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Experts: Lasting Organizational Change Begins at All Levels

If you thought changing bad habits was hard, try getting an entire organization to move in a new direction. Varying interests within any given group and a reluctance to adapt to new ways of doing business often puts organizations and change drivers at odds with one another.

Change is difficult. Habits, routines and learned behaviors make adjusting difficult at the individual level, and hard, if not impossible, at the organizational level. Whether a change takes the shape of a new system or process, or a complete overhaul of the way things function at the root level, driving a lasting change is easier said than done.

The topic of affecting lasting transformational change was the topic of one panel discussion at the California Technology Forum in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 12, and focused on the strategies employed by state, city and industry leaders.

For James Dowling, a change management consultant representing event sponsor PCMG, the road to any effective change begins with the question: What capabilities are needed to move an organization forward?

“It’s a conversation that every agency head and every department leader can answer,” he said. “You don’t ask them what technology they need, you ask them, ‘What capabilities do you need to do this?’”

When the question returns with, for example, a request for more staff, he suggests reframing the question to what capabilities those new individuals would need to be successful.

The engagement with the management suite should not end with the basic question of what is needed, and should instead exist throughout the entire change initiative. In some scenarios, front-line and mid-level managers are left out of the conversation to avoid excitement and speculation around the project, Dowling said, but added that capitalizing on this excitement is far more valuable.

“The delivery of results starts with and ends with the front-line managers and supervisors. A lot of times they are locked out of change programs until the last minute,” Dowling said. “If they are part of the solution, and not necessarily designing the solution or even defining the problem, that’s bottoms-up change. Even top-down change, if you ask, ‘How do we make this work?’ at the right time, it will work a lot better than if you tell them at the last minute, this is how this works.”

Ron Robinette with the Office of Statewide Project Delivery within the Department of Technology said that technology only represents a portion of the transformational change conversation.

“In my experience, it’s not really the technology that hangs me up on things," he said. "We could talk about the process, because people that want to automate a flawed process — what does that get you? It just gets you a flawed process quicker once I automate it, right?”

Drawing parallels with the movie The Wizard of Oz, Robinette explained that following a path with the right team was essential to the success of any initiative. Getting buy-in from decision-makers and front-line employees is another key aspect. 

Where the organizational leaders may respond to cost savings or efficiencies, lower level staff may have alternative motivations for their support. The mix of a compelling vision for the future and leading staff by their “hearts” often helps to achieve the goals of the initiative through more complete buy in.

“You have to know what is in it for them and speak to them in that language. If you come with me to Oz, you are going to get exactly what you need too,” he said. “Work with people’s brains. Work with people’s hearts. Give people some confidence, give them that courage and you’re going to have a wonderful journey to your Oz.”

From the local government perspective, Nabil Fares, director of Information Technology for the city of Stockton, said the various departments within the city should be focused on their business objectives, not the technology that enables it.

Having recently weathered a bankruptcy, the city is positioning itself to make organizational changes, one of which is the replacement of what Fares calls an “archaic” ERP system. 

“I want to make sure that when we work with the ERP, the people who are responsible for change management, I don’t want them thinking transaction ally. I don’t want geeks and nerds," he said. "I am the geek and the nerd, the rest of the team should not [be]."

Another piece of advice Fares shared was the call to be genuine and gentle when it comes to moving. Though he warned people will “bite” the first few times, projects or processes lacking either aspect will soon be ignored by those they might have been trying to help. 

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at
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