Project Management Institute

The contexts of change

by Kenneth H. Rose


But what about the lemmings.”

More a statement than a question, really. And one not intended to be uttered, certainly not intended to be heard. But Bob heard it.

“Lemmings?” he asked.

“Oh, sorry,” I replied. “I must have been daydreaming.”

Bob and I had been friends for some time. He was now the director for environment, safety, and occupational health at a large manufacturing firm. More as a favor than anything else, he had arranged for me to make a presentation to Karen Williams, the chief executive officer, on the new ISO 14001 environmental management standard. I hoped to show her the relevance of the standard to both environmental and operational performance and convince her that my small business of consulting engineers could help improve both. Karen was running a bit behind schedule, so Bob and I were waiting in the executive suite when my mind began to wander.

“Yeah, OK. But about lemmings?” Bob asked.

I explained that I had been having an imaginary conversation with a client not unlike Karen who had engaged our services to develop a comprehensive corporate environmental program. We had gone over the firm's operations, products, and services and determined which of those might affect the environment in some way. We had described the expected and potential effects and developed strategies to mitigate or eliminate them. We were on the right track toward significantly improved performance.

Then one of the staff members asked a question.

“But what about the lemmings?”

“Lemmings?” I asked.

“Yeah, lemmings,” he said. “They're furry little rodents that live up north. Every couple of years the population grows so large that, for some unknown reason, they make this mass migration to the ocean, where they jump in and start swimming. Of course, the ocean is too big to swim across, so they all drown.”

“So …,” I said, encouraging further illumination.

“Your ideas sound good on paper, but they aren't complete. Sure you talk about endangered species and all that, but what about the species that aren't endangered? Are you just going to ignore them? Those lemmings are dying by the thousands up there—maybe millions—and somebody has to stop the slaughter. If you aren't prepared to deal with the whole environment, you shouldn't waste our time.”

“Do you think about lemmings a lot?” Bob quizzed.

I explained that the lemmings were just an example, a means to express and explore a type of dysfunctional administrative behavior that I had noticed with increasing frequency. It seemed to me that a lot of good ideas were dying on the vine, not because they were in some way fundamentally flawed, but because the people who could exploit them were unable to do so. It seemed that this inability to embrace new products or new ideas was a result of a great leap to irrelevance.

When presented with something new, people do not try to understand it in a new context consistent with the newness of the product or idea. Rather, they tend to understand it within the constraints of their current knowledge, beliefs, or agendas. This conflict between what is new and what exists leads to some kind of mismatch that is logical, but not relevant because of the uncompleted paradigm shift. The new product or idea is quashed precisely because it is not what it is not intended to be.

Bob furrowed his brow. “I don't get it.”

I continued. Something new is necessarily different. It's not supposed to be the same as what exists now. When people try to force what could be into the mold of what is, the result can sometimes be a little silly— as in the example of the lemmings. Silly or not, the result is always fatal for the new.

When presented with something new, people do not try to understand it in a new context consistent with the newness of the product or idea. Rather, they tend to understand it within the constraints of their current knowledge, beliefs, or agendas.

In my imaginary conversation, the lemmings themselves are not important. Their use as a distracter by the staff member is the issue. In this case, the lemmings are an extreme example, used to emphasize the dysfunction of the behavior. Lemmings have been migrating to their deaths for a long time. The phenomenon is a natural event that may serve to control the population, which in turn conserves the food supply, which in turn ensures survival of the species. That someone would use this event to challenge an unrelated environmental program is ridiculous. But that is exactly the sort of thing that happens.

These kinds of responses seem to share three common characteristics.

1. The challenge—the distracter—is irrelevant. It is not related to the issue at hand and should not be a part of the consideration. As mentioned, lemmings have been committing suicide for a long time. No environmental plan is going to stop them or alter their behavior in any way. The argument should be properly dismissed with a puzzled, “So what?” However, it cannot be brushed aside because of the second characteristic.

2. The challenge, in some way, makes sense. To some degree, it is connected to the issue at hand. The closer the connection—for example, the endangered-unendangered species linkage—the more seductive the argument. The greater the distance, as with the lemmings, the greater the likelihood that the argument will be discounted, depending on the intensity of the third characteristic.

3. The challenger is emotionally involved and feels some level of personal obligation or mission. In the case of the lemmings, the challenger expresses a concern for the welfare of animals that are “… dying by the thousands, maybe millions …” and expresses that concern with emotionally loaded language (“slaughter”) that is, on its face, manifestly inappropriate. The lemmings are killing themselves; there is no slaughter. It is the sense of obligation or mission, which is tied to the current contexts, that compels the challenger to act. The emotional attachment justifies and sustains the pursuit.

These three characteristics can combine to form a close-minded, roadblock mentality that nobody intends and that could be prevented by simply shedding the mantle of current contexts and stepping into the warm light of imagination.

“Oh, I see,” said Bob. “If we don't open our minds to new possibilities and new contexts, we can unintentionally …”

“Mr. Kelsey? Ms. Williams can see you now,” announced the secretary, interrupting Bob's personal breakthrough and condemning it to a stillbirth.

The presentation went well. Karen Williams was attentive and direct. She asked probing, thoughtful questions that got right to the heart of what an ISO 14001 environmental management system could do for her. Other staff members followed her lead and suggested ways that their activities might participate and contribute. A couple of closing, clarifying questions set the stage for a beneficial next step.

Then Bob spoke.

“But what about the shoes?”

“Shoes?” I asked.

“Yeah, safety shoes. Environment, safety, and occupational health are all part of the same program here, and I don't see how we can have one without the other.”

“That's a good point,” I replied. “Neither the ISO 14000-series environmental standards nor the ISO 9000-series quality standards address safety and occupational health, but that doesn't mean that health and safety are not important. I understand that the International Organization for Standardization is looking into the need for and feasibility of a set of international health and safety standards.”

“Well, OK,” said Bob. “But what does that do for us right now? We've got a problem with safety shoes and your presentation didn't even mention it.”

“What's the problem?” asked Ms. Williams.

Bob was on a roll. “People on the shop floor have to wear safety shoes. It's an OSHA rule and a company policy. But these guys come into work late and don't go to their lockers, or the shoes are too heavy, or whatever … but they don't wear the shoes. So we hit them with disciplinary actions. So often, in fact, that they've started to wear the shoes home so they can put them on in the morning and wear them to work.”

“I don't see the problem,” said Ms. Williams.

“Well,” said Bob, “Now everybody wears their safety shoes all the time and I guess that's good, but when they wear them home they use them for gardening or working on the car or other personal things, and they are wearing them out. I've got people coming in for new soles after a year when the shoes should last at least 14 months.”

“We've got employees using company property for personal purposes?” asked the Chief Counsel.

“And we're paying for the fair wear-and-tear outside the shop?” asked the Chief Financial Officer.

“Have you applied disciplinary action for wearing the shoes too often?” asked the Human Resources Director.

“I was unaware that this was happening,” said Ms. Williams. “What are we going to do about it?”

“An environmental management system is clearly not responsive to this critical need,” Bob replied. “Now, I have a plan to beef up my surveillance and enforcement section with additional inspectors who will …”

AS BOB DRONED ON, the words all blended together into a mushy haze. He was talking about shoes. They all were. But, in my mind's eye, all I could see was a band of furry little rodents rushing headlong toward a cliff, leaping into the sea … and swimming off to nowhere. ■

Reader Service Number 102

Kenneth H. Rose is the Tidewater-Richmond Area manager for WPI, an affiliate of Virginia Tech, providing consulting in planning, leadership, and management. He is book review editor for PMI's Project Management Journal, and is a member of PMI's Environmental Management SIG. A Certified Quality Manager by the American Society for Quality, he is website manager for the ASQ Energy and Environmental Division. He is also a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 207, Environmental Management.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

July 2000 PM Network



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