Category Archives: Change Management

Rethinking the Execution of Government Strategy

I was looking through my OneNote research notebooks when I came across this clipping, Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Nearly five years old, and the conclusions in the article are even more valid today. The article reminded me of my findings in my dissertation research on the merger of the city archives and the county archives. I was mystified about why the archives merger succeeded despite the change process going against the conventional wisdom of change management theory.

According to the research by the authors (Donald Sull, Rebbeca Homkes, and Charles Sull), the success of strategy execution depends on agility. Agility is defined as how well different parts of the organization coordinate while seizing opportunities aligned with the organization’s strategy. They explain why this is so by dispelling five commonly-held beliefs about strategy execution:

Myth 1 – Execution mean alignment

Myth 2 – Execution means sticking to the plan

Myth 3 – Communication equals understanding

Myth 4 – A performance culture drives execution

Myth 5 – Execution should be driven from the top

People viewing a flip chart.

What most interested me about the article was the importance of organizational agility in executing the strategy. That is why organizational units must have excellent cross-collaboration abilities with each other. Exceptional cross-collaboration skills are how the units can work together in spotting emerging opportunities and work together to take advantage of the possibilities. Organizational agility reminds me of Colonel Boyd’s OODA Loop and his thinking on strategy.

Going back to my dissertation research, I found that the real change in the archives merger was driven by the employees and not the top management. The communicated change vision from the top was general and not enough to develop a detailed plan for the merger. A general change vision from the top corresponds to Sull, Homkes, and Sull’s research finding that strategic execution should not be solely driven from the top.

I also feel confident in reading the HBR article that my decision to combine organizational health with organizational agility is the right way to approach building a new theory of public administration.

Sternberg’s Theory of Organizational Change —What Minerals Are Government Agencies?

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and inventor of the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. I became familiar with his work on successful intelligence in the mid-1980s and have used successful intelligence as the basis for my training and development work.

It’s his research program on organizational modifiability that I find relevant in my work. As we enter the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, there are many ideas from the candidates on how to reform the federal government. Add to these plans the current administration’s President Management Agenda which promises sweeping reforms to the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget recently announced award winners for their Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. As in the past administrations, there are several reinventing-government programs underway.

Even with all the change efforts, success has been mixed. What makes an organizational change effort successful? How should governments approach the change process? There are many theories of change management so, what insights does Dr. Sternberg offer?

Organizational Modifiability

Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:

Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

Universities and government agencies have much in common. They have various sizes, serve different constituencies and are similar in the way their bureaucratic processes work. And like universities, government agencies also need to learn. Three prerequisites need to be present to build the agency’s learning capacity.

The first prerequisite is the ability to change. There are two reasons an organization cannot change: a lack of resources or culture of stagnation. The second prerequisite is that the organization must believe that it can change. Closely related to the organization’s belief is the third prerequisite, which is the courage to change.

Using these three prerequisites, Dr. Sternberg created a cultural framework for institutional learning and change. The framework assesses three factors:

  1. “How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
  2. “How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
  3. “What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?”

Using the values of, “Low,” or, “High,” for each question, Dr. Sternberg describes eight types of organizational cultures in terms of learning and willingness to change. For each of the eight types, he assigned a different mineral as a metaphor.

Crystals

Organizational Cultures of Learning and Change as Minerals (These descriptions adopted from Organizational Modifiability).

“The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.

The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality.

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.”

Five Factors in Why Change is Hard

Even though Dr. Sternberg was describing universities, the above descriptions just apply to government agencies both in the federal, state and local governments. I have been on several change projects which purported to be diamonds in the rough but turned out to be opals or amber institutions.

According to Dr. Sternberg’s research, five factors determine how likely organizational change will happen. The first two factors are the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the change agent. If the change agent comes from outside the organization and does not appear to have the expertise for change management, the organizational stakeholders will resist change. I have seen this happen to numerous political appointees.

The third factor is who owns the change. If change is forced on the organization from the top without having the stakeholder groups buy-in to the change, the change effort will most likely fail.

The fourth and fifth factors concern the rate of change and the cultural compatibility of change. The organization and culture can only absorb so much change in terms of speed and the changing of existing cultural habits. As governments start a new round of change efforts, change agents would do well to consider the agency’s ability to learn and absorb the new change.

The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness, transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency ensures that they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes, I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Neon sign that says change.

Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.

We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals safety.

Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.

Launching Three Online Courses in the Fall

One free introductory course to project management, a paid course in advanced agile project management, and a paid course in marketing training courses in your organization.

After a successful training at the 2019 Drupal GovCon, I had several emails asking if I could send the training slides and materials to the people who missed the session. It was then that it hit me. And I am surprised why I didn’t think of this before.

Especially after teaching online for four different universities and training other instructors in online teaching for over 15 years. I suppose what led to my hesitation was not finding the appropriate teaching platform.

However, I have recently found a good online teaching platform and am ready to release three courses based on my books, articles, and presentations. Look for the course launches in late August/early September.

Hand pushing pin into a board that has cards connected by strings.

Small Project Management – My gentle introduction to project management. This free course is great for those who want to get into project management but don’t know where to start. This course is based on a free guide that I authored in 2012. Since then, I have given this course to government offices and nonprofits.

Lean Scope Project Management – I created this project management method by combining design thinking with agile project management. This is an extreme project management to create novel products or services quickly and with heavy customer input.

I first designed this method in 2014 and continually update it as I continue to learn from managing projects. Participants will this course useful in helping execute on their world-changing ideas.

New Ways to Market Training – This training is based on my experiences in marketing training courses in organizations. It was surprising to me that there is very little guidance on how to market training courses to internal audiences. What is unique about my training course it deals with using the latest social media and workplace digital collaboration tools for marketing.

More details as we come closer to the course launch dates.

Goaling Too Far – When Following a Goal Destroys Innovation

In my latest column for PA Times Online, I wrote about why innovation in the public sector is challenging. Public sector innovation (and innovation in general) is an emergent process in that new ideas build on previous innovations. However, as research has found, there is not a direct path to change. The indirect and surprising ways invention occurs was the basis for James Burke’s Connections series. I highly recommend watching the episodes available on YouTube.

The typical way that innovation occurs is that a vision of the new product, service, or method is created. Then, a program is launched to achieve an innovative goal. It’s a proven formula that works. Think of the major U.S. government projects like creating the atomic bomb, building the interstate highway system, and landing people on the Moon. There is a mix of moving directly toward the goal while taking advantage of unexpected side routes.

So, how to harness the power of emergence with its sudden leaps in the service of steady progress toward a goal?

One way is to recognize the symptoms of destructive goal pursuit. Dr. Kayes examined Mt. Everest expedition disasters to explore the destruction caused by a single-minded pursuit of goals. He called the intense focus on an objective, goalodicy. There are four limitations to the goal-setting process:

  • Goals are difficult to abandon.
  • Goals limit learning.
  • Goals increase risk-taking.
  • Pursuing goals may lead to unethical behavior (p. 50).

The warning signs of goalodicy are the acceptance of a narrowly-defined goal, high public visibility, pressure for face-saving behavior, an idealized future with few or no problems, pursuing the goal is the goal itself, and that achieving the goal is destiny (p. 76). The best way to overcome goalodicy is for leadership to encourage learning and questioning. Leadership also needs to encourage taking advantage of the unexpected to find new ways to achieve the goal or even modify the goal.

Stanley and Lehman (authors of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned) wrote that “[b]eing open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than knowing what you’re trying to do.” The goal is essential but allow for feedback and recalibrating the goal when necessary.

It is easy to fall into the goalodicy trap because people, teams, and organizations fear uncertainty. As Patrick Hollingworth wrote: “Kayes suggests that uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future, insisting that we tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as we can reach this projection of the future (italics in original).” In my next posting, I will explore how to manage the effects of uncertainty on innovation.