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Let the Dead bury their Dead

December 26, 2007

This blog covers both software adoption and any march towards a process improvement. I’m attaching it to the process improvement topic, because next to the “wall” of being able to consistently work a project or goal for 6 weeks, the “dead wall” is just as common of a wall or obstacle, and emerges in tandem with the consistent follow-through wall.

The statement comes from a couple of different Gospel accounts, where a person who is invited to join the group with Jesus, wants to take a rain check on getting involved, while he takes care of his father – until presumably his father passes away. It provides an interesting perspective as applied to the leading process improvement and software adoption experience.

Said another way, it might be represented like this in the business arena: “I can’t engage fully because I’m avoiding (taking care of) someone who actively or passively is not joining the process… who in some way I need to cover for me.” You can substitute a number of other applicable phrases there, e.g. “I can’t… actively support the process, make the needed changes, require accountability or follow-through…” In the end, it all looks pretty similar. When you’re stuck at this wall, you can’t go fully forward, because it would involve a confrontation with someone who is holding you back.  A confrontation with someone who also provides needed resources and services.

This is a common wall that can give executives a dry mouth and weak knees. It typically emerges during the first phase of change and is most commonly represented as someone who is passively or actively challenging the change process. They either don’t participate, or don’t meet minimum requirements, or they verbally challenge the effort or the people driving/sponsoring the improvement process.

AND the people who hold others back are someone who contributes a certain level of value, who wouldn’t be easy to replace. They are often another executive or perceived as a key contributor in some financial or creative way. They don’t comply. What are you going to do?  You feel like you’re being held hostage.

If you’re leading the change effort or the software adoption process and you have an executive sponsor who is struggling with this wall, they will in one way or another lean on you with such people to make “nice-nice”, look the other way, accommodate, turn the resistant person around, make it all better, just don’t make them “let the dead bury the dead.”

“Let the dead bury the dead” emerges in my mind as a quote on this wall. It says, “Either change (improve, adopt, up your game) or leave, because we’re going forward.” People that don’t make it over this wall can’t find it in themselves to make and stand by this statement to the dead. On one or more levels they feel it would cost them too much, create too much risk. They feel their position, their future is too fragile.

Oh, when you’re stuck at this wall, you’ll admit that people are acting like “dead-wood.” You’ll complain that they are acting like anchors and holding the process back… but you don’t want to have to read the quote on the wall to them. When you’re stuck at the wall, because of whatever is holding you, you get busy finding reasons why you can’t read the script to people, instead of standing by it and realizing how important it is and how much it can help you.

Change efforts to improve performance seem to bring the dead out of the woodwork. It seems that if you’ve got some dysfunction going, or something to hide, there’s never such a good opportunity to go into either the passive-aggressive or full attack mode as when there’s a process implemented in which you’re supposed to “improve” your game. Let’s face it; the dead don’t like having to improve.

One of the funny things about letting the “dead bury the dead,” which I’ll interpret for the moment as insisting they change or letting them go away and work somewhere else, is that it usually makes things much better, not worse. In fact if they leave, not only does the world not fall apart, but all sorts of information surfaces about things not getting done, deadlines missed, cover-ups, etc, that were all being managed while the “dead” and their impact upon the improvement process was being tolerated.

3 Comments. Leave new

I always enjoy your unique take on these processes. Really makes me think. Keep them coming!

Christian von Reventlow
February 3, 2008 3:27 am

Resistors to change, which are powerful and seemingly needed by the organization because of skills, knowledge or heritage, are one of the worst obstacles to change. As they are seemingly needed – one hesitates to challenge or remove them.

A crises, being true or a staged, is a good opportunity to remove them or move them out of their power position. Suddenly means like true feedback loops, pressure, firing or others – which are usually not acceptable in the organization – become possible.


I liked your comment, “Resistors to change… are one of the worst obstacles to change.” Made me realize that the willingness to honestly address who is engaged and aligned and who’s not, is part of the terrain of leadership. Otherwise one can simply manage to the minimum tension level and try to keep the boat from rocking.

I think there are several inevitable confrontations that emerge in the experince of leading performance improvement. Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, suggests every leader should expect sabotage and a community of anxiety that perceives and portrays leader behavior as “unfeeling,” “autocratic” and “cold”.

Moving the “Dead” out of their power position or into an “Alive and Productive” position is definitely leader work, and I think you’ve hit it well, ultimately feedback loops are the key to doing it, whether they are staged or direct. Exposure to results-based feedback loops certainly provides a vehicle for shaking up old power-based coalitions.


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