People Power

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I’ve been tracking the news out of Ukraine with the perspective of a Cold War veteran who served in Europe. (Yet again I reveal my age, but hey, I’ve EARNED these wrinkles.) There’s something really fundamental being revealed by the failures of the Russian army that I’d like to discuss in the broader context of organizational strategy and culture.

Field of sunflowers against a blue sky

Technology Isn’t Everything

It’s true that over the decades, the USSR/Russia invested enormous amounts of money in military hardware and technology. The Cold War was essentially an economic battle, and eventually the American economic machine triumphed. But all those tanks and planes and bombs are still there, plus all the new ones built since. And Putin has thrown a lot of them at Ukraine. Yet the Russian military has faltered, suffered excessive fatalities, and, thus far, have failed to achieve their objectives. They were supposed to be one of the most powerful armies in the world. What’s happening?

The three things that keep any organization running are people, processes, and technology. Of these three, technology is the least important! Don’t believe me? Let’s look at an example.

  • Russia has some of the most impressive tanks in the world, including the T-14 Armata and the T90. They are ridiculously powerful killing machines (technology).
  • Each tank is operated by a team of highly trained soldiers (people).
  • Each tank and its crew must be supported by a supply chain that provides fuel, ammunition, repairs, and food to keep machine and soldiers operational (processes).
  • Each tank is part of a unit that must have direction and planning to achieve their objective (people).
  • Each tank unit and individual crew must have an understanding of the goals and mission so that if leadership or communication break down, they can still operate effectively (people).
Battle tank in a cloud of dust

Without people and processes, that $3+ million tank is just a useless chunk of metal. When you see pictures of Ukrainian farmers hauling away captured tanks with their tractors, you’re not seeing a failure of the machinery. You’re seeing organizational breakdown. When you see entire Russian military units stalled in the field because their communications broke down and they can’t receive orders, you’re seeing organizational breakdown.

Every Project is More than Software

In the civilian world, I see companies investing the majority of their energy and resources on technology while ignoring “old fashioned” people and process initiatives. Even “change management,” that weird thing we did in the 90s where we attempted to optimize software projects with training and communication, has largely fallen out of favor.

The reasoning goes like this: 

  • If we have the right software, it will enforce the right processes on the organization.
  • If we have easy to use software, we won’t need to train people, because the processes will be obvious.
  • If we have automation, we can get rid of people.
  • If we have artificial intelligence/analytics, the software will make the decisions or tell us what decisions to make, so we don’t need to worry about retaining our most experienced, expensive employees. We’ll put that knowledge into the software.

As my daughter would say – yeah, no.

People Making the Difference

In my career, I’ve written software, designed software, tested software, and managed software projects. There is good software and there is bad software, but nowhere on earth is there perfect software. It’s not that software engineering isn’t good, but the real world is complicated. Even if your software is well-designed, a great match for your processes, and running on robust hardware, you still need well-trained, motivated, and empowered people who understand your processes and support your goals. Let’s look at some situations where I’ve witnessed the power of people overcoming technology and process failure.

You’ve just implemented a new POS system at your new flagship store. You’ve got big crowds and everything looks golden, but the system goes down. Luckily, your cashiers are able to adapt and check out customers using old-school calculators. This is slower and the lines are long, but your assistant manager puts on good music, hands out candy to the waiting customers, and what could have been a disaster ends up sort of feeling like a party.

A software bug in a new application wipes out your entire customer order database! You’re freaking out, but fortunately last month you hired a great new IT director. She evaluated your backup processes, identified weaknesses, and updated your processes. Within two hours, she is able to restore your orders data, and you experience no loss of business.

You’ve migrated to a new telephony management system, but after data migration, your technicians report gaps and errors in the cabling data. Your dispatch manager is aware of this, so when he schedules service calls, he allows for sufficient time for the technicians to document the actual cabling they discover on-site. He hires one additional employee to input all of the updated data into the system so that in the future, technicians will have accurate information.

A customer brings their car into your dealership for service, complaining about intermittent starting problems. Your technician downloads the codes but finds no system faults. However, your senior mechanic knows that model of car won’t throw a code until the starter fails. Based on the customer’s description of the problem, he recommends replacing the starter, saving your customer from having a complete mechanical failure and an expensive towing bill.

In every one of these situations, and countless more, it was the experience, attitude, and dedication of people who made the difference. Hopefully your business is not as chaotic and dangerous as a real battlefield, but in any organization or project, it’s important to remember that what you’re doing is BY people and FOR people. In the end, that’s what matters the most.

Trying to put technology to work for your people? Contact us to talk about it. We’re here to help.

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