July 7, 2008

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Sowing seeds: Common objections to technology evangelism for collaborative tools

Whether you’re a team member trying to convince your coworkers to explore a new tool, or a manager trying to require everyone to use a new system, you know that influencing other people’s opinions and behavior is really difficult. You’re no stranger to rejection.

You know what rejection sounds like.  “I’m too busy.” “I don’t have the time to learn that right now.” Or–more frankly–”I don’t see the value in that.” If you’ve _never_ heard these phrases, e-mail me – I want to know how you do what you do. Chances are, you’ve heard them. Chances are, you’ve even said them.

When someone says these things to you, it’s not a rejection of you or of the idea. It’s a sign that there’s a deeper issue that hasn’t been addressed.

In some cases, people will be firmly against your idea, and there’s not much you can do to help them consider the options. Many times, though, people do want to learn more and try things out–but they’re held back by one thing or another. If you can help them get over those barriers, they’re open to trying things out.

Here are five of the barriers I often come across, and some ways to help people break through them. Think about people you’ve tried to help and see if you can identify them on this spectrum. You’ve probably thought about each of these items before, but it helps to be able to take a step back and think about what’s stopping people.

  1. I’m happy with the existing tools. It’s difficult to introduce something new when an existing way is good enough for the needs people currently have, particularly if the new tool doesn’t do everything the old tool does and more. People who were happy with horse-drawn carts simply didn’t see why they would need a “horseless carriage” that was complex and finicky. Likewise, it can be hard to introduce new collaborative tools when people have gotten used to their existing tools and workarounds. It’s not enough to say that something is new and interesting. Try to identify significant pain points that give people enough reason to try something out, or point out compelling opportunities to get new benefits.
  2. No one else is doing it. This is a chicken-and-egg problem: You can’t use a tool to collaborate with other people unless they use it too, and they won’t use it unless other people are using it. You can address this by looking for ways to get individual productivity benefits from these tools, and then drawing people in when they need help from you. Sometimes you won’t be able to introduce a tool gradually. In that case, you’ll probably need your entire team’s cooperation or at least willingness to give the new tool a try for a limited period of time. Be prepared to help your teammates learn how to use the new tool, and focus on efforts that will get quick results.
  3. I don’t think I can trust beta software. New tools may not be fully supported, and they may not be able to provide as much performance as your team needs. Unfortunately, this is another chicken-and-egg problem that’s probably outside your control. Your early adoption can help the tool development teams justify additional investment in the tool, but it’s difficult to get other people to trust something that may be discontinued or that does not have sufficient resources. Team members may also lack trust in their ability to use the tools effectively. Your best bet is probably to use established tools for mission-critical collaboration until your team has more confidence in the new tools and their ability to use them.
  4. I don’t know where to start. This is probably the easiest barrier to address. At this point your team members are interested in changing and are ready to take action. Show people small actions they can take to get immediate benefit.
  5. I can’t make it a habit. If you’ve ever made a New Year’s Resolution or tried to break or start a habit, you know how hard it is to change your routine. This is basically what you’re asking people to do when you ask them to try out a new collaborative tool–to make it a habit. It’s okay if people lapse. Just help them start again. One way to help is by identifying some behaviors people want to change, such as replacing e-mailed attachments with uploads to a team workspace. When you see the old behavior, remind people (gently! =) ) about the new behavior. Reinforce this by helping them see the benefits they’ve personally experienced. If the new tool is a good fit for people, they’ll eventually make it part of their habits.

Next: Sowing seeds: Five methods