Back to Tampa Part II: You Need to Show Them

In Part I of this post I wrote about a conversation I had with some people at a recent MEP Innovation Conference. You can check it out here if you’re interested. To sum up, I asked a group of people if they have any ideas for what to do with employees who refuse to adopt a new process. The answers I got generally fell into one of three categories. Last week I wrote about the first; You need to train them. Here’s category #2:

You need to show them how your solution is going to make their lives easier. I couldn’t agree more. I still find this category tricky for at least two reasons. I come across a lot of people who aren’t going to touch something new until we not only prove that it’s going to help them, but show them that we’ve already done it successfully on our jobs. I get it and I understand it. However, if everyone had that attitude nothing new would ever get done. In order to successfully implement anything you have to pilot it first. That’s a big ask of someone because you have to convince them to put aside a process that they are comfortable with and instead put their faith in you that what you’re proposing is not going to fail them. I believe our CEO referred to it as something like building a new plane while still flying the old one. I don’t know about where you work, but I have a short list in my head of people in my company that are willing to go out on that limb. The key word there is “short.” I can’t repeatedly go back to that well asking them to take extra valuable time out of their day to test new processes. The pool of people willing to try something new needs to be deep, and it won’t be if everyone has the “show me first” attitude.

Even after you show them some still dig in their heels. I spoke to a co-worker recently who had the same conversation with two separate guys about a piece of technology that we adopted several years ago now. I’m paraphrasing, but Guy #1 said, “I’ll never work without it again. That thing has made my job easier and saved a ton of time and money.” Guy #2 said, “I wish we could have two identical projects so someone else could use that on their project and I could do it the old way on mine. I guarantee I’d save the company more money.” For what it’s worth, time studies show that Guy #2 is on the wrong side of the argument. Honestly, I can relate. Somewhere deep down I still believe that there isn’t a problem that I can’t solve with a trusty old Excel workbook. I also realize that Excel is no longer the answer for…well, pretty much anything we’re doing that requires collaboration or integration. I’m in my comfort zone in an Excel workbook, but if I take one step back and look at the bigger picture it’s obvious that it’s not the answer for everyone else. Much like if Guy #2 took a step back he’d see that working within the new process has a dramatic effect on people up and downstream from him.

Side note: If you’re assuming that Guy #2 is much younger than Guy #1, you’d be wrong. They are similar in age, but Guy #1 is actually slightly older. Can we dispel the assumption that old guys don’t adapt to tech like young guys do? It’s a lazy generalization that’s rarely been true in my experience. Maybe my sample size is too small, but I have had as many guys in their 50s willingly take to new tech as guys in their 20s or any age in between. Sure, I’ve come across a few “I’m too old for this shit” kind of guys, but they’ve been few and far between. I’ve never found it to be as simple as “young guys will pick this up faster or be more willing than old guys.” We’re not giving the older guys nearly enough credit. Also, I am one of the older guys at this point and it’s not cool to call us “old guys.”

That leads me to the other reason I find the “show me” attitude tricky: Every solution you pick isn’t necessarily intended to make that individual’s life easier or at least pay immediate dividends. The best example I can come up with is field documentation. Nobody I know enjoys documenting. So when we take a foreman who is used to either not documenting or at best pencil whipping it, and then try to implement some kind of structured, standardized documentation plan the overwhelming response is, “This is a waste of my time. I’ve never had to do this before. Let me do my job.” Literally everyone I’ve talked to in the industry agrees that thorough, detailed job documentation is important and unfortunately that responsibility always falls on the foremen. So, how do you convince someone to take one for the team and add a process that doesn’t necessarily benefit them personally? I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how valuable that information is – especially if we were ever end up defending ourselves in a lawsuit. That doesn’t really seem to matter to a lot of people until it actually happens to them.

If it seems like I’m picking on foremen a lot, I’m not trying to. I admire and respect the hell out of what those guys do and I’m sure they see a lot of new processes as “flavor of the month” stuff that they just have to weather temporarily until we annoying office folk change our focus to something else. However, the most frequently used statements I’ve heard from most of the guys who resist tech-related process change are, “That’s not part of my job,” or, “I don’t like computers,” or, “I’m not a tech guy.” I get it. I’ve talked to more guys over the years than I can remember who told me this story:

“I got into the trade because I like working with tools and like working with my hands. I was specifically trying to avoid sitting at a desk with a computer. I got good enough at my job that the company asked me to stop doing what I’m good at. They threw a computer at me and told me I need to start using it. I don’t even know how to type. How am I supposed to check e-mail or look at a model?”

I always try to have empathy for that person despite the fact that my path was damn near the opposite. I fumbled around with tools for six months until someone saved my ass with a computer. Empathy or not, the reality at this point is that technology has been infiltrating construction for decades. Part of the appeal for guys getting into construction is that It allows them to make a good living while completely avoiding computers, tablets, mobile devices, etc. If nobody is making the point to let them know that’s not the case anymore then we’re doing them a disservice. For better or for worse, an iPhone or tablet is going to be used as frequently as a lot of other items in the toolbox and that statement is only going to become more true moving forward. The sooner people realize that construction has become a high tech business, the better. I’m not saying every journeyman needs to know how to code. Far from it. They do need to have a willingness to complete some basic tasks on a mobile device, at minimum. The “I’m not a computer guy” defense no longer holds up.

Those are my thoughts on the second of the three answers I received to the question, “What do you do when people refuse to adopt a new process?” The third answer takes us down the darkest path and I’ll address that one in my next post. As always, if you have thoughts or would like to take the conversation further, you can comment below, e-mail me here, or connect with me on LinkedIn here.

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