I know that I have written about this before, but maybe not so explicitly. Program pilots are booby traps, doomed to fail, generally speaking. There is a simple reason for it. Change, real, observable, meaningful change requires conviction and commitment. A pilot of a change is a demonstration of the absence of both.
Author and business president, Patrick Lencioni, lays out a very nice model of teamwork breakdown in one of his books. (1) In short, we fail to achieve results because of an inattention to results, because of an absence of accountability, because of a lack of commitment, because of a fear of conflict, because of an absence of trust. In his model, teamwork success all comes down to trust. Frankly, I like his model.
It is easy, too, to draw parallels between his model of teamwork and driving organizational change, a new program, or a major initiative because the improvement or change can only succeed when we all work toward achieving it together. The adjustment to Lencioni’s model that I make for the purposes of driving a new program is to change the word “trust” into “faith.”
I choose the word, “faith” because it can be applied both to our team members and our organization and leadership, as well as to the tenants of the program we are trying to institute. I agree with Lencioni’s model in that faith and trust are required for us to commit to the change.
We can argue that the purpose of the pilot is to prove the viability and the effectiveness of the program; to give cause for the faith demanded for program success. It sounds reasonable, except that the only people who demand such a thing are those who are resistant to the change or who would roadblock the program. I’ll even go so far as to accuse those who promote a program pilot of engaging in passive-aggressive resistance.
I say so because of what I observe happens. Someone proposes the institution of a business improvement program such as Lean, Six Sigma, or Quick Response Manufacturing, for example. Some of the leadership agree, while others voice their skepticism. Even leaders fear change, especially if it affects their own realms of responsibility or ambitions.
Rather than object to the change based on weak arguments that only serve to belie their not-so-rational anxiety, the leaders will suggest that the organization conduct a pilot of the program to prove it’s effectiveness and “prove to everyone that what we are engaging in is a good idea.” They argue that the proof will serve to encourage the transition and overcome resistance.
These skeptics will sound like supporters with their arguments for the pilot. One or two will even volunteer to champion the pilot. If the leadership team agrees, the pilot is all but sabotaged, set up for failure. The pilot will not necessarily be resourced with the best change leaders, because it is a pilot and no one wants to sacrifice an important project or program for a pilot.
A full-blown program demands the best resources and commitment. A pilot implies a low-cost, low risk venture. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” A pilot will not receive the commitment to succeed, it will not necessarily be resourced with believers, and it is probably championed by the skeptical enemy, not the faithful exemplar.
Also, if the program is new, then our organization is not yet skilled at executing it. Do we really believe that the untested, conscripted, guinea pigs of our team will skillfully demonstrate the new program? Do we really expect beginner’s luck to prove the effectiveness of a new program? Don’t be silly.
Why all the conspiracy theory? Practice. I have only ever once in more than 15 years of leading change programs including Total Quality, Six Sigma, Lean, Design for Six Sigma, improved Product Development methods, and playing change roles for Value Engineering and Outcome Driven Innovation, observed a successful introduction of a major change program driven by a pilot group within the company and successfully compelling the leadership to accept it and promote it throughout.
Ironically, that one example didn’t truly fit the paradigm of a pilot; it was an example of tenacious commitment and faith. I shared notes at a conference with a group of engineers inside of a medical company and I learned a great deal about successfully driving change from our long conversations.
Their product development group decided to institute Design for Six Sigma to solve many of their product development challenges. They didn’t exactly ask permission. They just did it. They decided to do Design for Six Sigma and only explained the program to others when all of the changes in their questions, demands for data, and their methods required explanation. They committed to the program and drove forward even when other groups didn’t want to participate.
In the end, their performance and their products excelled. Their functional peers either got used to playing along, or voluntarily jumped on board when they understood the advantages. Eventually, the business leadership was forced to acknowledge their success and promote Design for Six Sigma throughout the organization officially.
This one real example of a successful pilot fulfilled all of the outcomes that promoters of pilots advertize, except that the example showed none of the symptoms of a pilot. Instead it was a fully committed initiative, an all-in commitment of every poker chip for the team leading the change. They were not out to prove an idea, per se; they were out to make a change whether the business wanted it or not.
I too have had success driving change, but never because of a successful pilot. In fact, most pilots have not been successful. I learned that when I was forced to do a pilot, I would use that time to inspire greater faith in the program among the leaders, in spite of what might be going on with the pilot.
Don’t fall into the pilot trap. A believer in the program does not need proof; he has faith already. Only the skeptic needs proof. A pilot is generally not a successful way of producing that proof, and most skeptics that will call for the pilot either intuitively or consciously know it. At best, a pilot only serves to delay the institution. Sometimes it works against our programs.
If you are the change agent told to conduct a pilot, argue for spending your time in a more constructive way. Work carefully to help your leadership see that a pilot is as good as a “no” except that it wastes more resources. If you are among the leadership team debating the institution of a new program, do not allow yourself or your peers to sabotage the program, or waste everyone’s valuable assets with a pilot that is, by nature, set up to fail.
A program pilot is an admission of a fear of change, a fear of conflict born out of arguing against an otherwise good-seeming proposal, a lack of commitment, and a lack of faith. If the proposed initiative is not readily accepted, work with the skeptics to build faith. Challenge and address their fears. Faith begets courage, courage begets commitment, commitment begets accountability, which begets attention to results and, finally, results. The only way to succeed is to go all in.
Stay wise, friends.
If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com
(1) Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002
Filed Under: Rapid prototyping