Chasing hankos: How to handle those who struggle to accept change

Sometimes objections to new technology are rooted in a human problem rather than a technical one. Find the root of the issue, and handle with care.

Image: iStock/TokioMarineLife

Moving past a paper-based society seems easy in our increasingly modern world. But in Japan, paper is still the medium of choice.

A recent Wall Street Journal article described the quest of Taro Kono, Japan’s newly appointed minister of “administrative reform,” in eliminating the dependency on paper at all levels of Japanese government. Intriguingly, the fondness for paper apparently exists at all levels of Japanese society, and manifests itself in a country perceived as highly technologically advanced, having some of the globe’s largest users of that blast from the technological past: The fax machine. 

Apparently a major driver of the love of all things paper is the hanko, a circular wooden or plastic stick with an engraved symbol carved into the end. To render a transaction official, whether that transaction is a business contract or a marriage certificate, the participating parties must affix their respective hankos.

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Even to an outsider to Japanese culture, there’s a certain romance to imprinting a seal on a document rather than mashing the “sign here” button in a DocuSign online contract, and according to a small business owner interviewed in the article, paper provides the ultimate form of crude workflow management: If the stack of paper is large, there’s lots of work to do. The negatives to a paper-based society are obvious, and while a 2,000-year-old tradition seems a bit amusing, when dealing with contracts or interacting with various governments, paper and physical objects still are far more the rule rather than the exception.

Finding the personal hanko

For many IT leaders, stories like this resonate, and perhaps even have direct parallels to efforts to streamline or remove paper-based processes. Even if your latest change efforts focus more on artificial intelligence (AI) than fax machines, somewhere in the process there’s likely a metaphorical hanko: A long-standing and romanticized activity that’s more of a human problem than a technical one. Humans are a funny species in that we often consider ourselves rational actors who will coldly and impartially evaluate a set of choices, calculate and assign benefits and drawbacks to each choice, and then select the option with the highest benefit and lowest drawback. Decades of economic theory are built around this “rational economic actor” theory that likely couldn’t be further from the truth.

Anyone who’s implemented a new system or process, or asked his or her colleagues to undertake some behavioral change that had a clear economically beneficial outcome, has seen that the “rational economic actor” quickly turns into a self-centered, unpredictable, and wholly irrational force of nature. Often, this irrational behavior is focused on a metaphorical hanko, whether it’s technological, ritualistic or behavioral, or a perceived difficulty in abandoning the old ways.

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As technologists it’s tempting to try to appeal to our imaginary rational economic actor rather than doing the often difficult job of finding the hanko that might be hiding behind an excuse, or a practice of legacy technology that users seem to be unreasonably fond of, like the fax machine in Japan. Whenever someone uses a phrase like “We’ve always done it that way,” or, “This is a change management problem,” then you’re likely getting close to your hanko.

Just as the Japanese hanko has an emotional component, so, too, might the hankos that you come across when trying to drive change in your organization. While it seems superficially silly that people in your organization might feel an emotional attachment to a piece of software or hardware, consider for a moment that perhaps they invested months or years of their lives implementing that tool, or successfully leading the project that turned on a new piece of hardware was the deciding factor in a long-desired promotion. If someone built a career maintaining a COBOL system, asking them to switch to a more modern architecture, which makes all the sense in the world from a rational technical perspective, could be akin to asking them to abandon an old friend and require just as much care and emotional support.

Next time you find unexpected resistance or seemingly irrational objections to a change initiative you’re considering or running, start to look for the hanko. It may be hiding out of sight, or perhaps a deeper explanation behind a seemingly obvious one. Just as eliminating fax machines might seem like a purely technical problem if you’re a Japanese minister in charge of streamlining government, so, too, could upgrading systems or switching to a vastly superior application. However, when you realize fax machines were tools to generate paper, to facilitate a 2,000-year-old process that represents a sacred agreement between parties in something as personal as a marriage, the magnitude of the challenge becomes clear. So, too, must you identify the proverbial hanko to appreciate the challenges you might be facing in an otherwise simple technology project.

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