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Organizational Change: How Incrementalism Can Save Your Career

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Daniels
September 9, 2016

If courses in organizational theory have taught us anything, it’s that nearly everyone finds change difficult. This is no more relevant than in the workplace. Whether you have just stepped into a management role, or have been there for some time – making swift, strong and often abrupt changes can lead to mutiny among those you lead.

Imagine if your office was a ship and you the captain. What would the consequences be for making a drastic left turn? Odds are various things would shift – often things that were not thought about before the turn. Even when the crew aboard the vessel is prepared for the turn, small things are often forgotten and shifted in the aftermath. It’s these shifts that don’t occur when turns are made gradually, over time. The cargo is allowed move with the ship – remaining stationary and in place.

Of course, this is a simple analogy for the office environment – the manager being the captain, the crew being their staff, the ship being the organization or program and the cargo being the organizational structure. Despite the need for change, change leads to a shifting of many parts of an organization – making these shifts and changes over a longer period of time allows for gradualism to take hold. Staff will become more comfortable and efforts will be met with less resistance. Utilizing the example of gasoline prices – if prices took a sharp, one day, rise by a dollar a gallon, there would be mayhem. On the other hand, when gas prices rise by 3 cents each week over the course of four months, the complaints are fewer.

While incrementally changing business practices, it’s important to not show your cards. This isn’t meant to be facetious or an attempt to not be transparent – it allows staff to take in the changes without the stress of looming changes. Revealing your ultimate goals too early could be just as damaging as a sharp change in course. Staff will be bracing for all the coming changes rather than focusing on their normal tasks and the changes that have already been introduced. Additionally, there is an ulterior motive a manager must have – a hope that the leaders (supervisors and lead staff) will understand the direction that the ship is headed, thus offering up ideas on how to get to your ultimate destination faster.

Most often, these ideas are brilliant – despite not being in your original plan – and can easily be integrated. Other times, staff will suggest a change that is already planned. As a leader, your role is to inspire and build up – give them credit for the idea. This suggestion is twofold. You have automatic buy-in because it’s their idea that is to be implemented and you now have a staff member who feels validated in their role within the organization. In the event that ideas are offered that would set your goals off course, simply redirect. With subtle help, the staff member can be guided in the direction you would like.

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that there are times when sharp turns are warranted. When there are instances of misfeasance, malfeasance or issues with a grantor’s funding guidelines. It is imperative to steer your ship away from the iceberg, no matter how many plates in the galley are shattered or how many barrels of cargo become unusable. It is important to give as much warning as possible, but be certain to make the turn as soon as possible.

A wrecked or heavily damaged ship cannot sail, or be captained for that matter. It is the role of the captain to minimize damage when possible and to keep the ship in sailable condition. Additionally, rough seas and large swells can be expected with even the most smoothly run ship. These outside forces are always at work within an organization – the public sector often encounters concerted labor efforts, such as strikes.

These labor efforts do not reflect how your program or division is operating, but usually how those at the executive level are addressing matters of benefits or compensation. It’s these types of issues that may result in sharp steering in an effort to maintain course with a reduced crew. The truth of the matter is that a ship meant to operate with 40 crew members cannot operate effectively with 15. As a result, you may find yourself navigating uncharted waters with an occasional overcorrection.

Truthfully, incramentalism should be embraced and taught at all levels of an organization. It is important that leaders at all levels truly understand the power of their actions – no matter if they are abrupt or subtle. The question remains – how sharp of a turn do you want to make and how much of your crew and cargo will stay in place when the ship’s course has been made true?


Author: Richard Daniels is a program manager for the Central California county of San Joaquin. He can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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