"But We've Tried This Before!"

How to Tackle Push-Back in Process Improvement

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There are certain phrases that can act as a warning sign when looking to analyze, change, improve or optimize a business process. We might find that the phrase “…but we’ve always done it that way...” is used to describe or even defend the status quo. Yet there is another worrying phrase that can eat away at the very essence of a process change initiative and which is easy to inadvertently overlook. It is the insidious phrase:

“But we’ve tried this before!”

I would guess that almost everyone reading this blog will have come across this phrase before. In fact, the phrase itself doesn’t have to be negative – it could just be informative. Yet so often it is accompanied by folded arms, rolled eyes, and a change in focus and attention as our stakeholders drift away, re-focusing on the sea of distractions that their smartphones provide them with. We sense a lack of engagement; people are physically present in our discovery workshops but they aren’t mentally present. It is as if they are ‘going through the motions’. Their managers have told them that they have to attend and have to “be seen” to be supportive, but this is a far cry from actually advocating whatever change we are pursuing.

Quite rightly, within the process and analysis community we talk a lot about stakeholders and stakeholder engagement. So often, signs of stakeholder engagement and dis-engagement are subtle and nuanced, and if we don’t catch them early and create a conversation, then problems brew invisibly under the surface. They incubate and hatch into much larger problems that take a lot more resource to address at a later stage! Which is why it is so important to pick up on these nuances early – and phrases such as “But we’ve tried this before!” can be an important warning sign.

In particular, this phrase might indicate a certain sense of cynicism or disconnection from the process management or improvement initiative. It is easy to think that this might be the individual not understanding the situation, indeed if we are not careful this might be our default response. I can hear the management edict now “We need to educate them about how this is different.” Perhaps – but a far more powerful tactic, in my experience is to first understand their perspective and understand how this relates to our planned actions and activities. Maybe meet with the relevant people individually for coffee or a one-on-one meeting, understand the past, the history, the context. Understand what has been tried in the past – understand why it didn’t work, and crucially take the opportunity to describe and articulate how the current planned initiative is different.

This is crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it helps build buy-in  – generally people feel far more valued if we work to understand their world first, rather than just ‘educating’ them or issuing them with a ‘communication’. We build a relationship, and we (hopefully) build an ally or even an advocate. At the very least, we can hope to build a mutual understanding.

However, there’s a second and, I would argue, more important reason. We are likely to gain important insight on why something hasn’t worked in the past. We learn about not just the current context, but also about what has led the organization to get to its current state. In learning this, we might just pick up a valuable titbit of information that helps us shape our approach. We might make a minor nudge in direction that not only helps build buy-in, but also helps us avoid the practical problems that have caused project delays or failures in the past.

People are a crucial part of any business process and holistic business system. Understanding their perspectives and picking up on nuances will help us avoid significant pitfalls, and will contribute towards the success of our initiatives.

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