The following are personal anecdotes, true stories all. Most of them about things I learned about people from different places that I worked over the eyars. I am considering publishing them in different venues. (Someone suggested a book entitled Memoirs of a Change Agent)

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Cognitive Dissonance – Dave Bowen
Selling the System – Maria Duke
A Different Kind of Listening – Theresa Kasmarowski
Confidence is Parasitic – Linda and Bridgette
Unconscious Abilities – Theresa Kasmarowski
Finding the Answers - Learnign to be a good consultant

Phantoms and Flowers

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Cognitive Dissonance

One of the most traumatic experiences I ever had was when I was a technical project manager for a new CIM system (Computer Integrated manufacturing). The project had been approved and implementation was underway. The project team met monthly to report its progress to the steering committee which consisted of the directors of the company.

One meeting, I arrived to find the meeting already underway and one of the project team members concluding his presentation on “Why We Can’t Install the New System”. The meeting had been moved up a half-hour to allow the inventory control manager additional time to explain his technical objections to the new proposed Information System.

As I entered, the manager concluded his presentation and handed me his pointer. It was now my turn to refute all of his objections and deal with his list of technical concerns. Not dissuaded by the short notice, I immediately began answering the technical issues which were still displayed for the attendees on the overhead projector at the front of the room.

Actually, I was quite eloquent with my extemporaneous rebuttal. I answered each technical question in turn and addressed each issue, providing detailed solutions or explanations. As I finished the last item in the list, I dismissed the concerns stating that additional training would clarify the technical capabilities of the system. I was quite proud of myself and felt confident that I had adequately resolved all other the objections that had been presented.

I was surprised, however, to find that the inventory manager was even more distraught after my presentation than he had been beforehand. I could not fathom why he would have such a reaction, since I had answered all of his questions in detail.

Several weeks later the inventory control manager called another meeting to present still more technical objections. This time I was prepared and had acquired a list of his topics before the meeting. When my turn came, I pointed out specific items on his list and noted that his current systems did not possess the indicated functionality any more than the new system could. I countered saying that if these were valid reasons to cancel the implementation of the new system, then our current systems would also have to be turned off. Frankly, I dismissed the list of objections with a flourish of my hand as trivial or inconsequential problems.

The inventory control manager was livid. By dismissing his technical objections in front of his peers and the directors, I had humiliated him and made an enemy for life. Surprisingly, I still could not understand the manager’s emotional reaction to my technical explanations. The more I answered his technical questions, the more upset and uncomfortable he became with the implementation of the new system. It made no sense to me. I figured that if he felt bad because of these technical issues, than that by having his questions answered he should feel better. Unfortunately, the more I addressed his technical issues, the worse he seemed to feel.

I worried for quite a while and began reading some psychology books to understand his response. It was a few weeks before I discovered that I had it all backwards.

The manager did not FEEL bad about the new system because of technical objections; he was looking for and finding technical objections because he FELT bad.

It is a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”. The inventory manager was looking for and finding technical reasons to justify and explain to himself the bad “gut feeling” he had about the new system. Basically, he was trying to rationalize how he felt by finding reasons to explain those feelings.

Belatedly, I realized that by focusing on technical issues I was not dealing with the problem, I was dealing with the symptoms. I decided that until I understood the origins of the inventory manager’s emotional objections to the system that there would be no end to the technical problems that he kept coming up with.

First, I tried to understand why he would start off with a bad feeling about the new system. In short order I noted that:

- The inventory manager had had three different inventory control systems imposed on his department over the past 6 years and this new system was threatening to be a fourth system that he would had to accept.

- The new system was being acquired and installed primarily for the high-tech manufacturing areas. The system’s applicability to inventory control was almost an afterthought.

- No one from his area was on the original selection team.

- His area was going to be the last area of seven departments to be brought up on the system

Reflecting on these facts, I found it easy to understand why he might have started off with a bad feeling about the overall project. My problem now was how to undo the damage that I had done by focusing on the technical aspects of problems and aggravating the underlying emotional issues.

After realizing the mistakes that I had made and facing up to real issues, I did the following:

- I went to the inventory manager and told him that I was wrong. I told him that I had dismissed all of his technical objections explaining that the system had all of the functionality that was needed to support inventory control but that, frankly, I was not an expert on inventory control and really did not know what he needed. I apologized for making these assumptions and asked him, as the company’s expert, to teach me what I needed to know.

- I joined the local chapters of APICS (the American Production Inventory Control Society) and I attended their monthly dinner meetings and traing classes.

- I even signed up for classes to work toward my CPIM (Certified Production Inventory Manager) certificate.

- Next, I assigned one of the programmers on my staff to sit in on the inventory department’s morning meetings (to answer questions and to bring issues back so that they could be addressed more effectively). She actually ended up taking the meeting minutes each morning and writing them up for the manager.

- Our department conducted one-on-one training for key inventory personnel.

- We met with the inventory manager to identify deficiencies with the system.

- Together, we even wrote up proposals to modify and enhance the system. The vendor never did incorporate these changes, but the inventory manager and I commiserated together about how unfair the vendor’s lack of response was.

Ultimately, we never did enhance the system to fully address the inventory control department’s needs. But we worked with the inventory staff; we trained them; we listened to them. In a relatively short amount of time, the staff felt much better about the overall project.

As I had anticipated, when the bad feeling went away, so to did the technical objections that had been voiced.

In the end, the inventory manager became one of the strongest proponents of the system. He hates my guts to this day, but he loves the system.

Now, as problems arise, I try to understand the emotional components of technical objections and address them with a higher priority than the technical ones.



Selling The System

Once upon a time, when I was a young project manager on a large CIM project, I was tasked with installing a new automated information system to replace a manual paper system. I was not only the CIM manager, I was the “change agent” responsible for overcoming the resistance to change typically encountered within each department. I was manager, salesman, teacher and evangelist.

In one department, I was repeatedly warned that if I was going to get buy-off for the system that I was going that have to deal with “Maria Duke”. I asked who she was and was informed that Maria “ran” the department. She was past retirement age, but had been running the inventory control department since the company was formed. She stayed on because she knew more about the inventory, the company’s systems and supplier’s products than anyone else.

Not easily deterred, I proclaimed that I would really like to meet this person. Upon hearing this, most others would laugh and walk away shaking their heads. I began to develop some doubts about who this formidable individual was.

After unsuccessfully trying to squeeze a meeting into Maria Duke’s busy schedule, I was finally able to meet with the famous “mistress of inventory control”. At the appointed time, I walked into the back of the inventory area armed with all of my foils and presentation materials, prepared for battle and looking forward to “selling” her on the advantages or this new information system.

However, as I entered the office area, I encountered a short, white haired lady who stood with her arms crossed and wearing a glare that would have withered the most hardened drill instructor. She stood tapping her foot and staring at me with a look that confirmed that there was nothing that I could say that she had not already discounted and dismissed. It was clear that what she really wanted was for me to simply go away and to take this newfangled upstart of a system with me. Before I even opened my mouth, I realized that my standard hard-sell approach and all of my colorful presentation materials were not going to touch the adamant resistance that I was facing.

I quickly reconsidered my approach.

I began by saying, “You know, I came prepared to tell you all about the new systems and all the great things that it will do for you. But, you know what?,” I said putting closing my folder and putting my materials down, “ I don’t think that I’m going to do that after all.”

Maria’s eyes widened. “Instead,” I continued, “why don’t we start by you telling me what your system does and what YOU need. No, actually, why don’t you make me a list of what you WISH your system could do. Then I’ll be able to compare that list to the new system to find out how it meets your current needs.”

Maria thought about it a minute and then grinned. She figured that this would be an ideal way to kill this upstart system quickly. Then she grinned even more, as she thought of some special items to put on her list; things that No system could do.

We agreed to meet again in two weeks and I left.

When I came back for our follow up meeting, Maria was prepared and smiling smugly as she handed me a three page list of things that she wanted her system to do. She appeared quite confident that I would fail miserably meeting these particular requirements. I began reviewing the list with the preface, “I don’t know if the new system will meet all of your needs. It really is a good system, but I don’t know what you want or need and don’t know how well the initial system will stand up to this list.”

Maria smiled sweetly. I started by going over the items that new system couldn’t do. “No,” I commented, “our new system can’t do this…. and it can’t to this one either.” I continued, “It won’t do this. I don’t even know what this one means and…WOW..I don’t think ANY system can do that!” I skipped down the list, admitting ignoble defeat on item after item and every time that I did so, Maria smiled harder.

By the time I finished the list she positively beamed and I concluded, “Gee, that’s surprising. I had hoped that the new system would fare better, but you sure identified some pretty severe system deficiencies.”

“However,” I interjected, “Let’s go over the list again and see what we CAN do.”

This time through the list, I stopped on her wish-list items that the new system could deliver on. “The new system CAN do this one.” I’d observe. “And because it does this, too. It because it does this one, you don’t even need to do this or that….”

I worked my way through the list a second time and when I was done, I shook my head.

“I am sorry, Maria. I had hoped that the new system would do better meeting these items on your list. It looks like the new system can’t do everything you need.”

“It looks like the new system will only make HALF your wishes come true.”

I stopped. Maria was silent. She frowned and thought about that. Slowly she started to smile again, realizing what it would mean “to have half her wishes come true”. She grinned at me and nodded and I realized that I had her sold.

I also realized that if anyone stood in the way of getting this system installed was going to have to deal with Maria Duke!

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What I had done that made this approach successful involved a number of different things.

- First and most importantly, I did not tell Maria what the system would do for her. I did not try to perform a “hard-sell” and force the new system down her throat.

- I did not presume to tell her what she needed or what she didn’t need.

- Instead I asked her what she needed. I did NOT ask her what the system currently did (that would tend to reinforce the status quo). I asked what her system did NOT currently do.

- I recognized that a prerequisite for change is dissatisfaction and basically asked her to prepare a list of things that she was dissatisfied with. (thus predisposing her to change)

- By working from this list, I turned that dissatisfaction into a situation, which focused not on what Maria might lose, but rather on what Maria might gain.

- Rather than create resistance by trying to separate her from a system that she owned and was familiar with, I tricked her into identifying the areas where she would gain by switching to a new system.

- I realized that “People resist change in direct proportion to perceived loss”, and turned the prospect of change from one that involved a potential sense of loss into one in which only offered gain.

When the perception shifted from one of possible loss to one of possible gain, the resistance to change evaporated and disappeared.



A Different Kind of Listening

Once, during a large system implementation, I chaired a working meeting with the project team. These meetings tended to be dynamic and a bit chaotic. The attendees represented a number of different departments and each had different priorities and problems.

For this particular meeting, my assistant and I had prepared a lengthy agenda. Normally, we could not fully address all of the items scheduled for a meeting; some topics were simply too complex and took too long to fully address.

The meeting began and, sure enough, some topics generated far more discussion than others.

At the end of the meeting, as I reviewed my notes, I commented to my assistant “Wow. That was an incredible meeting. Everyone was talking at once and while we didn’t get to cover all of the item, I have a REAL good idea what the problems are!”

My assistant was a system administrator with a master’s degree in industrial engineering. She had excellent skill in working with people and I had discovered that she was one of the most empathic people that I’d ever met.

Shocked at what I’d said she countered, “NO! Those aren’t their problems at all!”

I blinked back, stunned. I looked at my notes and at the agenda. I defended my stance explaining, “Well we didn’t cover ALL of the items, but the ones we did get to discuss we covered really well.” “Look”, I said showing her my notes.

She shook her said ad gently explained, “ Yes, yes. I was there. I know what they said and I know you took great notes. But those AREN’T their problems!”

I looked again at my notes, my confidence fading.

My assistant smiled and continued again, “Those things that they discussed, that’s not where their problems are. Look at your list and look at the items that we didn’t get around to discussing. Don’t you see the pattern there. Look at the tings they weren’t willing to talk about. Look at the topics where they changed the subject when you tried to bring them up.”

I stared at my list and slowly realized that she was right. All of the items that we hadn’t gotten around to discussing all had specific elements in common. There were specific topics that the organization seemed to be quite proficient in avoiding. I frowned and my assistant consoled me saying, “You do a great job listening to what everyone said. I am confident that you can accurately recite back everything that came out of their mouths. But you have to try harder and listen to what they didn’t say!”

It was then that I realized that while I was a premier technologist, I lacked some essential interpersonal skills that I had never even known existed before. While I listened intently and actively to what everyone said, my assistant listened differently. What the others people didn’t say shouted to her louder than the things that they did say. And what they didn’t say was more important.

I have learned to value skills that I personally do not have and have, over the years, tried to surround myself with the rare individuals with these very special skills.


Confidence is Parasitic

I once worked with an associate who was the planning manager for a large semiconductor manufacturing facility. Her previous role in the organization had been as an engineer and she had assumed the planning role because of her project management skills. However, the area of forecasting and planning was new to her and her lack of confidence was evident. I had worked with automated planning systems for years and worked with her as the technical representative of the project, designing and writing reports and analyzing data while trying to support her and teach her about what planning really was all about.

Linda, the planning manager, had a difficult time. She not only had a lot to absorb in a relatively short time, she had a demanding boss who was touch as nails. Bridgett, the Fab manager, was not a micro-manager but periodically demanded detailed information on problems, solutions, and activities associated with turning on the automated planning systems that Linda was now in charge of.

In private, Linda was competent and confident. She patiently assessed alternatives and made decisions about the projects activities in a professional manner. However, over time, her relationship with her boss, Bridgett, worsened and grew quite dysfunctional. On several occasions, Bridgett chewed out Linda quite severely for obviously not knowing what she was doing and for making no effort to meet her goals. Linda’s confidence faltered and I found myself spending more and more time trying to help her get out of the situation she’d found herself in. This included more training on planning theory and help preparing more detailed project plans.

It seemed a mystery to Linda how she could work so hard and still earn the disapproval and distain of her immediate supervisor. I worked well with both Bridgett and Linda and also did not understand why they did not seem to get along well. Until, I finally saw one of these incidents in person.

While reviewing some new reports with Linda and showing her how they might help fix some of the problems in the manufacturing area, Bridgett entered Linda’s office. Bridgett asked Linda some questions about how the new reports were coming (the very topic that Linda and I had been discussing).

Linda, recently armed with all the information she needed to answer Bridgett, hesitated and simply stood mute. She was obviously trying to gage how much detail to give Bridgett and paused, not quite knowing where to start with her answer. Bridgette, impatient and worried, pressed Linda further, demanding more and more details. Linda’s responses began less and less assertive until they were meek, plaintive reassurances that everything was okay. Bridgett then began to reprimand Linda for her lack of effort and the apparent poor state of affairs in this project.

Having stood silent up to this point, I stepped in and started firing details at Bridgett. I started listing the individual reports being created, estimating their respective estimated completion times, itemizing those that were in testing and started in categorizing the scheduling algorithms that might need to be reviewed because of recent changes in the product mix in the upcoming lot start forecast for the factory. Bridgett, reeling from the oncoming details, quickly yielded, backing out of the office saying, “Fine, fine, I don’t need to know all that. I just wanted to know how things were progressing.”

Linda was still in shock and could not understand what had gone wrong. She could not figure out what had triggered the hostile reaction from Bridgett. I explained.

“Bridgette is a very busy person. While responsible for everything that occurs in the Fab, she simply does not have the time to handle all of the details. She was very good at delegating tasks and giving her subordinates almost complete autonomy about how to achieve their respective goals. However, when a manager in such a situation gets a bad gut feeling about certain aspects of the systems that they control, they tend to poke their noses in to find out how things are going.”

I told Linda, “When a manager asked for details, they generally don’t really want them and wouldn’t have the time to assess them all anyway. When a manager asks for details, what they really want is to know is that there are details that are being attended to.”

I generalized further concluding, “When a manager asks for details, what the generally want is reassurance.”

I reviewed the interaction between Linda and Bridgett. “When Bridgett came in asking how things were going, you hesitated, not knowing where to start. In doing so, Bridgett worried that you really had no detailed plans or that things were going unattended or even going wrong. When she pressed for more details, your replies were vague and insufficiently reassuring. Bridgett seeing your lack of self-confidence also lost the little confidence that she had in you.”

“Notice,” I continued, “that when I started giving her far more details than she had requested, Bridgett terminated the discussion and left. She was reassured that things were being handled and did not want (nor could she assimilate) the details. She had received what she had come to your office for; a good feeling that everything was being handled.”

Linda was at a loss. I tried to explain further the dynamics involved and recommended that she handle herself differently in Bridgett’s presence, but it was to no avail. Whenever Linda faced Bridgett, she crumbled and caved in. Bridgett, never gaining any real confidence in Linda, allowed Linda to leave when she requested a transfer several months later.

I came to the conclusion then that confidence is “parasitic”. If you believe in yourself, others will see that self-assurance and also believe in you. On the other hand, if you project an aura of doubt and worry, of hesitation and indecision, then others around you will come to share that perception as well.

Managers, in particular, are susceptible to this phenomenon. With so little time to spend with individuals oe on one, they tend to make generalizations. Perhaps having little substantive basis for developing confidence of their own, borrow their confidence from others. It makes sense that if a manager has a staff that feels that everything is going well, the manager will likely feel good about ongoing operations and activities. However, if a manager’s staff is worried or concerned, troubled and filled with doubt about things in general, the manager will probably not feel real good about how the operations are going.

I do not know if there is a psychological term to describe this phenomenon. It is the opposite of projection, where you project your feeling into your perception of other people’s feelings. It is almost as if you are borrowing your perceptions from others rather than developing or using your own.

Perhaps it is not so much that confidence is parasitic as it is that doubt is contagious.


Unconscious Abilities

I once had an administrative assistant who was the best “system admin” I ever had. She was extremely empathetic and often had a better understanding of problems that the users did themselves.

Anyway, one day at a business lunch with customers, she commented that, while she was not good at making decisions, her talent was the ability to tell whether 'others' had made good ones or bad ones.

I found this an odd remark, because she often challenged me whenever I made decisions for the MIS department. She would frequently come to me with issues and ask me to make a quick decision. Sometimes she accepted my choices without question. But other times, she would challenge me asking “Why did you make that decision? Why didn’t you consider another alternative?”

As I reflected on her comment, I realized that her odd statement about her abilities explained her inconsistent behavior regarding my previous decision making for the department.

She thought she couldn’t make decisions, but she also thought she knew when the decisions of other’s were correct.

Strangely, her real abilities were quite different than she herself suspected. Actually, she was really reading my confidence and internalizing it as her own. She was reading my body language and interpreting the confidence that was communicated as her own.

For instance, if she asked me a question and I was certain of the answer, I would prepare a defense, but she would stop me, saying she didn’t need an explanation. On the other hand, if she asked me to make a decision and I was uncertain, she would question my choice and challenge me to defend or explain it.

To this day, I think she was somehow able to read my own certainty or indecision and internalize it, making it her own. If I was confident in my decision, so was she. However, if there were any uncertainty on my part, she would see that mental coin get tossed into the air and she too would doubt whether or not my choice was the correct one. And when that happened she to wouold question it and make me explain.

What is most remarkable was that she herself was unaware of her own ability to read others so well. She thought that she had a talent to tell when others made good decisions when she herself could not.

In truth, however, her ability was that she could read the certainty or uncertainty of others. She could tell whether they were confident in the decisions that they were making or were jsut picking an arbitrart option. Whether through body language, or tone of vpooice or the cast of ones eyes... she read me like a book and the slightest hesitation on my part, the slightest uncertainty, was immediately discerned.

How odd, that some people are unaware of the very abilities that distinguish themselves from others. Her ability to read others so quickly and accurately was a remarkable ability, yet she was somehow unaware of her own unique awareness.

I never mentioned it, because I was afraid that making her conscious of it would interfere with this ‘unconscious’ skill.


Knowing the Answers

When I was young technologist, I decided that it was time for me to start consulting. I had become an expert in my field and decided that I could make a living providing answers to other companies that could benefit from my specialized knowledge and experience.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that I was not a good consultant. My dilemma was that, despite excellent starts, I almost always got into arguments with my clients.

In a typical consulting job, I would be taken into an organization and be shown the details of their operations. Everything would go well until I was asked “THE QUESTION”. It was then that my troubles would begin.

THE QUESTION, while phrased different ways, was ultimately some form of the query, “What do you think we should do?”

At this point I instinctively provided my answer. In most cases, I had already come to some level of conclusion and offered an explanation of the system or changes they needed to make. Also, in most cases, my answer was complex and detailed as well.

Unfortunately, without exception, my answer solicited a “knee-jerk” reaction to my recommended remedy.

“Wait. Wait a minute,” my client would respond. “We were thinking of doing this thing over here. Why do you think we need to do that?”

As I explained in even more detail, my customer would interrupt again and ask, “Wait. What’s wrong with our solution?”

At this point I generally found myself explain what was right with my solution and what was wrong with theirs, and why I knew what I was talking about and why they didn’t. Embroiled in an argument, I was rarely able to understand how I got into this situation and never managed to get myself out of the situation.

After several failed consulting endeavors, I reflected on the nature of the problem. I recognized that I was offering my customers answers that they were not ready for, but did not understand why my answers were not acceptable. I was confident that I was right, but trapped by the dilemma that arguing my case did not seem to make the answer any more palatable.

First, I tried to figure out why my answers were different from theirs. Initially, I concluded that it was because I had more experience. But then I realized that I had many colleagues who had shared my experiences and many of then didn’t have a clue.

After more thought I realized that the main reason I had a different perception was that my experiences had led me to ask some important questions along the way that most other people had not. I had asked things like: “Why did that work? What did I do wrong? What did that other guy do right? What did I accidentally do right? What should I have done?”

Whenever I asked such questions, I inevitably discovered answers that I had not had before. And it was these very answers that I was now confident that I could market to others.

Unfortunately, I now discovered that the answers themselves were not acceptable, usually because my clients were not ready for them yet.

It was then that I had an epiphany. I realized that my clients would never find these technical answers as acceptable until they asked themselves the prerequisite questions.

At this point, I changed my approach with my consulting clients. Whenever I met with my customers and they asked me THE QUESTION, I responded differently.

Instead of offering them an answer that they would generally find unacceptable, I first asked them, “What do you think?”

Now, you have to realize that in my previous experience, I had always hated consultants who answered my questions with these questions. But I also realized that if I was going to draw a map for these people… to lead them to new opportunities… to figuratively get them from point A to Point B, I had to first find where Point A was.

(there is an old adage…”If you don’t know where you’re going any road will do… but if you don’t know where you are a map won’t help.”

I wanted to draw my client a map, so I asked, “What do you think?”

Then instead of telling the client that they were wrong, I said, “That’s good..but did you ever think of…?” Followed by “what would you do if…?” and “How would you handle…?”

In short, I asked him all the questions I had asked myself…but that he had never gotten around to discovering.

The process took longer, but in the ends HE came to a new conclusion… ultimately quite close to my original one..but the biggest difference was that the answer was HIS not MINE.

By using a Socratic method of asking questions instead of giving answers, I found a more effective way of changing perceptions without starting arguments. And by letting go of the answers, the client owned the solutions instead of me… so the solutions were not rejected.

When I discovered that the trick was not in knowing the answers, but in rediscovering the questions…I became a good consultant…but more importantly, I became a good teacher.

To be written

Finding Key People -