Tips for Change Agents

Many of us in government want to change the way our agencies work. These changes can take many forms. Some of us may want to fix a process or change/eliminate counterproductive rules. Others may wish to shoot for more ambitious goals that require a change of culture. The current push to expand the use of collaboration tools like Web 2.0 technologies is one example of a big and important culture change. My personal focus has been on doing whatever I can to foster a culture of leadership—both in my own agency and throughout the government.

Effecting change in a large organization is difficult. Those difficulties can be magnified greatly in the public sector. Entrenched rules and structures pose many obstacles. Resource limitations often seem to be the things in greatest abundance. And the possibility of criticism from senior bosses, Congress and the media tends to make many managers risk averse.

So how does one overcome all these obstacles to bring about significant positive change? This article will outline 12 strategies, and practices that can be very helpful to the change agent in government.

Be Clear About Your Big Goal

What is it that you are really trying to accomplish? Do you have a vision of your end goal? Keeping the end goal in mind is critical to forward movement. You will experience many setbacks on the way as some of your tactics will fail. If you dwell on the latest setback it is easy to become frustrated. I find that a Life Mission Statement is a helpful tool that enables me to keep sight of my larger scale strategic objectives.

Choose to Lead
Leadership is a choice. If you see a problem, own it. And fix it. All too often, employees see problems but wait for someone else (e.g. the boss) to address them. It’s important to remember that the boss might not even be aware that the problems exist—and even if they do know about it they might not have the time or energy to do anything about it.

Look for Leverage Points
Leverage points are places where you can achieve a multiplier effect from focused efforts (i.e. you obtain a larger impact than you would normally get for the same amount of effort). For example, an HR employee or management analyst who provides support and guidance to managers across many parts of the organization can be a great leverage point for modeling or disseminating practices and ideas that you want to implement across the organization.

Plant Lots of Seeds…and Keep Watering

If you are looking to implement a major culture change, you will need to start planting seeds in various parts of the organization. Be on the constant lookout for 1) opportunities for small wins; 2) new allies; and 3) ways to change the language used to discuss your issue. The key is to take advantage of small opportunities when they present themselves—and to persist. If you have been tending to these things, your initiative can more quickly blossom when you do achieve high-level support for it.

Develop a Network
Networks are key enablers for the change agent. The network can be members of your own team, employees from other parts of the organization, or even contacts from other agencies. Members of a network can provide each other encouragement, ideas, and other support. They can also provide leverage by building support for change in diverse parts of the organization, replicating changes throughout the organization, and continually expanding each other’s networks. Networks also reinforce the fact that you are not alone—a key factor in being able to persist.

Maintain Your Optimism
As Winston Churchill said, “The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” The change agent in government will encounter many difficulties. Optimism gives us the enduring belief that, working with and through others, we can make a difference. Optimism is also infectious.

Be Creative about Tactics

As discussed earlier, you will encounter many obstacles. Keep the end goal in mind while you look for tactics that will help you find ways to go over, under, around, or through the obstacles. If one tactic doesn’t work, try something else. If you don’t have a knack for finding creative solutions, partner with colleagues who do.

Be Honest in Your Assessment of Potential Downsides
What would happen if your change initiative is implemented and then fails miserably? How would that impact your agency’s ability to perform its mission? How much money and energy will have been wasted? Will it cause public embarrassment? What are the chances of failure? These are some of the things that decision-makers will worry about. The answers to these questions can help you identify ways to strengthen your proposal and mitigate the potential downsides. And let’s face it: Ignoring the significant risks is simply irresponsible.

Cultivate Credibility
To be an effective change agent, you also need to take the time to cultivate your credibility in your organization. It’s not uncommon for brand new employees to identify major problems with the organization (e.g. with the HR system), and then quickly get frustrated because the “system” won’t fix all those problems that are so obvious. New employees have fresh eyes and good ideas and managers should listen carefully to their suggestions. However, new employees are well advised to focus primarily on mastering their jobs and learning the culture. Implementing some modest but innovative changes within their immediate sphere of influence can help them build credibility as an innovator and provide valuable learning about how to get things done in the organization.

Keep asking “Why?”
As noted above, new employees come in with new perspectives and ideas. Those who have been around for awhile may have become accustomed to (and accepting of) an absurd status quo. It’s important to find ways to keep the fresh perspective of the newbie. Don’t learn to accept bureaucratic stupidity if there might be ways to eliminate it. One of my favorite “demotivators” from Despair.com says, “Tradition: Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

Do Completed Staff Work
Change agents also need to be prepared to do a lot of the groundwork required to actually implement the changes. A lot of ideas go nowhere simply because the boss is already too busy to take on something new—no matter how creative and exciting it may be to the would-be change agent. If you take a great idea to your boss (or other decision maker) and show him/her that they won’t have to do much more than say, “Yes,” your chances of getting the idea approved will improve dramatically. (See “The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work.”) A willingness to do much of the leg work needed also shows that you are really committed to the idea and will do everything you can to make it work.

Remember that a “Yes” From the Top Means the Real Work is Just Beginning
If you are fortunate enough to have the big boss sign off on your major change initiative, remember that the decision point is only the beginning of the real work for implementing your initiative. Just because a change initiative is blessed by the leader(s) of the organization does not mean anything will actually happen. And even if the initiative is implemented, you cannot assume that the effort will continue or have the intended effect. As Admiral Hyman Rickover once said,

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required.”

So, what do you think needs to be fixed? ...And what are you going to do about it?

This article was originally published on GovLeaders.org

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Denise Kennedy

Don – It’s like you were just in this meeting that I was at. I wish I would have seen your blog post prior to it. Great article and great reminders…

Adriel Hampton

Don, fabulous stuff. I’m going to use it as a template for outlining broad goals, and a reminder when deviations occur. Thanks!

Angela Ochoa

This is a solid foundation and a organized expression of some of the thoughts that have been floating around me head. Great stuff.

Deb Forman

Look for Leverage Points
Leverage points are places where you can achieve a multiplier effect from focused efforts (i.e. you obtain a larger impact than you would normally get for the same amount of effort). For example, an HR employee or management analyst who provides support and guidance to managers across many parts of the organization can be a great leverage point for modeling or disseminating practices and ideas that you want to implement across the organization.

I think one of the key issues before taking this step is to develop a level of trust and comfort, so that the support and guidance actually can become a two-way street….the mentor can see benefits too.

Craig Petrun, Ph.D.

I would like to add that for change to be successful we also need to be aware of the idea that creating change in an organization is a process and not a one time activity or intervention. In my experience, I have seen many leaders take a few steps along the process of change but not have the stamina to see the change through till the end of the process. We are usually good at raising awarness, communicating the vision and asking for commitment. We are not as good at establishing an infrastructure (training for new competencies, creating new reward systems, introducing new tools/systems) that will allow the change to take hold. Finally, leaders need to understand that it takes continued effort, committment and resources to sustain a change. Most times resources are diverted to either new or additional efforts before ensuring a current effort is fully integrated into the organization.

David Dejewski

Simply Excellent. I have every intention of stealing this, making it my own and promulgating it. Well done, Don. Really well done.

Scott Span

I just came across this post. As an organization development and change practitioner in the government space, I couldn’t agree more! I always find working as a change agent in Gov to be a big challenge, however when I can make positive change happen it is extremely rewarding! You may be interested in some of my blog posts which can be found on Govloop and also here: http://thetolerothinktank.blogspot.com/

Eric Hackathorn

I’m glad this was publicized in the GovLoop newsletter. I’m not a fan of PowerPoint, but I think this would make a fantastic slide deck and talk… If I get around to it I’ll send you think link. 🙂