Monday, 11 March 2013

7 Deadly Sins of Process Improvement/Change - #1 Arrogance

Just over three years ago I posted an article on this blog called 7 Deadly Sins of Process Improvement (or Change Management). It recently dawned on me that, although I said I would expand on the 'sins' I mentioned in the original post, I never got around to it, so I'm now trying to make amends for that oversight! 

The first of my deadly sins is arrogance. Arrogance is defined as “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one's own importance or abilities”, and is most strongly linked with the notion of pride. Just about anyone involved in a change initiative has the potential to exhibit arrogant tendencies, be they the sponsor, managers, change team members or end users, and unless these are recognised, managed and controlled this could easily be the single biggest cause of failure to your improvement initiative.  

Having a sense of our own abilities is clearly a good thing. Quality depends on people who care about their work, their abilities and their place in the organisation. But quality is equally dependent on the humility of the individual, and especially the ability to recognise that someone else may have a better understanding of a specific situation or better knowledge to make a decision.

Arrogance (or pride) manifests itself in many different ways, but in the workplace especially, it is always associated with knowing better than everyone else. Given a traditional tiered hierarchy, an over-arrogant organisation will generate a culture of fear and dread, with the lowest members of the workforce being subjected to bullying and a fairly miserable existence. This is the kind of culture that dominated at Enron, with disastrous consequences.

In a process improvement context there are a multitude of examples of how arrogance puts a programme at risk.


  • Ivory Towers : The idea of Ivory Towers derives from the 19th century where it was used to designate an environment where intellectuals engage in activities that are disconnected from the realities of everyday life. A common criticism in process improvement is that the group tasked with implementing improvements becomes an ivory tower. 
  • Blind Leading the Blind : In organisations where formal organisational process improvement is a new concept it’s not uncommon to have a situation where all the non-experts get together and muddle through. Someone, often a manager with a loud voice or dominant personality, will be asked to take the lead, regardless of their underlying ability, and they will arrogantly drive the initiative forwards. Even if other individuals show expertise or desire to perform they are discouraged and their ideas go unnoticed and unrecognised. 
  • Not Invented Here : Not Invented Here syndrome is relatively common in the software development world. It is the situation where teams or departments refuse to take on board ‘components’ that have been created outside of the team or group. Certain types of programmers are notoriously bad about accepting code that someone else has written and will rewrite everything to suit their own egos. Sadly, the same behaviour is often true in process improvement initiatives. In certain disciplines, there is no need to ever write a process from scratch, even if no documented process exists in an organisation. Peer Review, Risk Management, Configuration Management and Requirements Development processes can easily be found on the internet or in standard reference books on project management or software engineering. These off-the-shelf processes need some tweaking to conform to the language and culture of your organisation but there is no point in reinventing the wheel. But I’ve seen dozens of teams writing their own project processes rather than use the (perfectly adequate) corporate standard, and even more commonplace, creating their own document templates. Sadly I don’t have any data, but I would guess that more money and time has been spent creating unnecessary process documentation than in any other activity associated with process improvement, and that alone is the biggest cause of failure for process improvement initiatives. This in itself causes further failure, because new initiatives will almost always begin by reviewing and rewriting the previous documentation set.
  • Ignoring other Initiatives : It isn’t uncommon for an organisation to be running numerous initiatives simultaneously. Large organisations are constantly in a state of flux and there may well be dozens of improvement activities in operation, or at the very least in plan. The trouble is that most of these initiatives are running independently of each other, with different objectives and goals, different sponsors, and different change teams with vastly different levels of skill, ability and competence. To make matters worse, they are almost all competing for the same resources in terms of time and money, and many of the initiatives will be aimed at the same groups of people who are probably already overwhelmed with change and most likely struggling to find enough time in the day to perform their day jobs. I was asked to project manage an infrastructure metrics programme in one organisation of about 4000 people and in the first week we discovered 23 other metrics initiatives had been launched across different levels of the business that no-one knew anything about. That in itself was a shock, but not one of the initiatives had any documented objectives, scope or requirements. The result that management closed them all down with the exception of ours, but by that time it was impossible to discover how much time and money had been wasted. What’s all this got to do with arrogance? Each individual or team that goes off and does their own thing without looking around at what else is going on is guilty of arrogance, because they think they know best.

 Laws to Overcome Arrogant Behaviour

1st Law - If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

2nd Law - If you don’t know something, ask someone who does

3rd Law - Find out what else is going on and how you can collaborate

4th Law - Locate your experts (including outside resources) and use them

5th Law - Work collaboratively with the people you want to change

6th Law - Read about the subject matter and related disciplines and learn from other people


Learn all you can from the mistakes of others.
You won't have time to make them all yourself.

-Alfred Sheinwold


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