Why is change so difficult in government?

Change is difficult in government because we are approaching it the wrong way. In order to change, we need to go from a problem-focused mindset to a solution-focused mindset. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the authors explain this concept as “pursuing the bright spots.”

“To pursue bright spots is to ask the question “What’s working, and how can we do more of it?” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused: “What’s broken, and how do we fix it?”

-Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

For example: Let’s say you implement a new program for your employees, but only a handful of employees are using it regularly. Instead of wasting time and resources studying why all the others are not using it, why not look for how and why the ‘bright spots’ are using it so effectively. Let’s say when you looked at the ‘bright spots’ you discover that they found a shortcut on the program that makes it much easier to use. This solution would not be available with a problem-focused mindset; however, with a solution-focused mindset the solution was in plain sight.

So where are the ‘bright spots’ in your organization? More importantly, how will you replicate them?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

GREAT book! Thanks for highlighting it.

Posted a link to this blog on the main page, seeding the live chat there (where I also referenced this book before I saw your post!)…also looking forward folks sharing their bright spots in these comments.

Robert Manzano

It’s important to consider that what processes and programs organically work for some people, or some organizations wont necessarily benefit everyone. This is something large organizations inherently struggle with: rules that are all or none are easy, but finding a solution that allows wiggle room to handle those peculiar variances and doesn’t assume because something works in office A it should be organization wide is key.

Are the majority of folks not using something because they simply don’t have a need for it? Solutions to problems that don’t exist or are misinterpreted are just as bad… We often have to remind ourselves what the original cause for change was (ironically here, the problem).

Doris Tirone

I liken organizational change in the Federal government to the differences in mobility between an ocean liner and a row boat. When a ship’s captain see’s an iceberg ahead, s/he has to plan a new course and provide ample time for crew to effect a course correction. On the other hand, someone in a row boat can be right up against the obstacle before having to stear clear.

Now, consider the need for government to make a 180-degree course correction. It’s simple physics … as a single, operating entity, the Feds are too big to move fast; they lumber along. Now, if the Feds considered decentralizing the way in which policies are put into practice (all the way down to the local delivery level), change might come more readily. Unfortunately, when there are so many people to whom the Feds must answer (i.e., the voting public), that kind of decentralization just isn’t going to happen … one complaint from one consitutent in Arizona coupled with one complaint from another consistuent in Maine leaves elected and appointed officials open to too many complaints about things for which they intentionally let go of control.

Scott Span

Interesting approach. Seems similar to Appreciative Inquiry. I often try and utilize this approach with my government clients when helping them through change and transition, as I find the government often takes a negative view of change. Change in general is always difficult, it helps to take a positive approach!

Nina Adrianna

Love this concept, thx for reminding us of it Dustin.

In our organization, we have a network of change agents called Innovation Champions who are people from all parts of government with various jobs and classifications who are super excited about promoting change and are natural leaders and connectors. The idea is to link them together, and support them in their various change initiatives. Focus on spreading their positive energy rather than trying to convince the curmugeons.

Adriel Hampton

Harlan, it sounds like you’re seeing change in tools and systems without underlying culture change, which seems like a common challenge for large organizations. It is also easier to buy new systems than to really embrace the kind of organizational change such as embracing “bright spots.” I like the approach of looking at what’s working and digging deeper in order to replicate those successes. My understanding is that kind of approach has worked wonders in areas like rural epidemiology.

Scott M. Patton

We often forget in change management that there are innovators, early adapters, laggards, etc. Too frequently, a change is deemed a failure because not everyone has adapted to the change. What you’re proposing is exactly right – see why the early adapters are excelling and use them to demonstrate the change to others. But another common mistake is to assume that the early adapters for one change will be the same early adapters for another change.

Gary Berg-Cross

I agree with the earlier comments on turf and selective benefits.

Another thing is that people think that change efforts just need have results and everyone will understand it and buy in. But results aren’t everything, especially if not understood. One needs to build in irreversable change and make it sustainable. This means structural change so people can’t go back. In a word you need balance.

Stakeholder approval is not the end game in T transform. Can get majority even if leadership not buying in. Can get fuller buy in with success.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Key Point from the Book: For those who haven’t read it, the case study used in the book was the need to lower infant mortality in Vietnam. Some mothers were having greater success than others in child survival, so they asked, “Why?” They were able to learn what was successful from those mothers, then get those very same women to educate their peers! So it wasn’t an expert coming in and saying, “here’s how you should feed your kids.” It was peer-to-peer engagement and sharing personal success that ultimately led to significant, life-saving changes!

Steve Richardson

Solution to what? Doing more of anything usually means doing less of something else. That’s why innovators are responsible not just for showing their idea works but for explaining why it’s better than the status quo. If I’m not knocking on your door with a complaint, you have to convince me that I share the problem you’ve solved for others and that the solution will work for me, too.

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. The upshot of my previous comment: How can we incorporate more peer-to-peer education in our offices?

Lenn Paotinlen Chongloui

enlightening, yes I dunno what term to call in my eGov Leadership Training with a remotest Indian State called Nagaland. ” land of the head hunters” – today I got it. we have been working on data centres , networking whcih got entangles in legal and many other snarled ups, then we say even if the whole infrastructure (ICT) “the ferrari” is there, there will be no drivers I mean officials &citizens will have to have capacity to use the platform. thats when we started capacity building combined with OB OD based competency trainings for Middle level officers … a new course designed! we can share bright spots in training methodology and materials.

David A. Streat

I think the reason that change in government is so difficult is that those in the position to effect change look at it from a negative perspective as opposed to a positive perspactive. Change if embraced properly can be a good thing.

Erin Duggins

Good comments thus far. Just another couple of thoughts that I would like to add:

1. Regardless of whether one finds a “bright spot” and replicates it, change is more effective when it is from the inside-out. In other words, leaders championing and driving change is one way to go about it. However, finding key influencers that are credible amongst their peers to help drive change from the inside is even better. Call them what you will…change agents…innovation councils, etc. The question is how do we leverage these agents in establishing the case for change that resonates with their colleagues, communicating it and mitigating the barriers to change.

2. People go about “managing change” without identifying the barriers or risks that could hamper success. As such, they don’t proactively address them and end up hitting bottlenecks or dead ends. Identifying risks and mitigation strategies, assigning responsibility and monitoring them is always helpful.

3. Avoiding silver bullet thinking is crucial in driving change. Most people want to dump change issues into a particular category (e.g.. it’s a “structure” issue, or a “culture” issue), when in reality, it’s probably an “alignment” issue between multiple categories (structure, human resource enablers, and behaviors/culture necessary to meet the demands of the external environment)

4. Change is not linear, no matter how well we’d like to think it is so. Even if we consider change “a process,” people will vacillate between one or two phases of the process before making progress. We’ve just got to accept it and mitigate it as best as possible.

5. It is difficult to sustain change when there are no clear outcomes and measures for each phase of the process. We are achievement driven creatures. It’s like losing weight — having a big weight loss target is one thing, but having smaller targets along the way helps increase motivitation and sustain overall engagement.

Sorry for the long post!

Nathan Greenhut

Change is not natural. There are many resistance points to change. You need to get buy-in from others and really convince people to utilize another tool, another way of thinking, another process or another idea. The best advice I could give to someone about replicating “bright spots” is to start small and think strategically. Keeping things simple is the best way to initiate positive changes into an organization.