December 23, 2008

Day 23 - Change Management

This post was contributed by Matt Simmons. Thanks, Matt! :)

It's been said that change is the only thing that ever stays the same, and whoever said that probably worked in IT. Transitions are a part of life, but we administrators are burdened by what I would judge to be more than our fair share.

Too frequently, we find ourselves picking up the pieces from the last major system change we made, while at the same time designing the next iteration of the infrastructure that we'll be putting in place. How many times have you chosen an implementation that wasn't ideal now, because a bigger change was just around the corner, and you wanted to "future proof" your design? Bonus points for having to make that decision due to a previous change that was still being implemented. It doesn't seem to matter how precisely you've planned a major upgrade, snags and snafus are expected to rear their ugly heads.

Is this something that we just have to deal with? Are we at the mercy of Murphy, or are there ways we can induce these issues to work to our benefit? Sure, it would be easy if we had a crystal ball, but too often we don't even have a rough guess as to where our plans will encounter problems.

Change itself isn't the enemy. Change promotes progress, and from the 10,000ft view, our long-term goals should work towards this progress. Dealing with change is a natural and positive endeavor.

Instead of being thrown about by the winds of chance, lets put some sails on our boat, and see if we can make headway by trying to manage the change on our terms. If we know that problems are going to be encountered, and we face those facts before we edit the first configuration, then we've taken the first step towards real change management.

The enemies of successful change (and the resulting progress) are imprecise requirements and lack of project leadership. Unless you plan around these pitfalls, your project may very well go into ventricular fibrillation, flip-flopping back and forth, unable to decide between two unforeseen evils midway through the work flow. While it's possible to recover from this with an injection of leadership, it's much easier to inoculate against the problem in the beginning.

If you're going to be planning a big project, you will probably want to follow a methodology. There are just about as many methods of managing a change as there are people who want you to pay them to do it, but with IT projects, I've found what I consider to be the most efficient for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  1. Team and goal formation

    Assuming your change is moderate to large scale, you've (hopefully) got a team of people involved, and one of them has been appointed leader. This is the point where you want to decide on your goals. Determine what success will be defined as at the end of the project, and how best to get there.

    Many times we don't yet know what or how success will be defined, or even what the target should be. Because of this, it's natural to perform step 2 before your goals have been decided upon. In fact, I'd recommend it.

  2. Analysis (Research) & Information Organization

    Too often (or not often enough, depending on your view point) we're asked to do too much with too little. Frequently, we don't even know how to do it. This Analysis step is here to allow you to make informed decisions, and to acquire the skills and resources necessary to succeed in your task. Sometimes the resources are people, in the form of new employees or contractors, or both.

  3. Design

    By this time, you know what the task entails, but you don't have a road map of to how you're going to get there. This step makes you the cartographer, planning the route from where you are to the implementation of your project and beyond. Some details of the design may change during development, but it's important to have the major framework laid out in this step as you proceed.

  4. Development

    In a perfect world, you would take the design produced in step three and translate it straight into something usable. We all know that this rarely, if ever happens. Instead, you encounter the first set of really difficult problems in this stage. Issues spring up with the technology that you're using, or with kinks in the design that you thought were smoothed over, but weren't. Development appears to follow Hofstadter's Law: 'It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law'. Thorough testing at the end of the development stage will prevent misery in the next step.

  5. Implementation

    Here we find the second repository of unforeseen bugs and strange glitches that counteract your carefully planned designs. The good thing about issues at this point is that, provided you've tested thoroughly enough in development, you won't find many show stoppers. On the other hand, sometimes these bugs can appear as niggling details and intermittent issues, hard to reproduce.

  6. Support

    If you're designing, developing, and implementing a product, support is just another part of the game. This is where you pay for how carefully you performed the preceding steps. Garbage In, Garbage Out, they say, but because you've designed and built a solid system, your support tasks will be light, possibly just educating the users and performing routine maintenance.

  7. Evaluation

    Remember that part in step 1, where you decided what success would be defined as? Dust it off and evaluate your project according to those requirements. Discuss with your team what you could have improved on, and don't forget to give credit where it is due. Hard work deserves appreciation.

This method is really a modified ADDIE design, so named because it consists of Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. We've added a couple of steps to help it flow better in the IT world we live in. There are certainly other methods to look at. The Instructional Systems Design (ISD) is another one which is well known.

However you decide to manage change, it's important to stay with your plan and follow through. Remember to work and communicate with your teammates, and don't stress because the project is too big. Just take it one step at a time, follow your plan, and you'll get the job done. s

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