Tackling the "gate agent" problem
How to solve a big innovation dilemma: getting buy-in from users
Innovation is much more than ideation, but getting to implementation is hard
One big dilemma: getting buy-in from users to accept major changes
Asking users for ideas leads to incremental improvements, not radical leaps
Focus on the specifics of objections and resistance, not merely the presence of it
Consistent communication & inclusion is critical to grow comfort with change
Defining the “gate agent” problem
I have been on airplanes frequently over the past few months after having limited travel the previous two years during the pandemic. I have only endured a couple of flight delays this year, but many other travelers have faced the frustration of significant flight cancellations due to a shortage of pilots and weather delays. One noteworthy item that has not changed are the archaic “green screen” legacy systems that most airlines still employ.
If you have ever spoken with a gate agent to check on the status of your flight, request an upgrade, or rebook your travel, you may have noticed that the systems they use look (and in fact are often are) a half-century old. Among a myriad of technology challenges, one barrier to change to a new system that is more intuitive and easy to use are the gate agents themselves. While it may be painful to watch airline employees operate using tabs, function keys, and esoteric transaction codes, for those workers it is a quick and relatively painless way to operate. Why is this so? Because these individuals have become “power users” of the current system and have mastered tricks, shortcuts, and “hacks” to be as efficient as possible.
A brand-new system complete with an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI) that is easy-to-use and requires little to no formal training might be ideal for brand-new gate agents. Ironically it would pose a challenge to longer-tenure employees who would have to unlearn the old system’s lessons and relearn an entirely new system. Learning a new system or process takes time and causes friction for workers; time and mental energy they would rather not expend when dealing with a long line of irate customers unhappy about the latest flight cancellation or lack of an upgrade. I call this the gate agent problem: the challenge many organizations face when they want to upgrade to a more modern system, yet face resistance from their user community because they are experts at using the outdated, legacy platform.
Systems usually dictate process, not the reverse
The gate agent problem helps highlight a broader problem: too often, our information technology (IT) systems dictate our processes, not the reverse. Most of us have a working mental model that processes are designed by companies to support their operations, often at a whiteboard with a team gathered around it and led by a process engineer. Too often, however, the reality is that your processes are dictated by your systems. These IT systems may have been designed as proprietary systems decades ago which do not adequately support your operations today, or by a systems vendor which has limited ability to be customized to fully support your desired state of affairs. Either way, the result is that your systems often dictate what operations are possible, including what things are easy to do and which are hard to do, as well as ruling out certain possibilities because they are impossible given the current constraints of the system. Perhaps you want to offer customers new products, new features, new services, or new billing options: regardless of what changes you want to make, some are relatively easy but others require significant time and cost to achieve.
Many companies over the past decade or so have recognized the challenge associated with legacy systems and the cost burden of servicing their technical debt. One of the most striking differences I have found in talking with both incumbents and startups is the frequency with which startups look to replace their core systems - some as often as every 3-5 years rather than the 30-50 years that many incumbents do. The costs and limitations of outdated systems is generally appreciated, which has led to many organizations embarking upon a “digital transformation” journey over the past decade. Part of the challenge, however, in building a business case for making a significant investment in replacing an old system is that the primary users often do not actively advocate for change: they are reluctant to change because they possess expertise and knowledge that would be less valuable if a new system was deployed. In other words, the very employees who would most benefit from a new solution are often the ones least likely to advocate for replacing the old one.
Thinking inside the box
Many efforts to replace old systems, whether full-blown transformations or more modest point solutions, involve not just large financial costs but also significant time and investment of human capital in the form of subject matter experts (SMEs) - your user community. Users can provide valuable critiques of the current system limitations and help identify features and capabilities that must be retained in a new system. However, because their view of processes is so often tied directly to the legacy systems, these SMEs can find it challenging to think in more abstract terms. This limitation of “thinking inside the box” using the current systems as an anchor and reference point through which all changes are compared to makes it challenging to go beyond incremental innovation efforts that only allow organizations to move to the “adjacent possible”. Radical rethinking of processes and the subsequent design of systems that support brand new capabilities is often best left to others. More broadly, this constraint is one of the reasons that incumbents struggle to achieve disruptive innovation despite having significant more resources and SMEs than startups.
This flip side of this challenge is the rejection of any new system by users if their suggestions and feedback is not captured and adequately addressed. It is essential to capture both the initial impressions of users when discussing the limitations of an existing system as well as their feedback to any wire frames, prototypes, or other in-progress work products along the way before a new system is completed. Expect a lot of confusion and criticism: users will be disoriented when confronted with a new interface. The presence of pushback is natural: the key is to intently listen for the specific complaints and objections. Do they have validity? Do they impact the end customer experience? If left unaddressed, will the perceived obstacle be a barrier to adoption? Do any issues identified reach the level of being a show stopper?
In an ideal world, when designing a new process or system, it is valuable to gather both an “outsiders” and “insiders” perspective and to identify where the gaps are. Looking to resolve the discrepancies can spark ingenuity; often times friction points or unresolved dilemmas can lead to breakthrough innovation. Look to separate the “what” objections from the “how” objections. What objections may indicate a lack of functionality that is necessary to serve end customers. How objections may indicate gaps in knowledge or a lack of fluidity and user-friendly design that drives frustration and poor adoption.
Finally, remember that change management is essential throughout the process. Constant communication to users and employees more broadly is a must, and broad inclusion of a diverse array of perspectives is key to achieving success. It is not enough to simply request feedback and capture it. Reflecting back to users what their feedback was and how it is being addressed shows that you are listening, even if specific ideas for solving problems that were identified were not incorporated. The key is finding the balance between leading innovative change and letting your employees guide you to the best outcomes.
Does the “gate agent” problem exist in your organization? Is there a group of users that could be more effective with a better system? If so, do they recognize this opportunity and are they advocating for an upgrade? Why or why not? How can you overcome the natural resistance to change that people have? How can you make new systems less threatening to the expertise and tacit knowledge that your employees have gained and pride themselves on?