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Have you ever proposed a change in your office and heard either:

  • We can't do it that way
  • Don't fix it if it ain't broken
  • Because that's how we've always done it
  • That may have worked at your old agency but that's not culture here

Overcoming inertia is one of the biggest obstacles in improving government.


How have you overcome the
"we can't do it that way" syndrome?

Tags: innovation, leadership, program management

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Persistence. It might take time until someone is ready to hear what you are saying. Plus you can improve the pitch over time, so maybe the second or 3rd time you've brought up a subject, you get better at explaining its benefits. 

Seeking buy-in of other interested parties or stakeholders.

If possible show ROI - it's hard to argue with savings. 

I will bring up a live experience I had.  I was with one Agency that was using a particular software/program to the maximum extent possible.  They were really forward thinking in maximizing the potential of the package.  I went to another Agency that was (and still is in many ways) lost in their utilization of the software.  Well, in the new Agency. I fought an uphill battle for about 90 days explaining how to utilize the system to the maximum with nothing but heart ache (and heart burn).  Didn't help that the team lead just wasn't a very good leader, a bit insecure, and dearly loved drowning in paperwork.  I just decided that it wasn't a battle to fight at that time (or worth fighting at that time).  I will call it a strategic redeployment instead of a retreat.  Well, over the next 6 months, I just sat back and watched as more and more directives came out of the "DC Office" stating to utilize the software the way I had been advocating all along.  For now, 80% of the things I had said to do have been implemented.  And, there were personnel shake ups along the way also, were I am working on a forward looking team, rather than working on a team that is still citing methodology from 5 years ago when the "package" was still in prototype form and nobody knew everything it could do.  So some times just biding your time can help.

I've often heard all variants of the messages above, though increasingly less as people in my agency understand that's not what they are supposed to say.

Mostly people just frown and say they don't agree but provide no reason why and make it very clear you should just shut up and stop rocking the boat.

Sometimes it pays to be persistent, sometimes that persistence is career limiting. Quite often those with the power to provide effective support to ideas are those with vested interests in not seeing it go ahead (usually because that was the work they put in place when they were in your position all those years ago).

Thirty years ago, I dwelt in the world of lab rats, rat brains, pigeon memory, and animal research in general.  Most folks working in that area would tell you that, while there were many similarities between "us" and "them", there were also differences between lab animals and human minds that made it risky to generalize from one to the other.  Still, despite the obvious shortcomings of using a Long-Evans hooded rat choosing to turn left rather than right to substitute for a human making a decision based on recollection, we used the rats because we had decades and decades of previous research to draw on and compare to, and that comparison facilitated scientific insight.

All public-sector institutions are subject to accountability to the legislative side, any relevant central accountability agencies, and the electorate.  One of the principal tools for that accountability is longitudinal comparison of performance, and longitudinal comparison demands comparability.

Now that is, in no way, a justification for never changing when the proposed change represents an improvement in functionality and service, or value for money.  But at the same time, there can be a completely understandable resistance to changing how some things are done if it represents a complete or disruptive break in what can be measured, and how.  There is value in sticking with "how things are done" in some areas, primarily because of the comparability it provides, and the insight that can foster.  I won't propose that it should trump all, but it's not nothing either.

That is an argument addressing the unanticipated larger impacts of changes that others may be thinking about when one of us has a "great idea".  That still leaves a very large arena of changes which do not have such understandable reticence attached to them.

There are some other takes on the remarks.  We don't do it that way may be a way of saying "we can't afford to make any changes because with sequestration we are totally broke".  Or, We don't do it that way means our current workforce just couldn't make/handle the change, either because of skill level, or just the climate of the organization.  Or, we don't do it that way...that was my pet project in the past and what I designed was good, so don't mess with it.  We don't do it that way, because it is the only way I know and if we do it your way, well that would level the playing field and I would lose control of the information hoarding.   And, there are rare instances where it could be that they tried it and it bombed out. 

Present a visual side-by-side. Demonstrate the "value added" benefits of the change. Let them buy in if they will. If there is no "value-added" benefit, then maybe you shouldn't make the changes after all. 

I found that the best possible response to that objection is "the current way is not sustainable." Then show three to five examples why the current state is not sustainable in terms of increasing costs, decreasing benefits, and/or no longer applies to current or future needs. 

Also, make yourself conversant with the 24 common objections and how to respond to them: http://www.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/buy-in/24-attacks...

Hi Steve,

I saw your question, and it immediately brought the “Professional and Personal Development” topic page, from the Knowledge Network, to mind.

I headed that way to find you some examples of positively-implemented organizational change, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

I hope that these resources inspire some creative solutions for coping with organizational change.  Feel free to poke around on the Knowledge Network any time you need some insightful advice.

Best,

KG

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