Forward Thinking

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Our new columnist, M Moser’s Steve Gale, tells us that people are brittle, and they also have a lot of inertia.

I have an admission to get off my chest. I work in a design office (that’s not my admission) that focuses exclusively on workplaces, and there is one area of business that I have, in the past, screwed up badly. I think it’s better now, as I hope you will see, but it was frequently tears before bedtime.

People, they are the problem. Buildings, being inert, do exactly what we ask of them, but people don’t. We found that challenges to our projects were rarely technical, they were philosophical, and came from unexpected directions, and from people we hardly ever saw. We didn’t really know them, but they were very important, the real consumers of our product. We refer to them as ‘users’ or sometimes ‘occupiers’. They are the men and women who work in the buildings we design.

Why did this happen? It is obvious that these people would be at the sharp end of what we do, which makes them the best qualified to judge our work. I have a theory about this.

Designers and their professional colleagues are, like most specialists, well trained and well meaning, and do their job with a combination of passion, interest, training, natural ability, and the pleasure of seeing the end product of their labour. It’s certainly not for the money. But with this cocktail comes a downside. Only very rarely does this set of skills come with a side-order of management expertise, and it shows. Our projects get 100% focus, which can crowd out the ability to see the big picture. Speaking as one of these handicapped people, I can say that architects and designers often have no training, little inclination and even less time to get involved in these key areas.

What to do? Well, you probably can’t change the internal wiring of every architect, nor am I suggesting that you hire people managers. But we can repackage the problem and make it really simple. Then the good news is that we are already doing most of what’s needed anyway, but didn’t realise it.

Managers often say ‘nobody likes change’ but that’s not really fair or accurate

Let me explain how simple it is. When you move office, the change in your surroundings and routine is not gradual, it’s a step change, perceived in an instant. You go home on Friday night with a new address in your pocket, then on Monday your new world starts at nine o’clock – bang!

People, however, do not change this fast –as we all know. They change slowly, and incrementally. So to explain this I have drawn a devilishly clever chart. It shows the light speed of buildings versus the glacial speed of people, and the problem is as obvious as a dig in the ribs with a pencil. If you impose the new environment before the new occupiers are ready to accept it you risk a lot of unhappiness while they get up to speed.

While we wait, the users might decide they don’t like their new home and rebel, and people might leave the business in a huff. I know an insurance firm that relocated its IT analysts and lost more than half of them in short order. They felt put upon and left out, even though the business logic was robust. ‘it’s always the good people that leave,’ their manager complained, two weeks before leaving himself.

Less dramatically, it can mean they find excuses to plod on grumpily and inefficiently
for months while they find out how things work. It can also mean that people start to reverse the changes, which leaves egg on
faces and wastes a lot of money. This is bad for one’s career.

Managers often say ‘nobody likes change’ but that’s not really fair or accurate. People will accept huge transformative projects, but they eat them up at a certain rate, and it is worth considering what that rate might be, and then work with it. It depends on how much they are brought into the whole process, as well as the distance they are asked to travel. People are brittle, and they have a lot of inertia, when they move they take a while to get going, when they bend it is creakingly slow.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence at M Moser Associates.