While stopping at a rest area vending machine this morning for a jolt of caffeine to accompany a long car ride to a client site, I noticed a sticker on the machine proudly noting that it accepted the “new” Presidential $1 coins, which unbeknownst to me had been introduced in 2007. I was a bit surprised to see the US Mint taking yet another crack at converting Americans from $1 bills to coins, an experiment that I first experienced upon finding an oddly-shaped and unfamiliar coin in the guise of a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, an unfathomably large sum for a small child in the early 1980s.

As a neophyte traveler, I strolled through Canada and Europe, hunched slightly sideways and with a bulge of clanking metal in my pocket, due to the unfamiliar concept of coinage replacing low-value notes, usually the equivalent of one or two dollar denominations. While it took some getting used to, there are obvious economic benefits to these coins.

In the US, a $1 bill lasts fewer than 18 months before it must be destroyed, while the average coin can easily last 50 years, creating significant savings over the life of a coin versus producing, managing, and shipping paper currency. Like many an IT system, obvious collective benefit has done remarkably little to compel Americans to switch to dollar coins. Here’s what the US Mint can teach us about enterprise change management.

Collectivism is a tough sell

Ask any citizen of any country if they want their government to streamline wasteful services and you’ll likely receive a resounding “YES!” However, if that change necessitates the slightest inconvenience, the barriers to change become insurmountable.

The $1 coin is a perfect example: nothing changes about the value of the $1 coin, its ability to be exchanged for goods, or anything else, yet Americans refuse to adopt the coin since it’s unfamiliar and new, despite the readily quantified financial savings to the government. Pitching enterprise projects with grand claims of the good they’ll provide the company, shareholders, or “employees around the world” will do little to motivate in isolation.

The power of self-interest

The critical flaw in the Mint’s repeated attempts to gain acceptance of dollar coins is that paper notes are left intact. Most other countries simply stopped printing notes when they introduced coins, and mass acceptance quickly followed after some grumbling protest. For reasons I’ve never understood, the US Mint releases new $1 coins to great fanfare, and the public simply continues with what they’re used to, self-interest compelling them to ignore coins in favor of the time-honored bill.

If you tout vague collective benefits to a new enterprise system, combined with voluntary participation, you’ll likely be greeted with a resounding yawn. Without benefits that appeal to individual rational self-interest, users will simply continue to do what they’ve already done.

This is not fear of change or obstructionism; it’s simply that most people are overburdened with other priorities, and a new way of working that requires an investment of time and attention, with little benefit, generates a correspondingly low uptake.

Focusing on the technical

Interestingly, in the US most vending machines accept $1 coins, yet I rarely receive a coin that’s actually circulating. The Mint obviously went through great pains to ensure technical readiness for the coins, yet did little to actually spur their adoption or engender a mass changeover by discontinuing bills. Like the Mint, many IT organizations have launched technically successful implementations that were later declared a failure due to lack of user adoption or failed efforts to educate and change user behavior.

While technical challenges are often interesting and compelling, people issues must be considered early in a project, lest your project follow the various $1 coins produced by the US Mint and be relegated to archaic trivia and distant memories.