Clawing through change

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about transforming organizations came from the struggle to shed an unpleasant habit. During high school and most of college, I was a fingernail biter. It’s one of those nasty nervous habits that no one feels good about. My jagged, raggedy, nibbled, nubbin nails were a constant source of embarrassment.

Oh, I tried to quit many times. I tried going cold turkey. I tried fining myself for every transgression. I tried putting foul substances on my fingers. But every attempt ended with the same result: a return to the habit and lower self-esteem from my failure of will.

That all ended when I decided to try a completely different approach. One Sunday, I resolved that on Monday, I’d stop biting the pinky nail on my right hand. It would continue to be open season on every other finger. So on Sunday night, I filed the edge of that one nail smooth and waited for morning.

For an entire week, I happily chewed on nine nails, and every time I drew a finger toward my mouth, I looked at that one smooth nail. It looked good, and I liked it. There were still plenty of other nails to satisfy my habit. It wasn’t too difficult to keep that one unbitten.

The following Monday, I added a second nail to the forbidden fingers. On Sunday night, I filed the nail on my right ring finger smooth and waited for morning. And for a week, I had eight fingers to fulfill my cravings and two to display my achievement.

Then each week, I added another finger to the clean collection. By the 10th week, I’d completely lost my desire to nosh on nails. And now, decades later, I can happily report that neither the habit nor the desire has returned.

So, what does this have to do with organizational change? What can fingernails communicate about how to improve the performance of your management teams and projects?

As we all know, changing the culture and behavior of technical groups is very difficult. Most attempts to improve how groups function fail miserably. The experience of the change is unpleasant, and the transformations are usually temporary. New processes are ignored. Dysfunctional behaviors return. Old habits die hard.

But I have found that a few principles drawn from my fingernail experience can help improve the chances of success.

Don’t try to fix everything at once. Just as with technical projects, scope control is critical to success. Since efforts at organizational change are painful and can distract attention from immediate deliverables, most leaders want to initiate them as seldom as possible. So the natural result is trying to change everything at once.

But just as small technical projects are more likely to succeed than large ones, incremental organizational changes are much more likely to stick than radical transformations.

With the fingernails, one of the keys to success was realizing that I had 10 small problems, not one big one. My problem wasn’t that I bit my nails, but that I was gnawing on 10 distinct fingernails. Trying to fix one at a time proved much easier than trying to fix all 10 at once.

Make progress constantly visible. During the 10 weeks during which I was working on quitting, it turned out to be very helpful to see the smooth-edged nails of progress. Even though I knew I was still engaging in the bad behavior, every time I lifted my hand to chew on a nail, I saw the physical embodiment of progress toward my goal. That transformed every experience during the process from a failure to a success. Rather than descending a spiral of failure, I felt I was climbing the spiral of success.

So it is with organizational change. People have to see the signs of their own reformation. As the process of change goes forward, we need to be constantly aware of our successes and of the road left to travel.

Be patient. Lasting and valuable transformations don’t happen overnight. Just like New Year’s resolutions, sticking with the ongoing process can be the hardest part.

So when you’re ready to improve the effectiveness of your group, think carefully about the features of your future group, look down at your fingernails and plan how you’re going to claw your way through the process of change.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; He can be reached at [email protected]

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