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Fear factor puts big chill on IT projects

Fear of change freezes even the best IT projects. Find out how successful CIOs tackle change management the warm and fuzzy way.

Information technology leaders looking to implement a big initiative might want to take a crash course in psychology. Organizational fear of change, according to a new report from Forrester Research Inc., can kill a project faster than you can say "Go live."

"Uncertainty breeds fear," said Chip Gliedman, a vice president in Forrester's enterprise applications practice. Strong leadership -- accompanied by a soft hand -- is needed to push recalcitrant employees to embrace change. "Frequent reassurances and mentoring can go a long way to ease the transition and capture value," he said.

The Forrester report looked at two companies in the throes of consolidating their service desk departments to a centralized help desk.

One company was large and decentralized, the other medium-sized and centralized. Both companies had analyzed the cost benefits of making the change, but neither had faced up to the fear factor.

"Both had the problem of established groups unwilling to relinquish control of certain tasks to newly created or centralized service desks," the report said. "Fear of the 'new' was a real problem."

5 ways to fight fear factor

Send out the vanguard. Go after the movers and shakers and ask them to set the stage and spread the word.

Talk therapy. If you can spend the time talking to everyon involved -- rather than sending missives -- good ideas will win out.

Mentoring. Alleviate the fear associated with new roles and responsibilities by creating a safety net for employees. That means ensuring employees that they are not being set up for failure by setting realistic expectations.

Re-calibrate measures of personal value. Forrester suggests using statements such as, "We know you must be bored by these repetitive problems, so we're going to give you something more interesting to do."

Create a new limelight for the employee. If following a doctor's advice leads to a flu-free winter, the doctor rarely gets a call of thanks. Communicate the impact of proactive programs so that that the IT "docs" get the kudos they deserve.

"It's all about attitudes, and these are attitudes show up at a lot of companies trying to make a change, Forrester's Gliedman said.

The report breaks down some of the fears that stood in the way of change:

  • Overestimation of one's role. Changing positions means realizing that some else can do your job. When that job is done by a younger employee for less pay, the company's gain in savings can be directly proportional to the older employee's loss of esteem.
  • Loss of the limelight. Solving a user's problems generates visible benefits, including personal thanks from grateful clients. Giving up that visible role for a more behind-the-scenes, preventative system requires a new gratification model.
  • Perception of demotion. Employees currently reporting to an IT operation group may feel they are taking a step backward of assigned to a new help desk and become demoralized or resign.
  • Perception of corporate value based on a number of direct reports. In many companies, the most visible measure of success is based on the number of people being managed. Consolidation means that some managers will "win" and others will "lose."

Paying attention to employee attitudes was critical during a major IT reorganization last year at JetBlue, said CIO Todd Thompson.

"We were very sensitive to the people element. We talked a lot about people's specific concerns," Thompson said.

IT at the fast-growing airline had always operated as a flat, decentralized unit. When business people needed help, they dealt directly with various IT specialists. Soon after joining the company in January 2004, Thompson launched a plan that called for five IT disciplines, one of which was project management. Now, instead of going to the developer or server engineer directly, business took its concerns to the project management group.

Thompson put a manager in each of the other four disciplines -- network infrastructure, computing infrastructure, applications services and desktop support. The new structure gave business much better access to the IT disciplines, but it took convincing to make the new structure work.

"Project managers had to get used to that role. Business people had to get used to the process and the IT department had to get used to business people not coming directly to them," Thompson said.

How did he bring them along?

"Change comes from talking about good ideas, and I emphasize talking. Businesses are built around relationships. If you can spend the time talking to people, good ideas will win out. They're viral and they'll spread," Thompson said.

Thompson found it was wise to "have the right people supportive of the good ideas" from the start, the so-called early adopters in the vanguard. And at some point, he added, "People just have to get over themselves. They have to see that this is for the general good and their new role can be just as exciting and challenging." For Linda Reino, CIO and CTO of King of Prussia, Pa.-based Universal Health Services Inc., one of the nation's largest hospital management companies, change management was all about changing attitudes. Universal Health is in the midst of persuading nurses and other clinicians to give up their long-held practice of taking down patient information by hand and use a laptop to key in the data.

Nurses needed to be convinced that using a laptop that was already in the room was not intrusive to their patients, or worse, a degradation of patient contact. The computer had to be introduced to the patient as an "advanced tool," that would help ensure better care and more, not less, privacy, Reino said. With thousands of nurses, Reino has to delegate. "You need to pick your champions. You go after the movers and shakers who you know want that type of role and ask them to set the stage and spread the word."

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