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4 Obstacles to Change (and How to Overcome Them)

Whether meeting a cybersecurity mandate or modernizing legacy systems, agencies may relish the advertised outcomes of modernization. But in practice, it’s often difficult to see new initiatives stick.

It’s like organizations have built-in defenses against change. To overcome them and establish a culture built for change, agencies must recognize what these defenses are and institute a strategy to redirect them.

At GovLoop’s virtual summit Thursday, Karen Howard, Head of the Office of Online Services (OLS) at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), identified four key hurdles to change and how agencies can manage them.


Culture has the potential to fuel innovation, but it ends up being a common obstacle.

“Culture becomes a barrier when we don’t build in a culture of change,” Howard said.

Manifesting a certain culture is a slow process, but agencies can expedite it by using certain strategies.

  • First, recognize that there is no recipe or silver bullet to creating a change-friendly culture. Identify the nuances and aspects unique to your organization to guide your strategy for managing change.
  • Second, conduct a business readiness study to see how mature and prepared your organization is for change. It will help assess where you are and where you need to go in your culture journey.
  • Also, be comfortable being uncomfortable. Tough conversations and hard decisions are going to be inevitable. Not everyone will embrace change, and that’s OK. Leaders will have to identify change resistors and meet them where they are.


The tricky part about identifying change resistors, however, is that some don’t resist noticeably.

Silent saboteurs are individuals who don’t explicitly protest change. “Sometimes, they don’t know they’re sabotaging progress,” Howard said. It often has to do with an unwillingness or discomfort with technology and how fast it’s moving.

  • For people who have done their jobs well without leveraging certain technologies, adopting them can be intimidating and unexpected. Agencies should consider these silent resistors in their cultural journey plans, proactively understanding where there may be resistance to technology and providing training opportunities for employees to level up their skills.


Receiving support for innovative changes is difficult when there aren’t immediate or tangible returns on investment.

“It’s incumbent on those who want to bring in innovative programs to have a solid, data-driven business case that highlights the returns at certain points of the project,” Howard said.

  • Agile methodologies or iterative approaches can be useful. If stakeholders or investors can see continuous movement and success, they will more likely continue to support with dollars and people.


Change can’t be for the sake of change. To get buy-in, articulate what’s in it for others. Clearly and succinctly communicate the business case or need for change.

  • And importantly, engage the whole organization to be part of the change. Use feedback loops, suggestion vehicles, active listening and frequent and consistent messaging. You need to engage top-down, bottom-up and middle-out, Howard said, not one over the others. This kind of communication and engagement can foster a sense of inclusiveness, transparency, trust and community to build a culture built for change.

Don’t forget to register for upcoming virtual summits here.

Photo credit: Alyssa Ledesma on Unsplash

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