Now I can certainly feel your pain

One of Bill Clinton’s strengths as a politician was his ability to empathize. Whether it was a soldier far from home or a mine worker who just lost his job, Clinton could convince many that he felt their pain. It may have been nothing more than platitudes, but it seemed genuine. However, empathy is not understanding.

As a journalist for more than a decade, it is only the past five years that I have covered IT. One element I’ve lacked was an ability to fully comprehend the difficulty of implementing new technology. While I might empathize with the difficulty of a new install, having never lived the experience I didn’t fully understand the scope of a real challenge.

Recently ComputerWorld Canada went through its first major technology overhaul. I am embarrassed to say how antiquated our workflow was, but calling it 1990s technology would be much too generous a description. It was decided we’d move from a Microsoft Word based solution to one from Adobe. To be sure the migration was relatively simple when compared to what our readers experience, but it did provide important insight into how best laid plans often have unseen hurdles (read people) regardless how hard one tries avoid these.

Here’s what I learned.

When it comes to new projects, most people fit into one of four groups: those who consider any change a bad thing because it will cost them their job; those that say, “new technology seems neat but isn’t what we have fine?”; those who say, “I love it, but let’s do it later”; and, those that say, “let’s do it yesterday.”

I naively thought a team full of the latter was ideal, yet as it turns out, all of the groups were needed.

The first group was the easiest to empathize with but, as harsh as it may sound, from a business and IT perspective there is not a lot of use for this sort of thinking. But these people serve the important role of humanizing IT. They force us to consider the human consequences of technology change.

The second group is often the most valuable. They are the ones who necessitate understanding the reason for new technology and whether what is needed is actually new technology or better processes to make existing technologies more effective. On the down side, this group is often the most difficult to get on board since they can give you a hundred reasons not to change.

Group three seems to be the most populated. These are the not-in-my-backyard types who want change but can’t be bothered with the hassle. On the up side, because they slow the project down it gives the project champions time to think about how best to achieve desired goals. And once there is realization that the project will proceed with or without them, this group typically gets on board rather quickly.

The final group drives the project and I was among that collective. But like a team of generals, what’s also required is an army of advisors to reel in their exuberance. Lacking constraints, this group tends to fly by the seat of its pants and have no contingency plans for the hurdles ahead.

Our project is still ongoing and the bugs are getting worked out. For me the unexpected benefit of this experience has been having to meet some of the challenges you deal with every day.