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1.4 Assessments Function as Fulcrums of Positive Change

Assessments, though, do more than analyze. They act as fulcrums for positive change.

For process improvement to work, an organization must evolve, both technically and culturally. But change is exceedingly hard to produce. Assessments unleash important forces to move toward positive change. Consider Rosabeth Moss Kanter's account of the change process. Laggards approach change, she suggests, with denial, then anger, then by blaming others, and finally by token efforts of acceptance, evidenced by cosmetic change. This last stage has been compared to "putting lipstick on a bulldog." It temporarily makes the bulldog look better, but it always makes the bulldog mad. The result in the long run is not substantive change but rather inevitable failure [Kanter 02].

Why do assessments succeed where other kinds of intervention fail? Assessments involve organizational staff as active participants in their company's evolution. After identifying areas of improvement, they facilitate a collaborative effort that feels like it has grown out of the collective experience rather than something that has been imposed from above or from the outside.

1.4.1 Assessments Effect Change by Involving and Motivating Organizations in Efforts of Self-Analysis

Assessment methodology requires a team to interview a broad selection of people, both managers and development staff, to provide representation across the assessed organization. Mitigating resistance, this broad participation fosters internal change.

You need to find out what's wrong with something before you can fix it. However, even in a problem-solving organization, the sudden exposure that accompanies real examination may cause people to feel frightened and stressed by having their work patterns examined: "When performance is measured objectively, you and your work can be seen by all" [Hammer 96]. It is not uncommon for this response to lead to the erection of self-protective walls, which serves as a major barrier to organizational improvement.

With the kind of broad participation required by an assessment, though, issues are shared, and turf protection either diminishes or becomes more obvious, in which case it can be dealt with directly.

Assessments also elicit specific, local response to possible avenues of improvement, reinforcing practitioners' sense that their experience and opinions are valuable. An assessment provides a chance to respond not only for the members of the assessment team but for all the assessment participants who are interviewed over a long assessment process. Staff members are given a chance to shape the way improvements are proposed. They may recognize, for example, that new practices may not be valid for certain circumstances either in themselves or in the way that they are to be implemented. Imposing such changes by fiat makes workers want to throw out the baby (the principles behind the best practices) with the bathwater (the particular circumstances in which the practices are executed) and to respond negatively to the whole project of process improvement. When workers are allowed to consider a set of "best practices" in the context of their own understanding of how to make things better, though, they stop resisting them and start thinking of ways to make them work.

A positive approach to change is strongly associated with empowerment (decisions are made by people who know most about the issue regardless of rank) and collaboration (departments and functions work actively with other groups on a regular basis) [Kanter 01].

According to Boyett, "People don't resist their own ideas. Our gurus agree that people who participate in deciding what will change and how things will change not only are more likely to support the change, but are actually changed themselves by the mere act of participation. ...Participation has become the standard method for accomplishing change and is a key feature of everyone's change process" [Boyett 98].

In the words of Kotter, "Major change is essentially impossible unless most employees are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. But people will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they really believe that a transformation is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employees' hearts and minds are never captured" [Kotter 96].

Assessments provide a forum that helps focus general but unarticulated discomfort because people are encouraged to articulate problems and because the assessment team listens to everyone's ideas empathetically and objectively. Assessments thus provide a way to examine and address problems that may be collectively perceived, but not acknowledged. Frequently, it is heard at the conclusion of an assessment that "we didn't learn anything new." What people don't realize however is that assessments allow old problems not only to be articulated but also to be addressed.

Assessments also force management to listen. Sometimes they hear what everyone except them seems to know. Sometimes they too know about problems but have no way to engage them without making them worse. Assessments require managers to acknowledge what everybody knows and to work with their employees on problem resolution. Assessments thus provide an arena for consensus between workers and management.

Finally, when an entire organization is involved in an assessment, those who have participated "own" the assessment results. Having been part of the analysis, they feel responsible for becoming part of the solution. This provides significant momentum for change.

1.4.2 Assessments Effect Change Because They Help the Workers in an Organization Understand That Processes, Not People, Need to Be Fixed

Because assessments are set up as non-threatening activities reinforced by non-attribution of information and the pledged confidentiality of everyone who participates, they say to all involved that the goal is to "fix the process, not the people." Assessments make it very clear by their principle of strict confidentiality that it is not their business to "place blame" on individuals or projects. Their goal is to improve the organization's way of doing business so that an environment is created for staff, managers, and customers that enables the production of a higher quality product.

Without confidentiality, asking organizational staff about the way they do their work could be intrusive and threatening. People could fear for their jobs and would be less than honest in expressing themselves. The entire assessment process would then be compromised.

That is why the procedures that an assessment uses to address an organization's process—not its people—need to be rigorously maintained. Strictly confidential assessment results are reported to the organization, and no specific person or project is identified with any of the assessment data collected. Each interview participant is also asked to keep confidential anything he or she may hear anyone say during the interview. The confidentiality also continues after the assessment is concluded. The assessment representative receives detailed data with all attribution removed. The assessment team members are asked to make a pledge of confidentiality, even after the assessment is over.

Sometimes concern arises that organizations need detailed identifiable data upon which to build improvement activities, but this concern is unfounded. After attribution has been removed, a large bank of highly detailed assessment data remains for improvement planning.

1.4.3 Assessments Effect Change Because They Provide a Voice for Change Agents

In any organization, there are people who have come to recognize existing problems and have tried to convince their colleagues to improve.

The organization's staff usually has a good understanding of problem areas and may have already voiced their concerns, only to have their recommendations be dismissed.

The value of assessment findings is that they synthesize and document an organization's problems, presenting them with the authority of an organization's global view of its own processes. Assessments provide a focused statement of problem areas within the organization and identify instances of best practices that can provide solutions.

Also, because management sponsors the assessment, their attention is assured. Thus, good ideas get visibility, which boosts the morale of those people in the organization who have been trying to make improvement happen.

1.4.4 Assessments Effect Change Because They Foster Follow-On Activities

Assessments prioritize improvement activities according to the prescriptions of an elaborately thought out and structured process improvement methodology (a capability maturity model such as the CMMI, for example). This makes it easier to organize the plans that follow an assessment in a logical and highly structured way.

Assessments also constitute a very visible intervention that indicates to staff that the management is interested enough in improvement to take action.

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