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How to Change the World

by Tom Johnson on Sep 24, 2012
categories: technical-writing

I had a humbling experience last week in which I tried to make one small change in a program but had no success. The program had nothing to do with tech comm, but it got me thinking about how to change the world, because I run into the same challenges pretty much everywhere. Whether it's work, school, church, a non-profit organization, the government, or some other group, most likely there has been something that has stirred you to action, motivating you to rally up and try to make a change.

For example, about a month ago, my wife attended a school open house with my oldest daughter. As they passed by my daughter's previous school teacher's classroom, my wife stood aghast to see the classroom door lined with trading cards, mostly basketball and baseball trading cards. In the middle of the door were paper basketballs cut from orange construction paper. The MVPs (most valuable players) of the classroom had their name on a paper basketball, posted on the sport-card-lined MVP door.

What's wrong with that? Nothing, except that all the sports trading cards were of men. Not a single woman. At first I didn't really see what a big issue this was. After all, no one really watches the WNBA (Womens National Basketball Association), do they? Do they even have female sports trading cards? I wasn't sure. If they did, you'd probably have to get the cards through special order from an online store.

After a quick online search, I did in fact find WNBA trading cards. I suggested that we get a pack of these cards and politely give them to the teacher with the suggestion that he mix it up. We thought about this for a while and planned to do it, but in the end we got distracted with other things.

A few weeks later, my wife mentioned she was attending a Women in the Scriptures discussion panel near BYU. It sounded interesting, so I decided to go too. For a long time, I've wondered why we don't have more stories of women in the scriptures, particularly in the Book of Mormon, which lists just two women by name (more are unnamed).

The panel was not particularly enlightening, but it did make me think more deeply about the issue. The panelists had varying responses, some more conservative than others. One panelist asserted that stories of women are everywhere, we just have to read carefully to find them. Other panelists were more realistic. Some of the audience members expressed their appreciation for the panel and noted that it was a message more women needed to hear.

It wasn't long before I started looking at the world with a little more sensitivity toward women. And sure enough, little inequalities kept popping up everywhere. I have four daughters, so I am surrounded by women. (Even my cat is female!)

It didn't take long before one little incident set me off. In this case, it involved a church music program that had an all-boys song but not an all-girls song. Coupled with an imbalance in a weekly scouting program for boys, but only a twice-a-month activity program for the girls, I was soon fuming. It seemed so unjust! Why hadn't I seen it before! In fact, I was hardly aware of it previously.

I thought for a few days about what to do and finally decided to send an email to a leader with requests for change. I knew email isn't always the best route, but writing does allow for asynchronous exchange on a more thought-out level, and it's convenient and easy.

As you can guess, the email exchange heated up with replies and responses, and before long, I started to regret having ever sent the email. It was clear that no one was going to change a single thing. Now all I have is a lingering awkwardness near several people.

Ironically, at the same time I was emailing requests for this change, I was responding to requests at work about why we weren't changing our decision to shut down a website. Users had been accustomed to a certain website tool that we decided (well, not me, someone higher up) to discontinue. Discontinuing this site really upset a lot of people, so much that one person called me and pleaded with me on the phone not to shut it down.

I was polite and explained that I was just the technical writer. I wasn't the right person to talk to, but I could relay the message. It didn't seem to register with the user. He didn't know who else to talk to, and he continued to explain why the site needed to stay up, and how there weren't any equivalents with the new tool.

I acknowledged his concerns, and I logged a bug in JIRA to add the missing functionality to one of the new tools. I even emailed several leaders. However, the JIRA item and my request seemed to fall on deaf ears.

I'm sure you can empathize with a similar scenario from your own life. Have you ever been frustrated by a system, policy, or other limitation that you wanted to change? Maybe you dislike the homework policy at your kids' school. Maybe you think the STC needs a different model. Maybe you want your homeowner's association to stop requiring everyone to use the same paint. Maybe you are fed up by the bureaucratic approval workflows for content at your work. Maybe you want more dedicated bike lanes in your city streets.

When you find yourself in this scenario, how do you go about trying to change the system? How can you become an agent of change to improve the system you're in, rather than resorting to passive aggressive behavior?

Change and Emergence

Change is an interesting topic. Recently I've been listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. One fascinating chapter is the birth of life, what scientists call the miracle of creation. This is the point where bacteria began to intelligently combine to form more complex life, ushering in the pre-Cambrian era and thousands of varieties of trilobites and other organisms. Prior to this era, bacteria remained in a similar state for millions of years. But at some point something happened -- something changed -- and life evolved to the next stage.

Time and again, Bryson describes a phenomenon of emergence. Small, unintelligent parts somehow, without any kind of external direction, suddenly form into something more complex and intelligent.

I think change in society must occur the same way. We may try our best to change the system, but a host of variables may not align at the time, and as a result, our effort has no effect. But when the timing is right, change happens in wonderful ways.

Change in any system is complex, but in this post, I want to identify a few factors that contribute to change. I believe at least three main factors have to align before change occurs. You have to present the right information to the right people at the right time. If you present the right information at the wrong time, or present the right information to the wrong people, or present the wrong information to the right people, or present the right information at the wrong time, your efforts will get little traction.

It is better to approach your efforts strategically by making sure that you align these three elements before starting your crusade, whatever it might be.

Right Timing

Let's say that you want to change something in a software application. In a calendar application I support, I dislike the way the reservation feature works. It's confusing, misnamed, displays poorly, and is the cause of constant problems among users. I would like to change it. I am in contact with the right people to make a change. As a technical writer, I'm in frequent meetings with the solutions manager. However, it's not the right time to propose the change. Ideally, it would have been better to propose the change while developers were first coding this feature -- before it was released.

Making changes post-release is ten times more costly than before the release. Now that the functionality has been out and in practice among users for about two years, the window of a major change may be completely passed. Additionally, I don't have compelling information to present. A user's comment here and there, a few forum threads, and some general frustration from my perspective is all. Since I don't really have these three elements aligned, it's not worth it to pursue change.

Here's another example. Let's say that you want to change a policy in your organization. The best time to propose the change is before the policy is printed in a guidebook and widely distributed. Once the announcement, training, and familiarization of the policy has settled in, it's going to be ten times harder to change the policy than if had you caught the group during a moment of discussion, while they were still in draft mode.

Now if you make a change post-publication, the group may have to issue a formal retraction and clarification. They may scramble to provide a logical justification for their oversight. They have to protect an image of correct leadership.

I'm referring to these three elements -- right information, right time, right person -- as if it's just a matter of coordinating your attack, but of course it gets more complex. Many times you may not know when policies are being formed. You may be blind-sided by new programs or policies.

For example, we had a recent off-site at work. It involved a ropes course. In reality, none of my team wanted to go. We were all so busy, and it was far away, and the ropes didn't seem like a good fit for our team. But the activity had already been planned and announced and scheduled. We were never consulted in the ideation stage, only in the post-announcement stage. By then, it was too late to suggest an alternative activity. The only feedback we were asked was to RSVP.

A big reorganization at my work happened much the same way. We never saw it coming until it was upon us, and by then it was too late to do much of anything but accept it. None of us knew that leaders had been meeting behind closed doors for weeks, planning and architecting the new structure.

Department budgets take place in similar patterns. If you have an initiative to pursue, you need to find out when your department is planning its budget, because unless you can get your initiative factored into the budget for the upcoming year, you may not have the ability to pursue it once the budget is finalized. Once budgets are finalized, good luck trying to squeeze in a new project.

If timing is so critical, how do you figure out when these key planning moments take place? Most likely you're in the dark because you're too far down the food chain to be considered important enough to include. Policy formation often takes place at the executive level, and executives don't usually stop by common worker cubes to ask for opinions.

Outside of the workplace, you may be able to nudge your way in to policy formation by attending parent-teacher associations, city councils, non-profit leadership meetings (non-profits always need volunteers), and the like. But it's much more likely that the policies that truly matter are out of your hands. Maybe they're government policies formulated by Congress in Washington. Or maybe the policies are formed by executive councils in massive organizations spread across the globe, with headquarters in New York City or London.

Or maybe you're a latecomer to the situation. The policy may have been formed years ago, and it's just now becoming relevant to you. I would have loved to sit in on the meeting where the LDS Church formally adopted the Boy Scout program as the official program for young men in 1911. It would have been a great time to argue for an equivalent program for girls, but that decision took place decades ago. It's not something that's up for debate. My dislike of scouts-for-boys-only falls on deaf ears. The timing for change just isn't right.

Right Information

Let's assume that you've identified the right time to make your case. Now your challenge is to present the right information. And what is the right information? Primarily, you must persuade someone that there is a problem. Unless someone believes there is a problem, the person will probably not listen.

I remember sitting in a meeting once where I argued to change some major functionality in a software application. I'd heard numerous complaints about it in a forum, webinar, and other venues. I tried to sum up the feedback from the users and persuade a project manager to make a change. But the project manager had somehow received one praising email for the functionality, and because of it, decided to keep everything the same. In short, he didn't see any problem.

How do you persuade someone of a problem? I was somewhat blind to the exclusion of women in the scriptures until my wife pointed it out to me in little ways over the years. When we read scriptures as a family, my four daughters paid close attention to stories involving women, but they quickly lost attention when female protagonists were absent. Through a series of experiences, I began to feel the issue deeper and deeper, until one day, I finally realized that yes, there was a problem to address.

Persuading others that there is a problem may be a gradual effort. If you're the only one voicing the issue, your complaints may be disregarded because the leader sees your objection as unique and not indicative of general trends. This is one reason I like social media so much. By taking issues to public forums, others can rally their voices together in a collective unison that resonates much more loudly than a single voice.

A few years ago, I remember making some complaint about the STC Conference. I can't remember what the complaint was now, but I had posted my complaint on Twitter. One of the program managers responded, through email, and in his response briefly noted that he didn't understand why people didn't just use email, why they resorted to social media to express concerns.

I know why. With email, it's much easier for the leader to nip your complaint with a succinct and closing reply. You don't like X? Well, thank you for your feedback, but this is simply the way it is. Sorry.  But with social media, you can gather dozens of other voices to strengthen your own. You can take the whole scenario out into a public playing field where you have a much better chance of winning a battle. You have a better chance of convincing the leader that there is indeed a problem, that your voice is not just an exception.

And in taking issues to social media forums, you might also realize, to your dismay, that your point of view does not represent the majority. You may find that a dozen community voices quickly tear apart your proposal. Then you will have more to consider.

For example, our community recently held an election about whether to build a pool. I was all for the pool, since I currently have to drive 12 congested miles away to a neighboring community's pool for my kids' swim team each day. I was upset that city officials didn't immediately see the need for a pool. But interestingly, when the vote was held, only a small minority of people voted for the pool. The rest rejected it. When the majority rejects it, the leaders most likely won't perceive a problem.

How you can communicate the problem is a strategy requiring more depth and thought than I've given it here, but whatever information you present, the focus should be on the problem. Persuading people of a problem is no easy matter. It may require compilation of information and feedback in a much more comprehensive, methodical way than you imagine. But this is the legwork required for persuasion. And unless leaders are convinced of a problem, they will take no action.

Right People

Finally, you can make the case all day to your friends, spouse, or sports buddies, but unless you're talking to the right person, nothing happens. Sometimes access to the right people is nearly impossible. The executives who make decisions sit behind so many protective firewalls, it's a miracle if you can even identify them, much less sit down in a meeting to present your case.

Assuming you have the right information and the time is right, how do get access to key people who might actually act on it?

Some organizations have meetings where key leaders take general questions and answers. Usually during these times, I'm unprepared with any kind of questions, and the fear of asking my question in a meeting of 1,000+ people usually stifles my voice, but these times might be one opportunity to reach a leader. At my work we have yearly birthday meetings that is nothing more than a Q&A for you to ask the CIO questions. Other times senior leaders visit and have a short message followed by a long, general Q&A session.

How often do we prepare ahead of time for these chance opportunities?

A few weeks ago, I was concerned about our lack of software awareness efforts, so I set up a meeting with a key leader to discuss it. The first time I was to meet with the leader, I prepared well and waited, and waited. Finally, after 30 minutes, I receive an email indicating a rescheduling of the meeting for an early Monday morning next week. When that Monday rolled around, I had completely forgotten about the meeting and actually arrived 10 minutes late. Another person involved in the meeting took it in another direction, and I lost the opportunity.

I regret the way I handled this once-in-a-long-while opportunity to discuss issues with a key leader. It's not just a matter of accessing the right person, but to also presenting a compelling case at the right time to that leader. You don't get chances every day to interact with executives and other key decision makers, so when the opportunity arises, don't squander it.

A few years ago, I received a surprise invitation by the CIO and his chief of staff to eat lunch with them. I had no idea why. When I asked why they picked me, they said that someone identified me as a person to know. I think the random lunch-with-a-regular-worker was an idea the CIO was experimenting with. I really didn't have any pressing concerns or agendas to push. We talked about ... baseball and kids. But many times after that private lunch, I have thought about all the issues and ideas I wished I had brought up.

Many leaders tend to advertise open door policies, offering to meet individually with anyone who has a specific concern. I have almost never taken anyone up on this offer, but I should. If I've done my research to present a compelling case of the right information, and the timing is right, an individual meeting might be entirely appropriate.

Don't Waste Your Energy

It may not always be possible to align the right information with the right person at the right time. But before you embark on a crusade to change something, or before you fire off that angry e-mail, you might consider each of these elements. Is this the right time for change? Am I interacting with the right people? Am I presenting the right information? Because it's very likely that you may spend a good deal of emotional energy trying to fight a battle that can't be won.

I certainly don't have all the answers. I'm still trying to figure out how to change even one small detail in a system. But I'm a little comforted in knowing that change may be more complex and dependent on factors that I don't entirely control. Change may require a lot of research, preparation, planning, and execution. Change doesn't happen because you vented to someone one afternoon. Your venting may encourage awareness of a possible problem, but it won't set the whole show into motion.

If you do make an effort to change something and lose the battle, don't throw in the towel on change. Instead, rethink and replan your strategy. Examine the timing, people, and information at your disposal. And when you do gain some awareness of that key planning meeting, or get wind of upcoming feedback surveys, or think about whether to attend that coordination meeting, don't let the moment pass you by. That subtle moment may be key for timing. And once you find that key moment, when change can occur and move life to the next stage, focus your energies for change there. Don't burn all your energy on battles you can't win.

Extinction and Life

If you can't change the system — despite aligning these three elements — you might resort to two other measures. First, Seth Godin recommends that you change your own actions and conduct your own experiments separate from the others. When they see your good results, your changed system may spread, and eventually it may be something others adopt. This philosophy may work in many situations. It aligns with the Ghandian philosophy of "Be the change you want to see."

But many times it's not possible to deviate from the system because the system constrains you to act a certain way as a requirement for membership or employment. For example, I dislike the billing model at my work, but I can't very well invent my own billing model system and hope that someday other departments adopt it.

This leads me to my other resolution. In one of the later chapters in Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson talks about the extinction of species. He notes that more than 99% of every species that has ever lived has become extinct. Ironically, when one species becomes extinct and dies, it often opens the door to life for another species. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs opened the window for smaller creatures to flourish.

And so it is with systems. Systems come and go. Like species, the fall prey to extinction. And with that extinction, a new life gets a chance.


Photo attribution: Flickr

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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