Questioning the status quo without stepping on toes

Remember my “Resistance Against Change as a Way to Save Face” post? James described an interesting situation in the comments:

Here’s the thing. Im my organisation call centre workers are managed based on adherence to roster. The roster is a plan, based on a forecast of customer demand, telling staff when to be available to take calls, and organising when they can spend there time on other activities. Managers believe that this is a customer focused approach. They seek to maximise adherence to roster, and they reward staff for doing so. However it takes no account of real demand – just forecast demand. I would argue that when the forecast is wrong it is right to move away from the plan to help the actual customers, but this systems prioritises the hypothetical customers in the forecast above the real customers on the phone (or any other change in circumstances not accounted for in the plan.)

It’s idiotic. Any suggestions about how to address this folly without making those who implement it feel foolish.

James asks about a process, not someone’s individual ways, which is similar but not the same. For this scenario I do have ideas:

Be curious

Why is the current process the way it is? Become a researcher and find out. This works best if you are new to the company or the department.

Caution, for this to work you have to be genuinely curious and prepared to change your mind. People can smell a hidden agenda. And who knows, maybe the current process makes perfect sense if seen as part of a bigger picture.

Do you know who came up with the current process? If they’ve left, this will make your life easier. If not, talk to that person first. Alone, so there’s less reason for them to be defensive. Be careful how you phrase your question and offer your observations. Words like “folly” and “idiotic” would rub everyone the wrong way. [I don’t really think you’d put it like this with them 😉 ]

I’d try it like this: “Do you have a minute for me? I’ve noticed something surprising in the way we handle things and would like to understand why we do it like this.”

Best case scenario: There was a reason to do it the current way which doesn’t apply anymore. This becomes apparent to others while you research the history of the process and you change how agents are rewarded, because the current way causes pain.

Very important aspect that, the pain.

Who feels pain?

If no one in the company feels the pain, there is no reason for them to change*. Maybe the current setup works good enough. Maybe there are other, far more pressing problems. If no one – not those on the forefront, nor their managers, nor C-level – perceives a problem**, let it go.

My slightly younger self would bristle at the idea of not addressing something obviously flawed. But now I’m 2 years my own senior and know better than wasting my energy on something that bothers no one but myself.

If you’re unable to ignore the issue, you can try to make the pain visible. I’m assuming it’s the customers that feel the pain? Maybe there’s data on customer satisfaction or dropped calls. I’d get this data and address the disconnect between “we want to be customer focused” and “this data says we’re not”.

Unfortunately, even if someone other than you feels the pain, there might be hidden agendas at work that are more powerful than the pain.

Hidden agendas

The current situation might be incentivized in subtle ways, apart from the obvious incentive that call agents are rewarded for adhering to the roster. Example:

Does the “forecast” approach need more people than an “actual demand” approach?

  • As an agent I want to secure my job and those of my colleagues
  • As a manager I want a high headcount if that means high status

If you can sense a hidden agenda (it will not be stated openly), save your energy for something with a chance of success. Ignore this one and try not to let it drive you crazy.**

A lack of trust is a special case. Sometimes it’s hidden, sometimes openly stated.

Missing trust

How would your ideal approach work? Would agents be in charge of their own time? Than managers might think that either the customer calls or the other work would suffer if agents got free reign. Maybe they even tried it once and it tanked?

In this case I’d work with others to suggest a new approach and lobby for a trial period. As a change of process comes with increased confusion and an initial loss of performance, the period must be long enough for benefits to become visible.

There’s more pain than hidden agendas

Congrats, you’ve got potential allies. If it’s the agents, bring this up in a retrospective (again, be open to other issues and / or solutions than you’re own). If you don’t do retros suggest one and call it “Improvement session” or whatever.

If it’s someone who can impose a new process I’d still consult all those who need to support the new process. You increase the chances of success if the people needed for this to succeed were co-creators plus the solution will probably be better than what a single person can come up with.

James, what ideas have you already had? Did this give you new ideas? I’d love to hear what you decided to do in the end and how it turned out!

Everyone else: Any advice you’d like to add? What would you do differently?

* Some companies already have a strong learning / improving and customer focused  culture. They might change without feeling pain just because the new way is even better. But those companies are few and far between.

** Or  change the company. It’s what I did – after unsuccessfully trying to change the system 🙁

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