‘Changing people’s behaviour is like trying to change your socks while a whole football team holds you down’

‘Changing people’s behaviour is like trying to change your socks while a whole football team holds you down’


As I survey the landscape of my past year’s collaboration experiment, I see that there actually are signs of hope among the smouldering remains. The benefits of a shared computer space, where groups of people can collectively create, access and edit information, are undeniable.

There’s no better way to get everyone on the same page than by having just one and only one that everyone is looking at. The problem is getting them to look at that page!

When we’re working in the same building we can always call a meeting and force people to look at the same documents together. When we’re spread all over tarnation, it’s not so easy. Sending an email doesn’t guarantee that the email is read, and creating a wiki doesn’t guarantee that anyone bothers to visit it.

But I’m not giving up, mind you! While it’s been challenging to get people to adopt new tools and new ways of doing business, the alternative is returning to a blizzard of disorganised email and overstuffed computer folders would be like giving up my iPhone in favour of a landline.

Changing people’s behaviour is like trying to change your socks while a whole football team holds you down on the ground and tries to put on your shoes. But here are a few lessons I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that may help you get your team on board if you’re determined to be a 21st century web-enabled collaborator.

What worked well

1. Recruit a couple of supportive team members to do an initial “experiment” or “proof of concept.” I sought out the two youngest members of our team because they seemed the most tech savvy and the least fearful of change, as well as a dedicated senior co-conspirator who likes me enough to struggle through these occasional adventures with me.

2. Shake out the bugs in the tool and the process with this inner circle before inviting lots of other people to play along. We struggled with login quirks, we documented unexpected behaviour on an FAQ page, and we set up a clear structure and layout for the site, before extending the use to the hoards.

3. Make it valuable, fast and easy to use. If the information is useful, and the wiki is the easiest and fastest way to get it, people will use it. Put the juiciest stuff there and encourage people to bookmark the page. Include links to the wiki in your email to drive people there for answers to their questions. And make sure the wiki has a brilliant search function. You can’t rely on your organising taxonomy to make information easy to find.

What’s logical to one person won’t necessarily be understood and followed by dozens of others. As the size of the wiki grows it’s bound to get messy, and when that happens, search is going to be your best friend.

4. Monitor who’s using it and who’s not, and check on why people aren’t using the tool. If you notice someone’s never logged in, assume it’s because they are having trouble doing so, not because they’re disinterested. If someone rarely accesses the tool, ask them for their reasons, and what kinds of information they’d find useful to share on the wiki. Then keep your eyes open for ways to be helpful to them by pointing them toward the wiki when appropriate.

5. Coercion and mild threats of consequences for not adopting the tool. Much of my motivation for starting, and continuing, to use these various wikis is selfish. There’s only one of me, and the increasingly administrative demands on my time are starting to interfere with my social life. And I greatly prefer referring people to the wiki over digging through my files to find the latest version of some document to attach to an email in answer to a query.

6. Perseverance. As I’ve already mentioned, the alternative is unthinkable. I wake up every day with a strong feeling that eventually each and every one of these laggards will rejoice in the astonishing usefulness of this collaboration tool. Then all my work will be truly appreciated! Of course, it may turn out that I get my reward in heaven. Oh well. I still refuse to give up!

What didn’t work

1. Sending out an email message announcing the existence of an exciting new tool and expecting people to follow the instructions and start using it. (Yes, we foolishly tried this initially.)

2. Failing to emphasize the “WIIFM” for the people you’d like to get to use the tool. People are busy. Answer the question “What In It For Me?” with a compelling benefit for each of the people you are getting involved and they’ll be far more likely to battle the learning curve to at least explore your wiki. The invitation messages automatically generated by these tools aren’t nearly enough to do that.

3. Assuming that everyone can figure out how to get up to speed on new technology on their own. Sitting beside them, or calling them on the phone one by one, talking them through the first login experience, patiently helping them get started, was much more effective.

Getting people to adopt new tools requires getting them to change their behaviour is no small task. (Ever try changing your spouse? Just try to get your husband to put the toilet seat down after every use, for example, and you’ll see what I mean.) But, no worries, building on the valuable collaboration lessons of the past, our team is creating a much more promising future.

Although I still sometimes feel like I’m collaborating all by myself, many more people are using the wiki much more frequently. Change, although seemingly glacial, is taking hold in the way we do business. Instead of receiving requests to update documents attached to email, I now get the occasional email from other people referring me to the wiki to share information that needs to be seen and updated by multiple people.

Several people seem to have caught the wiki update bug, frequently adding to the substantial knowledge store there. Another person has volunteered to take the lead on cleaning up some organisation and formatting problems for some pages that have gotten a bit too much of that patchwork quilt look.

And yet another early adopter has vowed to use part of her Christmas vacation to create and populate a whole new branch of the wiki dedicated to a new project we’re kicking off next year.

Wikis are not the only area of collaboration that brought me to my knees this past year, mind you. The leader of a group I’d been working with on a joint white paper for several months tired of the slow pace of the group collaboration and wrote it himself. A couple of perfectly legitimate opt-in group mailing lists stopped working mysteriously this past summer when internet providers changed their definition of what constituted spam.

For months email sent to these opt-in lists failed to reach their intended recipients, without so much as a clue to alert me to this until I wondered why attendance had dropped at our events. And my office manager routinely reprioritises my most strategically important business matters below those tasks that he considers more appealing to work on.

Nevertheless, if we’re going to play games that only a team can win, we have no choice but to figure out how to work together more effectively as a team. January 1 is rolling around again pretty soon. What theme will I choose for the coming year? Who knows?! But, next year I just might decide to collaborate all by myself.

  • A Tell report / Writer Kimberly Wiefling is the President of Wiefling Consulting, co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, and author of Scrappy Project Management, a global business leadership consultant, and a force of nature – the good kind! She specializes in global team effectiveness – helping teams achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult. Her latest book is bilingual (English & Japanese), Inspired Organizational Cultures, and has a foreword written by her mentor, Dr Edgar Schein, the father of organizational cultures.
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