The three-group theory of change management

I chuckle when people tell me that employees at their organization collaborate via e-mail.

No, they don’t. They just think they do.

Don’t get me wrong. E-mail is certainly useful for discrete, simple interactions, and I for one could not live without it. For instance, could you send me that file? Got the address for the meeting? No problem. These are perfect uses of the medium.

However, in order for organizations to truly collaborate, two things need to happen. First, employees need to wean themselves from their e-mail addictions. Of course, this is easier said than done. Second, leaders need to hold others accountable for actually using these new collaboration tools. The “best” tchotchke is meaningless if it sits unused on a virtual shelf.

That’s right. Certain employees will have to decide if they will change habits they’ve formed over many years, perhaps even decades.

And, more often than not, therein lies the problem.

A simple model of change management

Here’s the bad news: plenty of people simply hate change.

You could write massive tomes about that pithy statement. In the context of enterprise technology, stubbornness, politics, and problem employees have collectively killed more IT projects than true software bugs ever have. It’s not even close, as I’ve learned over my years as a consultant.

No, the success of a new tool almost always hinges on people. This led me to surmise in my first book, Why New Systems Fail, that there are three types of people in this world:

A. Those who get it.

B. Those who don’t get it but want to get it. (These are some of my favorite folks.)

C. Those who don’t want to get it and don’t want to get it.

Yes, this is just a model and, by definition, it’s wrong. (See quote at the beginning of the post.) Still, I like to think that it qualifies as useful.

The introduction of a new collaboration tool means that employee work and communication habits need to change. Those in Group A will immediately flock to the tool. They noodle with its new features and functionality. They embrace the new transparency that the tool offers. Finally, they understand that a new collaboration tool potentially changes the way in which we use e-mail—and for the better. As Linda Souza writes:

I unsubscribe liberally. With online collaboration, I can remove myself from threads. I don’t have to delete 50 congrats messages about Jim’s promotion. I unsubscribe before the madness starts, then rely on email digests to link to discussions and read all the related comments in a single go.

Let’s move down the ladder. Those in Group B don’t need convincing. Their hearts are in the right place. They tend to need a little more training and hand-holding than those in Group A. Generally speaking, they’ll eventually catch on.

Group C is the trickiest. This group often consists of recalcitrant employees who need to be convinced that their way of working is antiquated. It ain’t broke; don’t fix it. The carrot may work here, but more often than not the stick is in order. After all, some employees you just can’t reach.

Simon says

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Negative Nellies can have on culture, morale, and the ultimate success of a new collaboration tool. At the risk of being insensitive, some might need to find new employment. It’s usually better to move on quickly.


What say you?

Post by Phil Simon

Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received. He consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post, Quartz, The New York Times, Fox News, and many other sites.