The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

In 1999 I was Communications Manager for the World Bank's enterprise resource planning (erp) initiative. We were gutting over 100 disconnected systems and replacing them with a single real-time application.

At the behest of our Steering Committee, I hired Michael Hammer, the international best-selling author of Reengineering the Corporation, to come and speak to our people. We negotiated him to 50% of his regular fee, which was still almost 10% of my total budget. I was not happy about that.

I programmed Hammer's time at the WBank heavily. Over the course of the day we had 6 meetings including two in standing-room-only auditoriums, one with the Vice Presidents, and one with our 200-person development team. The only place I let him go unescorted was the bathroom.

As it turned out, that chunk of change gave me more bang for the buck than any other single activity I supervised. Michael is the kind of speaker who gets better as the day gets longer. Over and over again he repeated his mantras. One was, The soft stuff is the hard stuff. What he meant was that the technology will work, but the people might not.

It is the people-side of the change equation that is difficult to get right. It requires an investment in communications, training, and support, usually 1-3% of the total project. That is a relatively small but exceedingly important portion.

Participation - Engagement - Buy-in - This is the stuff of successful change.And it's not something that can be gained through a transaction.Rather, it requires generative dialogue.It is, in fact, voluntary evolution.

Since that time I have dedicated my professional development to understanding how people change themselves and their business processes in service to a higher goal. The approach is highly interactive. Rather than top-down, it is inside-out. As people generate new insights and understanding their behavior changes.The real territory of change is inner space.

People construct their shared view of the world socially, through interaction. If you want people to operate synergistically from a shared vision, you must give them the opportunity to think and talk about it together. You must go beyond sending emails, constructing power-points, and otherwise delivering messages to them. You must convene them. And the higher the risk and opportunity, the better face-to-face is for getting the job done.

Every major stakeholder must become a player, with skin in the game and the opportunity to craft their destiny. The change leader's job is not so much to set the vision and inform everyone else. Rather it is to convene the players in the right context and allow them to generate the future they will to strive to achieve. That's engagement. That's buy-in.

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6 Comments

  • Ashraf Ramzy

    What a wonderful piece of writing, succinct, yet juicy, brief but jampacked with nuggets and pearls of wisdom.
    Thank you - you just answered questions I was wrestling with and provided me with arguments I can use with one my clients.

    Ashraf Ramzy

  • MOYA Sayer-Jones

    Hi Seth,

    This post was one of those YES moments.. resonating so well with recent experiences. I think there's a lot of approach/avoidance conflict when it comes to buy-in: that fear that the whole direction is going to swerve from solid business outcomes into the nampy-pamby-touchy-feely world of humans: as though the best human outcomes are somehow mutally exclusive from the best business ones!

    Recently, I was working with a large property development company trying to persuade them to find the stories to back up their 'values' claims... they were reluctant and didn't think they could sell it to the big guys upstairs... wouldn't all this warm and fuzzy human stuff take away from the important stuff? But this IS the important stuff: this IS the business..I told them...

    They're not ready to take a risk on their humans yet.. still relying totally on the data and lots of marketing adjectives!!

    I can wait!

    Thanks for the post: succinct and provocative

  • Seth Kahan

    Thanks, Michael. F2F is often overlooked and is entirely appropriate when there is high risk or high opportunity. The advantages of going F2F include:
    1. There are more nuanced cues among participants (eyes, expressions, body language in context of circumstance)
    2. You can develop greater comfort and rapport among participants because they can use their senses to directly make a judgement of what's going on
    3. The fact that an event is F2F is itself an indicator of its importance
    4. F2F provides an emotionally richer interaction than other forms (regardless of suggestions otherwise by video-con proponents)
    5. Co-location enables facilities we don't totally understand (intuition, deeper connections)

    If a change leader is convening his or her most important stakeholders or champions, and the risk/payoff of success/failure is significant, F2F is warranted.

  • Michael Kull

    It is interesting how many organizations have swung the pendulum from co-location to anytime/anywhere. I feel an ancillary to Seth's point is that just because we have the technology to work remotely doesn't necessarily mean we should. I’m sure this would make the anti-telework crowd gleeful, but the social construction of an organization, or a movement (ref: Barack Obama's speech last night) benefits from the spectacle of being present, together.