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What's in a Name?

Why do we insist on assigning every one of our new initiatives with a flashy new name?


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Ken Miller

Ken Miller is a GOVERNING contributor, blogging for GOVERNING Public Great.

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Commented June 25, 2009

I agree that giving names and celebratory kick-offs to managment initiatives rarely results in eithe...

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In my last column, A Mug Full of Change, I asked the question, "Why do we have so many change mugs?" With each new initiative comes a new mug -- and rather than helping to make change, they often end up merely collecting change. I reasoned that we have so many mugs because we have so many flavor-of-the-month initiatives. I shared seven areas our organizations will always be working to improve. It is the job of the leader to provide the context for new initiatives -- to show employees that we are not jumping on another fad, but rather continuing our journey to get better every day. We may introduce new methods or approaches to doing the seven things -- a new strategic planning model or different process improvement techniques, for example -- but we will never not be doing the seven things.

In this column, I'd like to address the other reason we have so many mugs: the almost universal desire to name our change initiatives. Look around your cubicle at all the logo-adorned mugs, pens, paperweights and mousepads. See what I mean?

What could possibly be wrong with naming your change initiative? As someone with a marketing degree who had named several initiatives and held big kickoff events, I had assumed that was step one in creating change: Create a brand, a catchy name that people would remember.

It wasn't until I was on the other side -- in the audience of one of these kickoffs -- that the true impact really sunk-in. As state employees, my colleagues and I were all summoned in waves to a grand auditorium for a big kickoff. For decades, our accounting and financial system had been run by a computer program called SAM. I have no idea what the name stood for, much less what the system actually did. But apparently it didn't do enough, because on that day we were all going to get pumped up about its successor, SAM II.

The walls were adorned with banners, and all the well-meaning, hard-working employees who worked on the system were in fresh-logoed sportswear and handing out t-shirts, pens -- and, of course, mugs. As we all got fired up about the ability to access vendor codes with fewer keystrokes, the auditorium began to buzz with the initiative's new, unoffical, employee-bestowed name: Son of Sam. From that point forward, anything that went wrong in the organization was blamed on Son of Sam.

Losers in the Name Game

The Son of Sam story illustrates one of the main problems with naming our change initiatives: You create a target. As much as we'd like to think everyone is excited about our new initative, the reality is that there are plenty of people who aren't. In fact, they aren't excited about anything and treat resistance to change as a hobby or outright obsession. These people are always ready to direct whatever misfortune they have attracted in life right back at us and our initiatives. You will know this is occuring when the employees change the name of the initiative (like Son of Sam).

One of my other favorite examples of this had to do with another large software implementation. This one was called FASTR -- an acronym of course, having something to do with field automation. In any case, my immediate reaction to learning of the initiative was, "Who in their right mind would equate a software implemenation with speed?" And of course, FASTR was completed six years late. The employees gave it many new names during those six years, SLOWR, and FESTER being two of my favorites.

A second problem with naming a change initiative is that we have essentially separated it from the "real work." We have made it "that other thing." You may be familiar with this conversation:

"Where are you going?"

"I have to go to that Measurement Counts meeting"

"That's still going on? Well, don't forget your real work."

We do this to ourselves by naming the initiative. Imagine the above conversation with no initiative name.

"Where are you going?"

"I have another meeting with Mark and Kerry and Jay."

"What for?"

"We're trying to figure out some measures that may actually be useful to us."

OK, maybe it wouldn't be that rosy. But you get the idea. There is no "other thing," no target to shoot at. It actually causes people to talk about the intent of the initiative, not the name. It's easy to attack a name; it's harder to attack a noble intention.

The third problem with naming your initiative is that it raises expectations. Imagine for a second that your favorite sports team has made it to the championship game. (Since it's my column, I will imagine the Kansas City Chiefs are playing in the Super Bowl.) You've scored great tickets and arrive to the game early, only to find that the players are passed out in the parking lot, empty bottles all around. You go to your favorite player, gently shake him awake and ask, "What's the big idea?" To which he responds, "We're playing in the championship today. We felt it called for a celebration."

What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps the time to celebrate is after the game. So often we do the same thing with our change initiatives (although hopefully not the passing out part). We excessively celebrate what we are going to do, not what we have done. As my friend and colleague Robin Lawton so expertly puts it, "let's celebrate our results, not our intentions." Unfortunately, we usually do it the other way around. We have the kickoffs and the banners and agency-wide training to talk about what we plan to do, our intentions. We raise expectations so high that hiccups look like failures. And by the time results do finally occur, the initiative has been so tarred and feathered that no one wants to attend the celebration.

The "Buy-in" Mistake

So why do we keep doing it? Why do we keep naming and celebrating our intentions? "Buy-in" -- we need our people to "buy" what we are selling. Is this truly the relationship we want with our employees? A buyer/seller relationship? In this kind of relationship we create the solution, we give it a name or a brand, and then try to convince people that it is good for them. Catchy names are just advertising. As Stephen Leacock said, "Advertising is the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it." Compelling visions grab the soul. Which approach to change do you want to take?

The real problem with buy-in, however, is not so much how we go about it, but that we think we need it at all. We labor under the assumption that we can't embark on our voyage until everyone is on board. As I mentioned in a previous column, this just doesn't happen. Whatever it is you are trying to do, about 20 percent of the staff will be with you from the get-go, 60 percent are on the fence and are waiting to see if this too shall pass, and 20 percent aren't coming with you no matter what you say or do.

Yet where do we spend all our effort? We invest so much time and energy trying to convince the 60 percent (who will only believe it when they see it -- not hear it) and trying to force the last 20 percent that we neglect the 20 percent who were with us from the start. We need to flip this. Spend 80 percent of your time with the 20 percent who want to follow you. Equip them, support them and help them complete their mission. Let their success get people off the fence. Those 20 percent don't need a name to follow. They need a cause. The middle 60 percent don't care what you call it -- they are waiting to see what really happens -- and the last 20 percent are the ones who are changing the name of your initiative behind your back. So who needs the name?

Keep the Hype in Check

So what should you do instead? First, be honest. Is your initiative really worth all the hype? Feeding more needy families or protecting the environment are causes worth touting. But a new payroll system? Some things in life you just have to do. They aren't compelling, they don't change the world, they just have to be done.

For example, suppose you live in a very old house. Eventually you will discover that the pipes need to be replaced. They work, but they won't forever. Now, the typical approach we have used for years would consist of the following:

1. Come up with a catchy name: Sewage Makes Everyone Look Sad -- or SMELS to be more catchy.

2. Gather the family together and hand out T-shirts with the SMELS logo on them.

3. Train the family how going to the bathroom outside is not bad or difficult, it's just different. Have them talk about a time when going to the bathroom was difficult but they perservered.

4. Send out the IT SMELS newsletter.

Seriously, at the end of the day, what do you have? New pipes. You still get water, you still can flush, you can shower. You could do these things before. The same is true with so many of our big system implementations. They don't change the world. We spit out some vendor checks a little more consistently, or we can track documents easier. Is that really worth all the hype?

The best advice I can give about having a successful change initiative comes from Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil: "Zip it." That's right, zip it. Keep a low profile. No mugs, no newsletter. No kickoff or train-the-trainer. Let's just roll up our sleeves and do something. And then do some more. And then, when we have acccomplished something, we can talk about what we have accomplished. We'e not being secretive; we're simply not advertising or selling. When people see results and ask what all the buzz is about, we simply reply, "We are getting better every day."

If you feel the need to talk about the initiative, speak in terms of the outcomes of the initiative -- the positive, compelling picture of the future. Leave people with something that will stir their souls, not their coffee.


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