19 May

Lessons From The Motherland

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My parents shortly before escaping communist Czechoslovakia

My parents had three children under the age of four when they escaped communist Czechoslovakia over 40 years ago.  They somehow managed to get a three-day visa to “visit” Austria, so they packed what would be considered reasonable for a three-day trip and never came back.

Needless to say, it’s been a long three days.

Many of their siblings also escaped to various countries: Austria, Germany, Canada. Others never left.

And so last week, we journeyed back in the other direction.  My entire extended family gathered for a reunion, bringing together the Canadian, German, Austrian, and Czech branches of the family for the first time ever.

I had grown up with stories of what it was like to be a refugee, navigating a  bewildering new language and culture.  I knew how hard my parents had to work in order to provide an education for their kids so that we could have a brighter future.

But last week was my first time hearing stories of what it was like to stay.  Because while my parents escaped to a better life, their siblings felt obligated to remain and take care of aging parents.  “Well, SOMEONE had to stay”, they said.

Not only that, the communist regime made them pay a price for having relatives who fled.  Those left behind were only allowed to have menial jobs and their kids were refused a higher education … which meant the next generation was left with these same jobs too.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to the experience of my relatives in the mother country.  I had only ever heard one narrative.  One set of experiences.  

But hearing these stories for the first time last week gave me an understanding of how the actions of one person affected others in our interdependent web of relationships and lives.

Guess what … it’s often the same where enterprise software is concerned. Here too, we tend to listen to only one set of experiences. Usually, it’s the experiences of whomever is signing the checks.

Many points of view
Enterprise software usually has multiple sets of users.

For example, with an expense reporting system, there might be…

… a CFO and department heads who want better visibility into how their company is spending money.

… an IT manager who can greenlight the technical feasibility of a project.

… the people who actually use the system, day in and day out.

But guess whose voice is most often heard?  If you said the CFO and department heads (who write the checks) and the IT manager (who needs to make it all work), you are correct!

Left behind are those who do the actual work. Nobody listens to their stories, leaving them to make the best of systems and technology that were designed and/or approved by people far away from the day-to-day, hands-on operation.

At the risk of hyperbole, we might think of them as your company’s “forgotten cousins,” left behind and standing in breadlines.

With that in mind, here is your homework for next week:

Have a conversation with someone who actually uses what you make.  If you build technology that is used by nurses, talk to nurses, not just the hospital administrators.

Watch how they use the technology. Is it smooth and intuitive or have they developed workarounds?  Does it make their lives easier, or do they simply put up with what’s been given to them? Ask a lot of “Why questions” [link to previous article]. Listen. Hear their story.

Along the way, be gently resolute with the decision makers – the ones you already talk to – and insist on meeting with their team members who are being asked to use your system.

Will you encounter resistance when you try to do this? Most definitely. But persist. I guarantee that you will end up with a better product.  Which, after all, was the reason you began your journey in the first place.