The dangers of dogfooding

I’ve written before about the practice in place at Google known as ‘dogfooding’, whereby the staff at the firm use pre-release versions of services as a kind of final, mass-scale beta test. This morning there has been a major revision to the Google Docs user interface, and it has made me think that there might be one major issue with dogfooding – that it suppresses empathy. Let me explain…

Something that so often gets overlooked in the world of IT is that change that involves people at any level had to take account of the fact that we are emotional beasts, and getting us to do anything differently involves winning not only our minds but our hearts as well. We all react to change at a gut level, and quite often that emotional response will be contrary to what our heads are telling us we should feel. We should all logically realise, for example, that pensions are currently unaffordable at current levels of contribution given rates of life expectancy, but tell someone they’ll have to work to 67 and they will bop you on the nose.

Now whilst these reactions might not be ‘logical’, they do appear to follow a pattern. There is much research on the subject, but the model that I have used over the years is one based on four stages: denial, resistance, exploration and commitment.

When we are first confronted with a change of some sort, the easiest way for us to fit it into our world view is to simply deny it. Whether a negative change (“They’ll never shut this coal mine”) or positive (“Winning the lottery won’t change my life”), refusing to accept the existence of a change is the easiest way to deal with it. (Thinking again about pensions, this seems to be a country-wide state of denial that we are in).

What comes next after denial is the stage that can be most problematic and, quite frankly the scariest, for anyone trying to affect change in an organisation- resistance. At this stage, the individual’s world view has been impacted significantly enough for them to acknowledge the change, and know that their gut says “No!”. Why do we tend to react in this way? Well, because even if a change its likely to be for the better, it is the unknown and will involve some degree of personal effort to adapt to the new world.

Getting individuals or groups through the resistance stage can be extremely exacting, and failure to do so is often the cause of project failure. Personally I feel that the failure to manage the resistance of remaining on shore staff is what has done for many unsuccessful offshoring initiatives.

Through resistance, and we start to see the beginning of people exploring how to implement or take benefit from the change. In a group, often explorers can be used to help bring the resistors through, given the power of peer pressure. Exploration can, however, go on forever (revision timetable revisioning, anyone?), and deadlines and targets are often the route to get people to commitment.

The stages tend to be linear, but not necessarily uni-directional (it’s quite possible for an explorer to be knocked back into resistance, for example). Sometimes the whole cycle can be gone through in the blink of an eye… sometimes someone never gets past denial (my late grandmother never accepted the loss of her husband, my grandfather, for example).

So what’s this got to do with dogfooding and lack of empathy? Well, one of the issues with change is that once we have got through it, we tend to find it difficult to remember what life was like before. Specifically, on the morning of a change like those made on Google Docs this morning, all the Googlers will have forgotten what the old versions were like, the effort required to get used to the new version, and will therefore probably be wondering what all the fuss their customers are making is all about… They are all committed, whilst we are all heading into resistance.

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