Managing System Change
Throughout my career in public and non-profit spaces one thing has been consistent across agencies: change. More specifically, change in computer systems. I have a knack for being hired right before an agency converts from an outdated DOS system to a modern web-based system. However, no matter how much more user-friendly a system appears to be, the prospect of change can inspire widespread resistance or flat-out panic. There are strategies that organizations can use to help the process go more smoothly.
Create Buy-In for the Change
The most successful change I have ever been part of was at a statewide non-profit that wanted to move from paper to an online claim management system. Leadership at the non-profit reached out to competitor providers in the state and worked together to bring a few different companies in to pitch their products.
Cooperating with the competition made it possible to negotiate better pricing for everyone’s agency. As a frontline supervisor, my team and I participated in demos and gave opinions on the systems and how each might benefit our customers. Once the cross-agency partnership selected a product, our customers who would be using the system were invited to focus groups to provide input on what customization of the off-the-shelf product would work best for our state.
What was the result? Staff and customers saw the benefit of the system and implemented the change with enthusiasm. They saw that the positives outweighed their fear of change. Those who were still apprehensive were surrounded by people who were positive about the change and willing to share their knowledge. The final implementation was relatively seamless taking just a few months to get nearly every customer on board with electronic claims.
Avoid Optimism Bias for the Change
On the flip side, in the most unsuccessful system change, I have seen an elected official and a few close advisors made a decision to change a long-standing public records management system. They had no buy-in from staff or their regular professional customers. The regular professional customers of that office had expertise in using multiple systems across different counties throughout our state. And using those systems to either search for or file new records comprised a huge part of their workday each day. Because the decision maker was only listening to a few advisers who all approved of the new system, optimism bias led to an incorrect belief that once the system was in place it would be viewed as a huge success.
What was the result? Regular customers rejected the new system and relied heavily on the legacy system. The biggest mistake made was listening to only a few people instead of soliciting input from the available experts. This could have been avoided with simple surveys, town halls and/or focus groups. Then the constituency using the system most often would have felt heard and valued in the change process. And now, a newly elected official has replaced an unpopular and lower-quality system with a more user-friendly one.
Include Frontline Staff in Change Decisions
Sometimes we don’t have a say in the new system we are adopting, but we still have to create our response and new processes. That’s the case with the system change I am working on now. My local agency processes most of its work in systems owned by the state. It has been the most multi-faceted change I have been through. After several years, we are reaching the end of a phase that will see the majority of our 600+ staff working in the “new” system. And working in our training department, I am privy to the woes and fears that people are feeling. Resistance to change is a normal part of human nature. However, our leadership team has taken steps to include frontline staff from an early stage
They broke the new system conversion down into chunks. Then they created a project team for each chunk. These teams include staff from IT, management and the frontline of every department. The result has been more open communication about the impact of a decision on other areas of the agency. In addition, those serving on the teams also update their colleagues in each department after meetings. We know that on the day of go-live, we will experience some bumps. Yet there is a confidence that people will know who to talk with if something goes wrong and issues can be addressed.
Create a project team with people who are balanced, willing to speak up when they see an issue and solution-oriented. Positivity helps, too, as these are the people who can cheer their co-workers on.
Operationalize Change Communication
In addition to colleagues updating each other after project meetings, these teams have fostered communication between the technical team leading the implementation and the end-users. Sometimes it can feel like a software developer and an end-user are speaking different languages. So it helps to have someone who can “translate” in both directions. Our project managers fill that role beautifully since all of them have some experience working in frontline roles. Furthermore, our communications team provides regular written updates to all staff in the agency. They are creating short guides to help people on day one; if an issue arises they will know who to call and why.
When you communicate information to staff at every level in multiple formats it increases staff feeling supported and valued through change.
Whether it is technical or policy, change in our field is inevitable. There is a “Rule of Thirds” in photography that some have applied to lead change. One-third of people embrace a change with enthusiasm. One-third are skeptical but winnable. And one-third resist change either actively or secretly. The key to leading change and helping teams manage it is to tap into that first third. Recruit them to be leaders through the process, regardless of their role in your agency or department.
Gabrielle Wonnell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.
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