Change Management, Lesson One

Sep 22, 2017
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By the Center for Government Innovation

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Government staff all over Washington often ask me where to start when they seek to improve a process like permits, asset management, approval queues and so on. To answer this, I ask them: Do you have a change management strategy in place?

Changes like those to improve complex processes start at an individual level. The typical government employee faces pressures and complexities around change implementation, including functioning in a culture that traditionally resists change, discourages mistakes and risks public scrutiny. This is why you need a strategy in place to help each individual process change, to build a framework for communication and to identify necessary corrective actions that pertain to the changes.

More than 70 percent of change efforts fail. Having a clear vision or the most effectively designed solution to a problem is not enough to produce successful change. So what can you do?

Managing change on an individual level increases the probability of successful change within an organization. Staff must understand what the change will mean to them and their work environment, and they must be supported. This will in turn produce organizational results collectively. Are staff aware of the need for change? How can you motivate them?

A good example of this comes from our experience at the State Auditor's Office. A government organization contacted the Center for Government Innovation for help implementing new software. As we began the change work needed to implement this new time-saving software, it became clear that some of the staff weren't even aware that a change was necessary. This created resistance from the staff tasked with implementing the software change and threatened to derail the whole project. If your organization doesn't have a change management strategy in place, you might be faced with the same kind of resistance from employees. Your staff may protest: “I like my paper process. We've always done it that way.” Sound familiar?

If you have a strategy in place to focus on the people side of the process, staff will be much more open to change. They may still ask questions about the new process, but the questions will be more task- and goal-oriented. This will sound like: “When is this going to happen? Will we be trained on the new process?”

Your staff, burdened with a government culture that doesn't often support change and is risk averse, will be naturally skeptical. They will protest: “Another new software? I'm sure we'll have to do this all over again in a few years when the next greatest thing comes along. What's in it for me?” Their resistance prevents them from being motivated to try anything new. To be successful on the people side of change management, you will need to think about how you might remove that resistance.

In his book, 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player, John C. Maxwell suggests focusing on some essential qualities. Sit down with staff before the change and ask them how they feel about:

  • Being adaptable. Can they think outside the lines and change their attitude from “why it can't be done” to “how it can be done?”
  • Being collaborative. Working together precedes winning together. Can they take themselves out of the picture and ask: “What is best for the process?”
  • Taking a risk. They may be disappointed failing, but take the chance and commit anyway. Fail fast and recover quickly, always evaluating what you learned from that situation.
  • Being inclusive. Open communication increases trust, trust increases ownership and ownership increases participation.
  • Becoming a process thinker. What is their comfort level with breaking task into steps and identifying what preparation is required for each step?
  • Resolving to find a solution. Are they open to rethinking their strategy? Will they commit to refusing to give up? Can they see challenges as great opportunities? Are they willing to repeat the process and continue to solve other problems?

Your organization might be pondering a dramatic change — and you might ask yourself how you can best prepare for success. Even if the magnitude of your process improvement aspirations is massive, you can be successful. You first need to empathize with the people who do this for their job. By taking the right actions, an organization can minimize the depth and duration of staff resistance.

Providing effective structure and direction for any change, big or small, yields process improvement efforts that are nearly six times more likely to meet or exceed objectives. Looking at the people side of your process change now can make all the difference between success and failure.