It is amazing how much management and business literature there is on managing change. I guess one reason is that every organization has to respond to change in some way at some point in time. I suppose another reason is an assumption, real or perceived that people fear change. Managing change is frequently described as one of the most difficult challenges of management which is probably why most of my business as a consultant was guiding organizations and their management through a process of change and adaptation.
In contrast, I have met many leaders who appear to thrive on seizing and influencing the factors and events portending change for their organizations. Why, then, do some fear and avoid change and others seek it or embrace it? I think part of the answer lies in understanding the common types of change public administrators and their organizations commonly face.
Evolutionary Change. This is the most common but least visible form of change. Organizations experiencing this type of change often have the illusion that nothing is changing and that they have succeeded in preserving the status quo. They have fooled themselves in thinking that the world is static.
Constant change is the status quo. Each day, subtle changes in levels of experience, expertise, expectations of staff and customers evolve. More visible and recognizable are changes in technology, current events that change the operating environment and new external requirements. None of us have control over the minute and inexorable evolutionary changes occurring within us and around us. Because the rate of these changes is imperceptible, we often console ourselves by thinking we live in a stable and static world.
So what is the harm in pretending that we are not changing? I can’t help but to make a comparison to the aging process. In my mind, I still look the way I did 25 years ago when I was courting my wife yet, this morning, when I looked in the mirror I saw the result of the individually imperceptible changes of the years: gray hair, jowls, crow’s feet and even a few wrinkles. If I had never looked into a mirror during the last 25 years, I would have been shocked this morning at the sudden realization of the magnitude of the changes that had occurred. Similarly, I have seen organizations “look into the mirror” (usually involuntarily) for the first time in years and be surprised at what they see.
When managers, teams and organizations are oblivious to change, they surrender the ability to influence the changes and, in some cases, they even lose the ability to react to the changes. They exist in a world that is easy to perceive as random, unpredictable and unfair. They become victims of change.
Mandated Change. The next most common source of change is an external mandate. In the public sector, all organizations are subject to external mandates- usually imposed by regulation or legislation. Examples of recent, sweeping state and federally mandated changes include: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), REAL ID and Voter ID at the polls.
While mandates are seldom welcomed by any organization, they are the only source of change for many. I cannot count the number of times I have heard “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” from the managers of teams that only change when compelled. These types of organizations usually implement the changes half-heartedly and with considerable foot-dragging. For example, eight years after its passage and four years after the mandated deadlines in HAVA, the State of New York still has not replaced its 19th century mechanical voting machines.
These teams miss the opportunity provided by a mandate to take a “big picture” approach which considers potential changes and improvements to other processes. Instead, they seek to only implement the minimum requirement to satisfy the mandate. The organizations I have worked with that take a “do the minimum” approach inevitably end up with inefficient and contradictory processes and procedures. Each response to imposed change has its own logic and rationale when examined on its own merits; however, over time, as these responses accumulate, the bases of the responses lose all logic and rationale in the aggregate.
The Train Wreck. The Florida “hanging chad” fiasco of the 2000 Presidential election is a classical example of the “train wreck” as a trigger of change. For decades, poorly crafted election laws, inadequate processes, poorly trained administrators and vulnerable voting equipment sailed under the radar, not just in Florida but across the country. Suddenly, and for the first time, an election got inside of the margin of error inherent in the laws procedures and technology and the whole world learned of the inadequacies of the status quo that election administrators knew, or should have known, for years. This train wreck triggered an avalanche of change and reform for elections and elections technology across the country that continues to this day.
Misconduct or malfeasance by officials, fraud, abuse or any other type of public outrage that becomes widely known are other examples of a “train wreck”. Change and reform are no longer a choice. Immediate action is required to satisfy the media and the public. Heads rolls, laws are written, teams are reorganized and procedures are rewritten (usually by a consultant). Unfortunately, virtually all the actions resulting from a train wreck are directed to solve a problem that has already occurred—like closing the gate of the corral after the horses get loose.
Internally Driven Change. The fourth and least common source of change is not reactive like the previously discussed sources of change. This type of change derives from the initiative, vision and courage of a leader that is not satisfied with “good enough”. This type of change is driven internally by one or more leaders in an organization who proactively seek to control, tame and influence the winds of change swirling around their organizations. This type of change is not passive and does not rely on external triggers.
Internally driven change always places the fate of an organization in the hands of its leaders but does not guarantee any success if embarked upon hastily, impulsively or without forethought. It is precisely the fear of failure that makes this the least common source of change in the public sector. Initiating change often goes against the bureaucratic grain and against its systems of rewards and incentives. Internally driven change is often feared for its inherent personal and professional risk—that of accepting responsibility for initiating change. Ironically, it is the successful initiation and implementation of change that provides greater service, preserves the fiduciary trust of citizens and increases accountability. Being a courageous leader who fosters change is the highest measure of public service and should be the ambition of all public administrators.
Scott O. Konopasek has been a public sector manager for 20+ years combined with more than 5 years consulting experience with public entities on organizational effectiveness and transformational change. He has a BA from BYU and an MA in Political Science from the University of Utah.