Published: June 4, 2021

During the past year, you probably have made a lot of changes in your organization “on the fly.” The urgency of the pandemic meant some things weren’t negotiable. Other changes in the external environment – regulations, economic conditions, community needs – have followed each other at a relentless pace. You likely had to make many decisions and probably convinced your team as “we have to do it this way for now.”

We are now getting to the point where both staff and the public are starting to anticipate a return to normal operations. As we head that direction, the pressing questions will become: What changes we made during the pandemic do we keep? Which changes should we undo? And which changes aren’t working well but the old way wasn’t working either?

After a year of unpredictable change, more change is coming, but now we can more proactively manage that change.

Change management principles

In a previous series of blog posts, we introduced the core concepts of the ADKAR model of change management. ADKAR stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement – the five key stages in actively managing change in an organization. This approach is grounded in substantial research and used widely in both private industry and government. Here is a short video we produced that gives a summary of the ADKAR model.

Going back but moving forward

The biggest challenge of returning to the office is to realize that our bodies may be going back, but much of our work never will. Over the course of a year, even without the pandemic, many things change organically. But it is entirely predictable that some of our coworkers will want to move processes back to pre-pandemic standards. It has been a stressful year, so some will find comfort in this kind of return to exactly the way things used to be.

The change management model we’ve been working under for more than a year was not well thought out. Does any of this sound like the way you communicated with your team about why changes were required?

Awareness: “We all know we are in the midst of a pandemic. We have heard about the ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ mandate and other operating restrictions. So I don’t really need to explain why we need to change.”

Desire: “Whether we like it or not, we need to make these changes for our organization to survive our current circumstances.”

Knowledge: “New processes and supporting software are getting rolled out. We’ll have one virtual meeting, I’ll point out the built-in help functions, but you are mostly on your own to figure it out.”

Ability: “We don’t expect you to master your new technology or consistently apply our process changes, just do the best you can to get the work done.”

Reinforcement: “We’ll do the best we can to support you in our new work environment. Just hang on until this is over.”

You have probably used at least one of these approaches in the past year (and you aren’t alone). But these are all signs that you have a change management ‘debt’ that you will need to address.

The first step is to start right now on building a new rationale for the changes to come. Is everyone aware that a new period of change is coming?

We get it. We are all so tired. We need a break. And more change just sounds exhausting, maybe even painful. So let’s work on making it as painless as possible.

Make the case for better change

So how can you build awareness and desire for the work that is coming? How can you settle your change management “debt?” Here is some verbiage you can use around the team:

  • “This is the payoff. Many said that the pandemic would be a period of growth and we need to ‘build back better.’ This is our opportunity to take time to think about what ‘better’ can look like.”
  • “During the pandemic we added some new protocols, tools and services. This an opportunity to make careful decisions about what we can stop doing, what is truly working and what has just become a habit? We can build capacity for growth by continuing what works but also by stopping things that are no longer useful.”
  • “When we are able to be physically back together again, it will be easier to collaborate, learn from each other, and move forward as a team. But we need to think about what topics are a priority, and what topics we will get to later.”

Your approach to building awareness of the changes to come and the desire to dig in will depend on the specific challenges you have faced and the dynamics of your team. Most certainly it will involve a positive attitude and motivation to actively manage the changes that are coming to your organization, and empathy to acknowledge it’s been a hard year for everyone. 

Let us help you

The Center for Government Innovation is here to support your great public service – what people want, sooner, more accurately – and our services come at no additional charge to you. The Center for Government Innovation provides technical assistance and process improvement facilitation  to Washington governments. Because we specialize in working with local governments, we can tailor our services to fit your needs. Reach out to us at

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