Frustrated by an Unchangeable Agency? Change Anyway.

An article by Ken Miller, author of “We Don’t Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths that Keep Government from Radically Improving” on the things you can do to create change when you feel it’s impossible. I would love to know what the GovLoop community thinks of the 10 Paradoxical Commandments of Government and feel free to add your own to the list!

The Paradoxical Commandments of Government

1. The reward for doing good work is more work. Do good work anyway.

2. All the money you save being more efficient will get cut from your budget now and forever. Find efficiencies anyway.

3. All the bold reforms you make will be undone by the next administration. Make bold reforms anyway.

4. There is no time to think about improving what we do. Make time anyway.

5. Employees may fight the change every step of the way. Involve them anyway.

6. The future is unpredictable and largely out of your hands. Plan anyway.

7. The press only cares when something goes wrong. Share your success stories anyway.

8. Legal will never let you do it. Simplify it anyway.

9. If you develop your people they will move on to better jobs. Train them anyway.

10. Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.

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Scott Bryan

Gosh, it’s a list of great reasons to use the OGD to create a virtual government staffed by volunteers from the public that do your jobs for you. Creating the infrastructure that would enable them to do that addresses all the goals of the OGD and the net result might actually yield more useful insight on doing your own jobs better. You may even end up with an electorate capable of recognizing leadership worthy of the people they’re leading.

Stephen Buckley

One can not “command” another to be heroic.

When people take the actions described by these Commandments, they are doing it without regard to the “accepted wisdom” AND they doing it without regard to a list of “commandments”. They, the relative few, are doing it because THEY think it right.

If these commandments are meant to exhort the regular “non-heroic” people into unsafe behavior, then there needs to be some more incentive than just “it’ll be good for others, but bad for you”.

To expect rational people to begin acting irrationally (i.e. against their own interest) is, itself, irrational. However, it is possible for a leader to inspire personal sacrifice for the greater good, but only when the individual sees him/herself as part of a larger, common effort.

These commandments — by themselves — do NOT show how an individual’s efforts will, in fact, be part of a larger common effort. They impy that one must take it “on faith” that it will be worth one’s personal sacrifice. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. Most people know this, and they behave accordingly. And that’s why heroes are rare.

Jeffrey Press

Perhaps I shouldn’t have posted the list out of the context of the entire article. After reading your comments, I now believe that the list cannot stand alone without the supporting text. The list appears at the end of the article on the Governing website, but I did not re-post it in this comment.

My two cents: In the context of the article, I don’t find the list to be negative at all. Positive change is hard, but does that mean that we shouldn’t do everything we can in our power to create it? I believe Stephen’s first paragraph in his comment could almost read as the definition of a change agent in the dictionary. This list is not meant for the regular “non-heroic” people Stephen mentioned. This list is for the change agents, who are not as concerned about their own well-being, but are more concerned about the well-being of others and those that are impacted by the decisions they make and the great outcomes their organizations set out to achieve.

I would like to highlight one paragraph of Ken’s column that I strongly believe in:

“Customers in government are often hostages with no choice. Who cares if they are happy? The processes are arduous, cumbersome and get in the way of helping people. So what? The workplace policies and performance management initiatives are sucking the passion, meaning and personal satisfaction out of work. What can I do about it? The reality is that these things are all man-made. Humans created them, and humans can change them. Somebody started the ball rolling that got us here. Somebody can start the ball rolling that changes the course.”

“As the great change agent Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Grab the wheel.”

Here is the article in its entirety if you want to read it here.

I was concluding a Better, Faster, Cheaper workshop last month with a wonderful set of government managers. These people were bright; they got the concepts; and their hearts were in the right place. But they felt defeated: Tired of fighting to change a seemingly unchangeable system, these folks were worn out.

They peppered me with questions that were all variations on the same theme: “Why bother? Why try?” The only answer that kept coming to me was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” I didn’t like the answer as it left my mouth each time. It felt like a pat cliché. But as I reflected on it on the flight home I came to be at peace with it. It was the right answer. It is the only answer.

My answer reminded me of one of those viral emails I received a few years ago, a list of something called the Paradoxical Commandments, or “Anyway.” Originally misattributed to Mother Teresa (she had them posted on her wall in a Calcutta children’s home), they were in fact created in 1968 by the author Kent Keith as part of a student leadership curriculum. His 10 Paradoxical Commandments include such masterpieces as:

• The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

• People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway.

• The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

The root of the paradoxical commandments was Keith’s effort to embolden weary change agents. The heart of his message was that change is difficult and that change agents can’t be engaged for purely selfish reasons. Said Keith:

“I saw a lot of idealistic young people go out into the world to do what they thought was right, and good, and true, only to come back a short time later, discouraged or embittered, because they got negative feedback, or nobody appreciated them, or they failed to get the results they had hoped for. I told them that if they were going to change the world, they had to really love people, and if they did, that love would sustain them. I also told them that they couldn’t be in it for fame or glory. I said that if they did what was right and good and true, they would find meaning and satisfaction, and that meaning and satisfaction would be enough. If they had the meaning, they didn’t need the glory.”

(Keith also had another piece of wisdom: “If you don’t care, you’re not going to help anyone. Unless you have a deep feeling for the welfare of the people you are supposed to lead, please, stop leading.”)

The world needs change agents. Your organization needs change agents. You can be that change agent. Not for the glory or for advancement — you probably won’t get either. Not for admiration or even convenience — the path of a change agent can be lonely and often painful as you try to help others see what is possible, prepare for what is inevitable, and let go of what has sustained them thus far. Like great artists, change agents are usually only admired after they are gone. So why bother?

At the heart of his work, Kent Keith was pointing to a bigger motivation, something that today, 40 years later, seems like an old-fashioned notion and certainly not a phrase we use much anymore: brotherly love. As he said, “If you’re in it for other people, then helping them will give you satisfaction that having your name in lights could never compete with!”

It is easier to do nothing when you’re only concerned about your well-being. Customers in government are often hostages with no choice. Who cares if they are happy? The processes are arduous, cumbersome and get in the way of helping people. So what? The workplace policies and performance management initiatives are sucking the passion, meaning and personal satisfaction out of work. What can I do about it? The reality is that these things are all man-made. Humans created them, and humans can change them. Somebody started the ball rolling that got us here. Somebody can start the ball rolling that changes the course.

As the great change agent Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Grab the wheel.

With that in mind, I give you the Paradoxical Commandments of Government. These are the reasons why changing your agency is so hard — and why you should do it anyway. Of course, commandments, like hotdogs, only come in packages of 10 (even though buns come in packages of 12), so I had to whittle down the list. I left out some of the pithier ones, such as, “The councilman’s cousin is going to get the job; try hard anyway,” and “No one will read the report you are working on; write it well anyway.” I have also by no means exhausted all the possibilities. In fact, I’d love to hear more commandments from you, my fellow change agents.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I agree with Gwynne – it’s important not to let negativity drag you down – but was glad to have that handy checklist anyway. If you’re going to be a change agent it’s important to be realistic and practical about the attitudes that need to change — especially since those attitudes are formed by real experiences. Basically, I read the checklist as, “no good deed goes unpunished, but do good deeds anyway.”

Bottom line is, imagine yourself at your retirement party or even G-d forbid on your deathbed. When you look back on your career, do you want to remember a life spent hiding, circumventing difficult challenges, people-pleasing, and betraying your beliefs about what is right and true? Or do you want to say, I did the best I could to be a mensch (Yiddish for decent person) – to live and serve the taxpayer with integrity. I think most people would say the latter, they just get caught up in the fear and worries of the moment.

George Arimes

Thanks for sharing Jeffrey. I totally saw the Commandments from a different perspective. My experience is that if you really want to an effective change agent in government, or any large business for that matter, you have to recognize the challenges and typical resistance that you get when trying to make change happens. The Commandments are just that….the typical reasons not to attempt change. This is not negativity…but reality when challenging the status quo. Maybe the blog should read….”Top Ten Reasons Not to Be a Change Agent…..Do You Still Want the Job?”. If you are like me, no matter what the challenges, you want to the job of improving government. You have to enjoy seeing services improve….but as the saying goes “you have to take the bitter with the sweet”. As a person that deals with helping government improve services, these are real experiences. I say bring it on!!!

I have a blog on my site that deals with the same point.

Attitude and Culture: The Hidden Culprit

Stephen Buckley


There is a significant difference between the “commandments” and Margaret Mead’s quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The key word there is “group”.

Ms. Meade is not suggesting that change-agents act independently. She is suggesting that individual change-agents join forces and act as a group. Small, at first, but then growing larger and larger.

The status-quo can defend itself easily when the change-agents come at it one-at-a-time. And that is why I had a problem with the “commandments” since it only seemed to exhort people to act as individuals (without any mention of the value of seeking similar souls to organize for greater effect).

Jeffrey Press

I agree Stephen. In all cases, we have to hope that the “coalition of the willing” are a group of change agents who are also the same as the “coalition of the important”. The situations where these two groups do not match up are the situations where it is most difficult to create organizational change. Change agents are certainly more effective as a group and you will only get so far by yourself, especially if you are not in a leadership position. Although, mandating excellence and change as a leader from 30,000 feet without a reasonable plan to get there and without engaging the workforce will not steer the ship in the right direction either. That being said, a change agent in a leadership position wouldn’t do that. They would already understand that people help support what they help create.

So yes, you need to find like-minded change agents to make a huge impact – hopefully some of those people are from the “coalition of the important”. I believe that as an underlying theme, Ken was trying to articulate that these should be the commandments for change agents acting as a group on behalf of the greater good, not individually.

George Arimes

Jeffery/Stephen…change agents individually or as acting as a group are only as efffective as the “sponsorship” for change. As “agents” tends to indicate…they “are an individuals recruited prior to implementation of a change; must be representative of the user population, understand the reasoning behind the change, and help to communicate the excitement, possibilities, and details of the change to others within the organization.” Unless someone has authority and influence over the change effort, the results will be difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Without appropriate sponsorship, the “change agents” will have to face resistance, etc without support. Change management is very complex and has to be structured, especially in government.

Jamie Carnell

George, I agree with you that executive level sponsorship is key and those sponsors need to be change agents otherwise it goes nowhere. However I have to ask why Change Management has to be so complex? Shouldn’t one of the goals of change be to make something less complex, simple and easy for everyone to understand? We are so use to structure in government that we can not think without calling a meeting, getting together a project and gather the troops around the change. If we were to just sit down and have an honest conversation without the structure would change occur?

Paul Campbell

I agree with #5 above all others. In public sector it doesn’t matter if the change cost a lot of money or very little, it doesn’t matter if it is initially seen as positive or negative. What matters is how disruptive it is to those who are affected. People feel the most vulnerable to change when they are surprised. Change is minor when it does not significantly disrupt what you anticipated would happen. In these circumstances people fine tune their expectations and adapt to change. If the disruption is major, people typically experience fear, anxiety, anger and loss of emotional equilibrium producing disabling consequences for both the individuals and the organization. Human beings are only happy when they are in control. Control is achieved when our expectations match with our perceived reality. This is why communication is the key to change, ensuring that people can anticipate the future and establish expectations which match perceived reality.

Deb Hiedeman

Wow! This is a great discussion. Everyone has tuned into an important principle about change, about change agents, about change agents in a government setting. But I do disagree with some of what is here. It is possible to be a single individual and “grab the ball”. You have to understand all the principles discussed here, and you have to appreciate the personality, politics and culture of your organization. You can successfully market your idea to gain the necessary sponsorship, you can identify others in the organization with the interest and passion to join you, and you can actually move the ball along. It takes an enormous amount of patience, and you need to make agreements with those other passionate individuals that you will all be cheerleaders for each other when you get a little worn out. Often the most limiting commodity in the organization is the time it takes to orchestrate all the elements that will result in success. Since January I have had the luxury of being allowed to spend all of my time on effecting a change that various members of the organization (including me) have been advocating for in our organization for probably more than 5 years. I finally managed to be in the right place when a potential sponsor was listening and things fell into place. It’s incredibly hard work; but it’s incredibly gratifying work. I will be sending Ken’s column to some of my most valued colleagues by way of saying that I recognize their personal committment to our endeavor. And I hope that all of you, sometime in your government career, are fortunate enough to experience what I am experiencing. When I retire (hopefully soon), I will feel very lucky to have been able to make this contribution to an organization that I have been proud to work for for a very long time. Sorry to be schmaultzy!

Kevin Lanahan

I have a little sign over my desk that says:
“I am not a troublemaker. I am a catalyst for change.”

I think one of the keys to effective change is critical mass. Social media was robust when government started seeing how they could use it. It didn’t start with one person; lots of people in lots of agencies were poking and prodding socmed to see how to use it effectively.

When enough agencies were established on Twitter, FB and other outlets, we were able to find others that were working towards the same goals and consolidate our efforts. Leaders emerged, and standards/recommendations followed.

Think of it as a field of flowers all blooming at the same time.

But it all started with a bunch of people in scattered offices recognizing that it was the right thing to do.

George Arimes

Jamie…change management does not have to be complex. However, my experience is that staff mostly resist “change” whether it will be better or not for them. It is unfortunate and seems silly, but very real. Most people get used to a routine, so any change is viewed as undermining their turf or an afront to what is a known quantity. I am all for an honest conversation, but most folks are afraid to speak their mind especially in a hierarchical organization. It takes time for people to open up. Sponsorship just ensures that it is clear change will happen and conveys the expectations of change. Staff work together to define the future with hopes that others will buy in. Once people see that it will be better, have a chance to see how they individually fit into a new system, and make sure that change is really going to happen….they might support it. Does it have to be complex? No. Should it be structured? In my opinion, yes. The structure ensures follow-through and an opportunity to measure milestones or results. It can be a “feel good” experience for people, but the more entrenched a culture is….my experience shows that ongoing sponsorship and structure are imperative.

Steve Richardson

Thanks, Jeff, for keeping the faith and continuing the conversation. I’m very late to read this because I’ve been up to my neck in change lately. I did have a brief exchange with colleagues earlier this afternoon about the fact that our new leadership’s initiatives and requests are all additive. Somehow, it does not occur to them that in order to do a good job addressing their (new) concern, we need permission to let go of something already on our plate. I guess it falls to us to ask why we should continue to do things that no longer seem to be valued.

Jeffrey Press

Iolanta – I don’t think so. The basic premise is: sometimes there is not a whole lot of reward for what we do, but in the end, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s altruistic and not a fact-based reason, but it comes down to our values as people and as an organization. I think you will find the same situation in the private sector as well. It all depends on the culture.

Kenneth Watkins

Hello Jeff (I hope it’s okay that I refer to you as “Jeff”),

This administration has inspired a lot of idealism… However, the reforms have not taken seed, yet. I am a product of several very hard-wired institutions, i.e US military, the federal service, and my family.

In addition, I grew up in the 60s in the south, and during the heat and confusion of the Vietnam war and the tail end of the civil rights movement.

Therefore, I say this with some trepidation, but also with a firm dose of stamina that will be required of idealistic sorts thinking that “change is here!”


Today is February 17th and two days ago Congressman Even Bayh stated publicly that he wouldn’t run for reelection because he was disappointed with the state of affairs in the House of Representatives. You have to regard this occurence with honest eyes and an open mind.

Essentially what the American public is being exposed too is the reality that we continue to elect and support individuals that “won’t change” even if it has damaging consequences for the country.

So, again I say, if we want change, we must start with ourselves. You have to be willing to not look like everybody else, and sometimes, not think like everbody else.


You have to subscribe to principles that assign value to a good that exceeds the norm, or the privileged, or even your friends. You have to be vigilante and you have to be clear about “the change” you believe you want.

Take it from a man that lives his life this way, it’s not as easy or utopian as it sounds.

You may be vindicated, and change may occur, but it may not occur during your employment, or in your life time. Also, you must develop the intellectual, psychological, and emotional stamina and realism to operate within those constraints.

Jeff, take another look at your “Commandments of Government,” #8 is kind of sketchy, legal usually tries to make things fit the legislative or regulatory status quo, and sometimes that’s simple. Simple is not always, effective, fair, or appropriate! Based on what I read of the article, and the “Paradoxical Commandments of Government” I am on your side, but I am also a pragmatist with a bohemian heart. “Fight on!”