Runner at starting blocks

Published: January 7, 2020

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

By The Center for Government Innovation

Government staff all over Washington often ask me where to start when they seek to improve a process like permits, asset management, approval queues and so on. To answer this, I ask them: Where are you now? Where do you want to go? And how ready are you to get started? It’s hard to know what actions to take without looking at why you are where you are today, and the mindset of the people who will have to make the change happen.

Changes like those needed to improve complex processes start at an individual level. In local governments, a high value is often placed on stability. This is why you need a strategy in place to help each employee process change, to build a framework for communication, and to identify ways to be flexible as the changes are implemented as well as sustain the effort when there are setbacks.

We know that the majority of change efforts do not achieve everything they set out to do. Having a clear vision or the most effectively designed solution to a problem is not enough to produce successful change. So what can you do?

Help staff understand what it means for them

Managing change on an individual level increases the probability of successful change in an organization. Staff must understand what the change will mean to them and their work environment, and they must be supported. In turn, this will produce better results for the whole organization. Do staff know of the need for change? How can you motivate them?

A good example of this comes from one of our experiences at the State Auditor’s Office. A local government contacted the Center for Government Innovation for help implementing new, time-saving software. It soon became clear that some of the staff did not even know a change was necessary. This lack of knowledge created resistance from the staff tasked with implementing the software change and threatened to derail the whole project. Are there people in your organization who protest: “I like my paper process. We’ve always done it that way”?

Business team arguing in meeting

If you have a strategy in place to focus on the people side of the process, staff will be much more open to change. They might still ask questions about the new process. However, the questions will be more task- and goal-oriented, such as “When is this going to happen?” and “Will we be trained on the new process?”

Past experiences with change

People react to changes on the horizon based on their past experience. Have they seen multiple initiatives in a particular area come and go without ever being completed? Are there IT systems, facility remodels, policy changes, or innovative programs that have been considered multiple times but never implemented? If your staff resist any change, it is worth asking what past experience have shaped this attitude.

To be successful on the people side of change management, you will need to think about how you might remove that resistance. You need to have a clear and convincing answer to the question: Why will this effort be different than the ones in the past that didn’t stick?

Essential qualities

In his book, 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player, John C. Maxwell suggests focusing on some essential qualities. Sit down with staff before the change and seek to understand their attitudes and experience with factors like these:

  • Being adaptable. Can they change their attitude from “Why it can’t be done” to “How it can be done?”
  • Being collaborative. Working together precedes winning together. Can they take themselves out of the picture and ask: “What is best for the process?”
  • Taking a risk. They may be disappointed if they fail, but take the chance and commit anyway. Fail fast and recover quickly, always evaluating what you learned from that situation.
  • Being inclusive. Open communication increases trust, trust increases ownership, and ownership increases participation.
  • Becoming a process thinker. What is their comfort level with breaking a task into steps and identifying what preparation is required for each step?
  • Resolving to find a solution. Are they open to rethinking their strategy? Will they commit to refusing to give up? Can they see challenges as great opportunities? Are they willing to repeat the process and continue to solve other problems?

Focus on the people

Business team putting hands together

Your organization might be pondering a dramatic change — and you might ask yourself how you can best prepare for success. Even if your aspiration for process improvement is massive, you can be successful. You first need to empathize with the people who do the work. By taking the right actions, an organization can shift from being skeptical of all change to gradually become more open and receptive to new ways of working.

Providing effective structure and direction for any change, big or small, yields process improvements that are much more likely to meet or exceed objectives. Looking at the people side of your process change first can make all the difference between success and failure.


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