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SharePoint Isn’t Your Biggest Problem – Right Now

Having spent the last 13 years or so of my professional career connected to doing SharePoint work – and the last 9 doing SharePoint more-or-less full-time, I tend to view the world through a SharePoint lens – whether I like it or not. However, being a business person as well, I realize that organizations today are struggling to keep their doors open. It’s a reality that most organizations don’t believe that SharePoint is their biggest problem – or even the source of gut wrenching problems that can come from a poor deployment – bad teamwork, less communication, and an organization that can feel like a battleground.

It’s common now to hear the phrase “first world problems” come up in conversation. This refers to the kind of problems that most people in the world would love to have, such as paying too much for car insurance – since most people on the planet don’t own a car. When I’m talking to clients about how to improve their organization – which frequently involves the effective use of SharePoint – I sometimes wonder if I’m talking about a “first world problem.”

Quite often I see organizations that are so inundated with day-to-day operations, slogging through responding to clients, recovering their accounts receivable, and finding new customers that they don’t have the mental energy to invest in improving their efficiency so that they don’t have to fight so hard in the future. They’re doing the organizational equivalent of hand-to-mouth living.

Some organizations I work with don’t understand that corporate culture is made up of the people, the systems, and the policies of the organization. They see corporate culture as some dragon that they have to slay – rather than an animal to be tamed and trained. Even if they had the mental energy to invest in making things better, they don’t know how to untangle the mess and make a real difference today and tomorrow.

In this post, I want to address the conflict that organizations face trying to survive in the short-term while making investments in the future – to stop the cycle of struggle. I also want to untangle the mess of culture and help everyone see that you can change culture in the same way that you can turn a large boat. That is, slowly.

The Spin (or Death Spiral)

As a pilot, there are occasionally times when you’ll encounter a problem. Despite popular belief, losing an engine isn’t the worst thing that can happen while flying. Small planes, like the ones I fly, are essentially powered gliders. In fact, for every 1,000 feet of altitude I have, I can go 6,000-8,000 feet across the ground. That’s a pretty long way. The real issue is stalling the aircraft. There are lots of things that can happen to get into a stalled condition but the short is that there isn’t enough airflow in the right shape over the wings to continue flight.

Stalling an aircraft and recovering from the stall is a part of every pilot’s training and while it’s unsettling, it isn’t the end of the world. However, you can get into a critical situation where you enter what’s called a death spiral. That is where you’re being spun around like a downward tornado because one of the wings is generating lift and the other isn’t.

In a single-engine aircraft, we’re taught “ABC” for handling an engine out situation – Get your Airspeed to best glide (give yourself the most space), find the Best field to land in (assuming you won’t get the engine back on), and Communicate. Obviously you’re also trying to restart the engine. Restarting the engine is – of course – the preferred alternative, but it’s not the sole thing pilots are taught to be doing when they lose their only engine.

In an aircraft there’s the natural temptation to want to hold the aircraft in the air by pulling back on the stick to prevent the aircraft from going down – however, that’s where best glide comes in. Aircraft have an optimal speed for gliding – and that’s going to give you the best chance for recovery because it gives you more time. If you follow your instincts and hold the aircraft up you’ll eventually cause a bigger problem – that is you’ll stall the aircraft.

In business, when things begin to flounder, there’s a temptation to “pull back on the stick” and try to keep from going out of business, or from having to lay off workers, or from making dramatic changes. This, however, is the situation that causes stalls – which can lead to death spirals. You’re trying to avoid (or deny) reality.

Help Your SharePoint User

Once you’re in the death spiral, it’s not as fatal as the name implies. A death spiral leads to death only when you don’t exit it. There are some aircraft where a death spiral isn’t recoverable, but in most cases it is. Exiting the death spiral is primarily about acknowledging what’s happening and taking the right steps. The steps are literally to exit the spiral – to use more energy to exit the cycle.

I’ve seen plenty of businesses enter a death spiral and recover. And I’ve seen plenty more which get so locked into the spiral itself – pushing so hard on the immediate that they can’t plan for the long term – that they never break the cycle. Without some control to stop the spin, the decline won’t stop until the business – or the plane – has run into the ground.

Most organizations today have been impacted by the poor economy. Whether you want to believe that we’re recovering or not, the economy has been hard for nearly everyone that I’ve talked to. Think about this as an ‘engine out’ situation in an aircraft. You can keep flying for a while hoping to restart the engine and keep things going. You can redouble your sales efforts, work on reducing your costs, and hoping that things will get better in general. You can acquiesce to forces outside of your control, or you can start to make changes to make things better.

Rice Patties and Retirement Savings – Change the Long Term

You’re probably thinking that rice patties and retirement savings have very little to do with one another – but there is a connection. The connection is the ability to focus a small amount of energy on the future. The connection is taking just a little bit of energy and diverting it.

As Malcom Gladwell writes about rice farmers in the Pearl River Delta in his book Outliers, he talks about how labor-intensive rice farming is. He also talks about how the farmers become expert at exactly what is needed to make each plant produce the most rice. However, rice farmers barely survive because it takes so much effort to produce enough rice to support the family today there’s little left over to invest in the future.

In the United States, we’re bombarded by messages that the Social Security System is going to fail. It simply cannot pay out the amounts promised when it’s being supported by so few payroll taxes. The models predict the system will run out of money in 25-30 years. That’s created a greater need for individuals to prepare for their own futures through retirements savings in an Individual Retirement Account or a 401k.

Funding a retirement is not something that you can do overnight. I started putting a few percentage points of my income into a 401k at my first job. It wasn’t much but it was something. My mother, who had to struggle to raise my sister and I, didn’t start saving until after my sister and I were out of the house. It’s making a big difference in how hard it will be for each of us to retire. The few percentage points of my income invested at 21 are much more powerful than ten times that much invested at 45.

For some math reasons I won’t go into here, you can relatively safely assume that aggressively invested funds will double every 6 years or so. (See the Rule of 72 for more.) So if you put in $10,000 and you need to retire in 18 years, you’ll get 3 doublings of your money. You’ll have $20,000 in 6 years, $40,000 in 12, and $80,000 in 18 years. The longer you wait to begin the more you have to save to have the same amount.

So even when you’re struggling, if you can shave off just a little energy to plan for your long term success, you’ll find that you may be able to recover more quickly and get into a better position where you’re not having to struggle every day.

Sometimes big problems – like the problem of changing the corporate culture – are achieved with small changes. A few percentage points of retirement savings or a few well understood interventions can be a solution.

Changing the Culture

So, as I said previously, my world has been SharePoint for many years. Over those years, I’ve seen SharePoint projects fail as often as I’ve seen businesses fail. Whether it is your entire organization or your SharePoint project that is in a death spiral, my suggestion is that it’s time to do something differently. Small changes, today. Change. Today.

Quite frequently, folks blame the culture for their failed SharePoint project – or the fact that people just won’t collaborate. However, those folks are fundamentally approaching the problem the same old way, as a victim. The truth is that cultures – for better or worse – are made of the people, the systems, and the policies of the organization. If the culture of the organization is causing the failure, then you should change it – by changing the policies, the systems, and in some cases, even the people.

Some folks bemoan the fact that their organization doesn’t have a culture that supports collaboration. Instead of collaboration, they have knowledge hoarding – or they believe that they have to create their own knowledge – and reuse isn’t something that’s celebrated in the organization.

In some cases, it can be as simple as changing the employees’ objectives so that they’re measured on how much they collaborate, how much they put into a knowledge base – or how much they take out. Obviously, measuring these objectives can be challenging and you’ll have employees that “game” the system so that they meet their objectives, but perhaps you can achieve greater collaboration even when they do.

Consider adding to everyone’s goals for the year that they must have retrieved two things from the corporate knowledge base. If there’s not much in the knowledge base, then you may hear complaints that there’s nothing in there. So encourage the employees to work with their peers. Have their peers put knowledge into the repository that they can use. This would absolutely be considered “gaming” the system – but it actually gets you what you want. That is, it gets reusable content added to the knowledge base. Had you set the goal of adding knowledge to the knowledge base, you could have ended up with some information that’s not useful at all just for the sake of meeting the “add something” requirement.

What we’re getting to here is adoption. In my experience user adoption is the single most overlooked opportunity to make every SharePoint project a success. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is. How could a tool that is implemented to make the user’s life (okay, at least their work life) more efficient, more simple, more productive, more enjoyable, not be readily adopted by the users? It isn’t happening because you’re doing the same old thing.

Whether it’s easier to be a victim of the corporate culture, or just easier to blame the culture than to attempt to change it, ignoring end user adoption is costing your business. Taking steps now to improve end user adoption and engagement will pay off in the long run.

Actions to Take Today

Given the pressure to keep things going, you may not be able to invest a large amount of time, effort, or money in a big SharePoint project. However, here are some ideas for how you might make some small progress:

  1. Get real about your organization’s adoption of SharePoint. Ignore the server infrastructure optimization projects and do a strategic review of how your employees are using, or not using, SharePoint. Get a qualified professional to help you identify and remove the barriers that are stopping the organization from getting more from SharePoint. Even a few hours of conversation about your situation with an expert can help you get dramatically more use out of your investment. (We do these for clients all the time and they’re not expensive.)
  2. Locate the real, tangible business problem that SharePoint can solve. I talked about this in my article for SharePoint Pro magazine “4 Tips for Engaging Your Executives in SharePoint.” In short, listen for a problem SharePoint can solve and then go implement the solution.

Create a single productivity aid. Creating a complete self-help solution for SharePoint may be overwhelming, but you can take one thing that your users are struggling with and create a resource for that. [Disclaimer: The following is to give you some ideas, it isn’t intended to be a sales pitch though, admittedly, it may sound that way.]

If you don’t want to create your own productivity aids, you can “cheat” by helping users find the samples we provide for free from the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide. The 2013 version samples are here. The 2010 version samples are here. If you’re not looking for “How To” productivity aids, you can provide decision trees (also found in the sample links above) or you can do a one-page quick reference guide like our User Interface Quick Reference. (You can buy 15 of the cards to share with your users for $30.) If it’s feasible, take advantage of productivity aids that are proven and readily available instead of creating your own. Obviously, if you can license the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide Corporate Edition (called the Tutor) for your entire organization you will be taking a great leap towards helping your users be self-service. (Pricing for smaller organizations starts at $699 and includes the searchable Wiki pages and the videos for all of the tasks.)

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