Managing positive intranet change: Watch out for the J Curve

Have you ever noticed that despite how ineffective and poorly structured your intranet may be, and no matter how hard it is to find information on it, people will have developed workarounds and tricks to find what they need.

When a better and more efficient design is introduced, in order to take advantage of the improvements, there will be grumbling, resistance to change as staff “unlearn” the workarounds and processes associated with the original process and undoubtedly, it will initially take longer or be more cumbersome to figure out the new way of doing things than doing it the “old” way – even if only for the short term.

This is the dreaded but inevitable “J Curve” effect – which means whenever you introduce change into an established system, things will usually get worse before they get better.

This is also the step that is often forgotten in change management plans

Last month I wrote about the importance of effective change management and the fact that surveys have shown better change management is the single most important thing that project teams would do better the second time around if they had benefit of hindsight.

So hopefully a few light bulbs went on and when you’re running your next project, intranet redesign or otherwise, you’ll intuitively develop a comprehensive change management plan where you make your team aware of the upcoming changes to the intranet, you’re braced and ready to discuss and resolve issues relating to the resistance, denial and potential anger over the impending changes, and your success on all these fronts will ease your team into accepting the ideas and ultimately getting buy in.
Remember your basic change management math?

Effectiveness = Quality of Solution x Acceptance.

After understanding and applying this formula, you’re probably expecting that your work here is finished and that you can just sit back and wait for the accolades.

Here’s where the (J) curve comes in. You’re not done yet!

Chances are that you sold the new intranet or new “innovation” to your team based upon a rosy picture of all the benefits it would yield, increased efficiencies and the best case scenario of how the solution would work. It’s called hype – and don’t feel guilty – everyone does it. After all, change is difficult, and without some hype, nothing would ever change.

So expectations are high.

Combined with potentially over-hyped promises building higher than realistic expectations, there is usually a gap between what users expect and what is actually experienced in the short term.
This well travelled pothole is known as the “J Curve” which is where things get “worse” before the get better.

Warning: Manage expectations!

So in order to save your reputation and your project’s success, you’ll want to ensure that people understand what is likely to occur before the wonderful benefits from the new system are realized.
For example, using older intranet systems, individuals often have to feed their content and news to a webmaster to post on the intranet on their behalf. This can mean a delay, depending upon the workload and inclination of the webmaster and lack of ability to control posting and removal of information which may be time sensitive.

The flip side is that this is a task which typically content writers and managers have not had to undertake themselves. So although the wonderful new content management system can empower individuals with the ability to have much more control over the content which they are responsible for (this is the “better” part), while everyone is learning how to perform the new functions, it will inevitably require some time to master the new tool, and in the short term, individuals with already full days may resent the time and effort required to do the new functions, and there may be errors and situations where it was a lot faster the old way. (this is the “worse” part)

Here’s another example. Your staff may have bookmarked a page or a few pages that they use regularly, because navigating through the current information architecture on the site is so complicated. There are many sites we’ve seen where even the content owners don’t remember the path to their sections – if not for their bookmarks.  But in using these bookmarks, your users may be detouring around the homepage and potentially missing news announcements or other critical information that they should be aware of. In your new information architecture, where information is intuitively laid out and user focused, it may be very simple to navigate from the home page through to the various areas, eliminating the need for the bookmarked pages – but while learning where the information has been relocated, the old bookmarks no longer work and it may require a little bit more time to learn where the new information is stored – even if is a significant improvement over the old design.

Chances are also good that the new intranet solution has a few bugs in it to begin with, in addition to the time it will take for the users to adjust to the new processes, before any real efficiencies are achieved.

Warning everyone ahead of time that this is to be expected, and to determine success or failure of the project based on some point after this performance dip, is wise practice.

Being aware of this danger and planning for it make you look amazingly “prescient” and well planned – not seeing this pothole may make others think that you’re nothing but a cock-eyed optimist (sweet but naïve,) with big ideas and no idea of how the real world works.

The “J Curve” can trace its origins back to Edward J. Murphy Jr. a US Air Force engineer whose work on testing ejector seat technologies for rocket sleds in the 1940s led to a series of observations on the trials and tribulations of engineering projects which were later distilled to his famous “Murphy’s Law.” This best known of his laws “ “what can go wrong, will go wrong” adage that that we all know and love today.

You can well imagine how this law became apparent after a particularly demoralizing test run where no fewer than 16 parts were fitted incorrectly.

He also noticed that performance of a system generally got worse before the much touted benefits kicked in.

 J curve
This observation later became a principle applied to change management, military operations and currency devaluations. The fact is, any time a change is introduced into a system – whether it be an IT system, a political system or a financial system, instability is introduced and performance usually declines before it improves.

So before you do your victory dance and declare that the new system has solved all your woes, don’t forget to preface it with a warning about the transition period first. Although it’s intuitive that there will be an adjustment period, it’s easy to get caught up in all the hype and expect the long awaited improvements immediately. Remember, watch out for that J-Curve – it can knock the wind out of your sails if you’re not expecting it!

As the saying goes “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.