Old Wineskins & Mandatory Fun…

Change is hard.

That statement should not come as a shock to anyone who has ever worked anywhere in the business world, or even just lived on planet earth for that matter. However, change is a critical element to moving the collective knowledge of our species forward. Without change, we wouldn’t be walking upright, let alone using a netbook to write blog posts from 35,000 feet in the air (yes, I’m composing this missive from seat 8F on Virgin America flight 84 to Washington, DC).

One of the ways many organizations try to deal with change is by bringing in new ‘tools’. I work for a company whose primary ‘product’ is just such a tool (CollabNet TeamForge), but we also offer consulting services around Community Management, Agile development, and process change.

I may be biased here (since I’m in the services group), but I’d argue that the services offerings are the most critical component to the successful deployment of our product. One of the main reasons for this is that it’s often easier for an ‘outsider’ to help companies, or, in my case, government agencies, shift their processes from slow, antiquated, heavyweight affairs to streamlined, agile, community-based approaches that take maximum advantage of the tools. We also provide a critical eye toward making sure that the change-phobic people involved in the transition don’t try the ‘new wine in old wineskins’ trick.

Any historical or biblical scholar can recount the parable of putting new wine into old wineskins, but the short version is that putting new wine (tools) into old wineskins (processes) is a recipe for disaster/bursting, because the old processes are inflexible, brittle, and unstretchy (kudos to CollabNet CTO Jack Repenning for this correction of my original thought process). This is especially true if the transition effort is driven by a top-down edict that ignores the needs of the community. My community management colleague on the Forge.mil project, retired Army Lt. Colonel Susan Grosenheider, calls this the ‘mandatory fun’ approach, and she has first-hand knowledge of how well that goes over in the Army (hint: not well). At the end of the day, if you’ve deployed a new tool, but still have your broken processes wrapped in a shiny new package, you have a situation that my CollabNet colleague Drew Showers calls ‘A fool with a tool is just a fast fool.’

One of the most rewarding, yet challenging jobs that Community Managers face is walking the fine line between the needs and desires of the business community, and the needs of the developers and/or users. There are times when you have to say no to one group or the other, but having someone who can step into the breach between different members of the community is extremely important to the success of any tools deployment, and pays off in the long run.

While businesses should strive to build up their own community ‘champions‘, having a consultant who isn’t tainted by the existing process makes it easier to find a way forward that isn’t just ‘change for the sake of change’. A good consultant also helps you avoid a culture of ‘mandatory fun’ which helps prevent the process ‘bursting’ problem, and ultimately leads to a better return on investment for the tool set you’re deploying to help streamline your business or development process.

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