Paper over Something (verb) to hide an unpleasant situation, especially a problem or disagreement, in order to make people believe it does not exist or is not serious.
Whenever I enter an implementation, and I have the time and space, I love to do the “How’s this going to fail?” exercise. In short, I ask the core team to explain how what I’m about to do will fail. I remember doing this at a Financial Services organization in New York. We were in a huge conference room while 20 people explained why this implementation would go horribly wrong. Aside from being cathartic for the 20 employees, which they all expressed as part of the session, it was instrumental in pointing out an obvious problem we were really going to have. Very few people thought that we could reenvision their work in a way that would address their challenges. In short, except for a recurring theme which I will discuss shortly, every comment was specific to why I was in the room in the first place. So, in other words, it was cathartic for me, too, I guess.
I love this exercise because it allows the implementation consultant an opportunity to identify the fears going into the engagement. It also exposes hidden belief systems and problems that have become the mainstay of their regular day-to-day business. We all have “ghosts in the machine” (read Exploring Cultural Norms for more on that topic), and we are either aware of them or not. If you, or the Organization, are aware of the “ghosts,” – you have two choices: Acknowledge them – keep them out in the open, or Hide them – papering over the problem by attempting to ignore them.
In the case of the employees at the Financial institution in New York, it was clear that their papered-over problems were being overworked and not feeling “psychologically safe,” to mention it. Very few of them felt that leadership had their back and was willing to protect them from being overworked. Of all the issues mentioned in the session, the theme returned to a recurring concern that the implementation would work and that the work would continue to pile on. In their minds, more efficient work was still even more work. Again, it all came back to their concerns about leadership protecting them and their inability to provide that feedback. As I explored the issue, it turned out that they had had three leaders in 5 years and were generally exhausted and overworked. In addition, they saw me and the implementation as a way to make their work even more unmanageable.
In every implementation, there are papered-over problems. It’s normal to have problems we don’t want to talk about – either because we can’t, don’t want to, or are scared to. However, implementing a solution without addressing the root issues just adds another layer of denial – thickening the veneer of the papered-over problem. Digital Transformation (or true Enterprise Software Implementations) requires ensuring that these papered-over problems will be addressed without recrimination or punishment. If not handled, it’s not Digital Transformation; it’s Digital Stasis.