers and team leaders should avoid dictating the specific changes. Team members will be more willing to buy-in and effectively implement changes that have been developed within the team. Teams that created the original plans are well-equipped for determining what alterations will meet the new requirements.
- Be realistic about the impact of changes on the overall objectives of the project. If 3 weeks worth of work must be overhauled, adjustments in time frame expectations will likely be needed or deadlines will slip.
No one likes to have their efforts go to waste or their perfectly good work products altered. Yet change is a way of life, which makes flexibility one the the most valued characteristics of effective teams. By following these 5 strategies, and perhaps by developing tough skin, teams can be prepared to react when projects change.