Banishing Your Inner Barbara

Why “if it ain’t broke…” thinking can only get you so far…

Firstly, a small disclaimer – I have nothing against those in this world called Barbara. The mindset I’m really talking about could apply to any Percy, Georgie, Mary-Lou or Sally our there. When I talk about ‘Barbara’, I mean the persona that represents something dark and destructive inside all of us.

It’s the inner voice that poo-poos change, casts doubt on new ideas and digs in its heels for the sake of it. It’s the rather annoying side that we’d all rather deny. And despite the claims of ‘loving dynamic innovation’ on a LinkedIn page, we all face this challenge. The impact isn’t just limited to inconveniencing those around us, either. In a business context, burying your head in the sand can see an organisation fall behind its competitors in quick time, and fail to take advantage of exciting new opportunities, all for the sake of some teeth-sucking.

So how do we banish our inner Barbara? Let me share a true story to explain.

Processes, printers, and people

I came across Barbara in my first Saturday job whilst studying. She’d been running the office in the department store on the high street of my hometown since time immemorial. Barbara knew everything there was to know about processes, printers, paper clips and people. Despite her official customer-facing role, dealing with those who were after store credit, she had little time for customers. They got in her way when it came to getting the paperwork sorted.

I always tried to stay on Barbara’s good side. Some of the other Saturday workers fell foul of her complex processes and procedures, and suddenly disappeared, as if a trap door had opened up in the office. They were never seen again. So from the get-go, I followed Barbara’s ‘instruction manual’ to the letter.

This is easily done in the workplace as well, isn’t it? Especially for new joiners, but equally for those who just ‘don’t want to make a fuss’ – whether a process seems optimal or not, we put our faith in the fact that it was ever thus.

The power of change

I liked Barbara’s approach, it meant that you knew what to do for the customer, what to do if things went wrong, and what decisions you could make. Because Barbara had been there so long, she had all scenarios covered, and it made for a pretty slick operation. We were a happy bunch, approving or declining face to face credit applications according to Barbara’s manual. But then one day, things started to unravel.

When I reached work that weekend, Barbara was flustered and flapping. The “management” had brought in some changes to improve efficiency and reduce cost (in the 1980s, businesses weren’t too concerned with customer happiness.) It meant changes to the process, new computers, automated decisions and a reduction in staff.

Immediately, Barbara railed against the changes, shouting, “This is not the way we do things here”, “Those processes aren’t broken, so don’t fix ‘em” or “I know best, I’ve been doing this job for the past two decades.” Whenever a consultant questioned a process, Barbara would snap, “I think you’ll find that we already have the best way to deal with this.”

However, over time, we started to notice that these changes really helped the business, making things simpler, quicker or clearer. Mo-one dared say that to Barbara. Instead, we all nodded diligently when she bemoaned the chaos these consultants had brought on us, even as we saw an increase in customers through the door, and improved sales.

In most businesses, there too are employees blind to the impact of change on processes, even when the evidence is right in front of their eyes. It’s more important than ever for senior leadership to involve individuals with change from the get-go, lay out the expected benefits, and have an active strategy to deal with concerns and queries.

Asking the right questions

As for my story, eventually, Barbara calmed down, and a year or so later, retired. I often wonder how she felt at the end – did she see the amazing impact that she had over the years, or was it all clouded by the “new-fangled” consultants?

In reality, there’s a bit of “Barbara” in all of us. If you respond to a suggestion with: ”we’ve already tried that”, “that won’t work”, “actually, I think you’ll find….” or “we’ve always done it that way”, then your inner Barbara is getting the better of you. The best way to deal with her is to let her vent, then flip it round. You’ll see a world of difference using responses like: “we tried doing that, but perhaps we could try a different way”, “it didn’t work last time, maybe we could try again?”, or “why don’t you tell me what you think?”

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