Lessons in Change Management: From 9/11 to Technology Adoption

My first real leadership experience revolved around 9/11.

I was the hijacking coordinator for the FBI’s Miami field office. About 18 months before 9/11, an Al-Qaeda affiliate hijacked a plane that landed in Afghanistan. From a hijacker’s perspective, it was a success; the people they wanted released were released. We realized hijacking could be coming back into vogue.

So, in August of 2001, I put together a full-scale hijacking exercise at Miami International Airport that involved state and local police, airport authorities and others. We did a full dress rehearsal.

On Sept. 11, we discovered we’d practiced for the wrong kind of hijacking. I had underestimated them. I hadn’t expected 19 terrorists to sign up for a one-way mission. We immediately knew we had to throw out our playbook.

That said, our preparation paid big dividends on 9/11 and during its aftermath. Our teams had just learned something new together. We were motivated. We were adaptable. And every one of us was supported by people within and beyond our teams until our jobs were done.

That experience helped to shape who I became as a leader over the next 20 years, imprinting early lessons about change management, adaptability and resiliency. Of course, I still had many lessons to learn.

A Tale of Two IT Transformation Efforts

Leadership is about helping people deal with change. Management deals with things that need to get done. It takes both for successful change management.

After a series of counterterrorism assignments, I moved into human resources at the FBI and was in charge of a legacy promotion system for agents. At the time (around 2007), my small unit alone used 1.6 million sheets of paper annually! I set out to change that system.

We took a long, linear process and automated it one step at a time. We communicated directly with the people who needed to make changes, providing specific instructions on what to adjust. Promotion packages used to get faxed; we got rid of the fax machines. Selection board members who once relied on multiple 5-inch binders converted, by the end, to tablets. Eighteen months and a series of incremental changes later, we had a fully adopted streamlined system.

A few years later, I led another effort to introduce newer technology, this time for a full-service HR system. Again, we had a change management plan. But we underestimated the interests of some users. In many field offices, some individuals had used the legacy system for decades. They knew it inside and out and their status in their offices was partially related to their expertise with the old system. When we rolled out the new technology, there were loud complaints from these users who were unprepared to change. Ultimately, though the system functioned as planned – and is still in use today – the initial deployment was not viewed as a success.

In the first example, my management and leadership skills met the challenge. In the second, my management was OK, but my leadership missed the mark for some key stakeholders.

Assessing Change Management Readiness

Effective adaptation to change is acquired by practice. When facing change management situations, leaders should assess the readiness of their teams (and themselves) across three essential pillars:

  • Flexibility and adaptability. Has your team experienced a past significant change? The longer they have been doing what they’re doing, the more expert they are, the more difficult it might be for them to change. Fortunately, once your team masters those skills, your job as a leader is easier.
  • Trust. Ideally, you and your team have experienced change together. Even if that experience wasn’t perfect, you know what to expect from each other. If not, look for opportunities to take people through a planned change. Working through an expected change will make unexpected change easier.
  • Communication. Successfully navigating change takes a ton of communication. If some people aren’t complaining you’re communicating too much, you’re probably not communicating enough. Build the culture, the channels and a commitment for communication. Not just to give orders, but to listen and understand.

At the FBI, I learned the value of flexibility and adaptability. Teams that learn to absorb change the best will be the most resilient – for the expected or unexpected changes ahead.

Timothy Groh brings 24 years of FBI experience to his role as Vice President Strategic Programs at Paradyme Management. As Chief Operating Officer for two FBIHQ divisions, Tim led more than 800 personnel and managed budgets up to $150M, driving innovation to measurably improve enterprise-level systems, processes, and culture. He previously led FBI teams through 9/11 and its aftermath, led the FBI’s Leadership Development Program and served as Deputy Director at the Terrorist Screening Center.

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Rey Carr

A wonderful article outlining a key difference between leadership and management. I wonder how far down or up the line these principles applied within the FBI? We’d like to reprint this article in our magazine. Could we have permission to do that? We’d provide proper attribution at to the source.