So, how are we doing?

If you’ve worked in change management, you’ve probably been asked this question. In fact, let’s be honest, you’ve probably asked it yourself.

So, how are we doing?

It’s a simple enough question isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Well, no. It’s not.

To start with, it depends on who asked the question.  Would you give the same answer to the CEO as you would to your customer? Or how about the internal auditors and the wider project team? The Board and Compliance?

No, probably not. Not, of course, because you want to be deceitful in any way, but because you want to tailor your response to make it meaningful to your audience.

For example, at the next Board meeting, were the Chairman to ask “So, how are we doing?”, you really wouldn’t expect (or want) the reply to be “Well. The printer’s broken again so it’s difficult for the whole team to see the burn down chart in the morning stand ups, but we’re pretty much on target.” It may be true, of course, but it’s the wrong answer. It’s inappropriate for the audience.

It’s kind of obvious when you see an exaggerated example in print like this one (and I apologise to those who graduated from the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious) but in reality, assessing the expectation of the questioner, the context in which they asked it, their level of understanding and wider knowledge of the topic, your expectation of what they will do with your response, the look on their face when they pose the question, their body-language, the “temperature” in the room, can be tricky.

Knowing your audience is therefore critical. As is “reading the room”.

I once heard a story, possibly apocryphal (but I hope it’s true), in which this idea of knowing your audience is the central theme. It goes like this:

The year is 1999, a few months before the Year 2000 (“Y2K”) deadline.

The company in question is a multi-billion dollar US corporation, with a lot to prove. Business is good, but there is some scare-mongering in the press. Maintaining confidence in the markets will be critical as the clocks tick over to the new millennium. Companies like this one are influential in the markets. Companies like this one are the markets.

News rooms across the planet are asking if the world economy will collapse as computers all over the world succum to the celebrated Y2K bug. How will the giant, market-sensitive corporations fare? Reuters TV are running interviews with CEOs of these huge corporations, trying to get a sense of whether they have everything in hand, that they are ready, that we are safe.

Y2K is big bananas for these people.

On the day of this story, there is a meeting of the Main Board, chaired by the joint CEO and Chairman, I’ll call him Jack. So far a few of the Board have arrived: there is Jack, the CIO (I’ll call her Jill) and the CFO.

Y2K is not specifically on the agenda – there are dedicated meetings for Y2K – but no doubt it will come up. It usually does.

Sure enough, as they are waiting for the rest of the Board members to assemble, Jack leans across to the Jill and asks, “So, how is Y2K going?

We now jump to the Y2K Programme Office in New York, where a mayday call has been received by the Global Y2K Programme Director – sent by Jill. It’s an “all hands on deck” fire-drill (not literally a fire drill, but the term – at the time – used to describe a sudden – and generally unwanted – high priority work request from way up in the organisation).

The fire-drill was dutifully passed down to the Divisional Programme Leads, each of whom were responsible for the Y2K programme in their division. The divisions were South America, North America, Europe, Middle-east and Africa, Australasia and – bizarrely – “Other”.

Each Divisional Programme Lead was asked to prepare a status report, using an attached template which, as it turned out, was different from the templates currently in use around the organisation. Since each division had multiple Y2K teams, some working across country borders and timezones, the Divisional Programme Leads sent out the template to each Y2k team asking for an update,

Over the next two weeks, the local Y2K teams completed their reports, using the spreadsheet templates, and then returned them to their Divisional Programme Leads. who consolidated them into a single Divisional response, ready to send back to the Global Y2K Programme Director.

Unfortunately, the spreadsheet templates weren’t designed terribly well as there was no cell validation. Consequently, the consolidation carried out by the Divisional Leads turned out to be a much longer exercise than it should have been.

Eventually, though, each division managed to return their completed templates to the Global office, who in turn, were able to produce the final set of reports and deliver it to Jill, complete with an Executive Summary of the contents.

At the time, there was approximately 50,000 staff on the payroll, employed in pretty much every country in the world. The story goes that 5,000 of them were engaged in this three-week fire-drill. 5,000. That’s 10% of the organisation, all of whom were diverted from their usual work to put out the “fire”.

The following day, Jill walks into Jack’s office and hands him the dossier. A fine piece of work.

“What’s this?” asks Jack.

“You asked me to give you a status report of the Y2K programme,” says Jill, “This is it.”

“When?” asks Jack.

“At the Board meeting.”

“Jill,” says Jack, “I asked you ‘how is it going?’, not for a status report.”

Here it comes…

“All you needed to say, ” he continued, “was ‘It’s going great thanks!'”

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