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Meeting the Challenges of Big Organizational Changes

There are plenty of ways for things to go wrong with any transformational initiative. Leaders need to keep five key success factors in mind.

By Patrick Mallory

Confronting change, whether by choice or not, is difficult to wrap your organizational arms around. This can be especially true with the change includes sacred-cow programs or services, organization-wide information technology or business processes, governance or approval structures, and accountability mechanisms. The result more often than not is a transformative effort that takes longer and is more costly than initially budgeted for.

However, there are things that you can do as a leader that can help your agency or organization more readily embrace change and achieve more tangible results. Whether your scope is big or small, consider these five key success factors:

1. Bring in the top brass: When launching a new transformation initiative, throw the full weight of your leadership team behind it. By doing so, you are ensuring not only that the effort is visible to the larger organization’s leaders but confirming that you have the ability to communicate for resources needed to succeed, including funding, experienced staff and visibility.

Where this top-level engagement is especially important, however, is when the changes spill into other functional areas of an agency or organization, which will require broader executive alignment. Once the initiative kicks off, having executive sponsors also assists in resolving conflicts, making final decisions and mitigating risk. Executives should be regularly included in workshops, status meetings and final design sign-offs to not only reinforce the message but also broaden the perspective of the attendees.

2. Anticipate hurdles: Throughout every phase of the transformation effort, teams should look for policies, processes, regulations or other resource logjams that can hinder progress. Common impediments include regulatory approval periods, procurement cycles, accounting processes and — perhaps mostly dangerously – people who are resistant to change.

Plan, budget and act on these issues as soon as they are identified and consistently monitor progress against overcoming them. Future opportunities for change can also be born out of this type of preparation.

3. Celebrate early and often: Projects can build invaluable momentum and value by identifying a series of quick wins that can be achieved early in the initiative’s lifecycle. Prepare your project to be able to capture these results and make sure they are quickly communicated to stakeholders. Sharing tangible wins also can help to free up additional resources.

As the project allows, put out press releases, notify the managers of cross-functional staff members of their successes, and remind those involved of the ultimate impact they are having on the larger mission.

4. Be thoroughly realistic: The difference between a presentation or report that sits on the shelf collecting dust and one that has the potential to bring real change is finding the sweet spot where the push for change meets the threshold for change that a government and its stakeholders can reasonably absorb. Just one recommendation or goal that is not in sync with the nature of the target organization can negatively rebrand the entire project. A team will then become reactive and instead of proactive.

As with identifying quick wins and celebrating them, build consensus and rapport around less controversial, widely agreed-upon recommendations, work toward them one at a time, and slowly push the pace of change forward.

5. Understand your audience: Your stakeholders, adopters, drivers and resisters are all going to digest information differently. A well-researched and presented business case for change that demonstrates a broad understanding of the financial, political, technical, human-resources, business and customer impacts of the initiative will greatly assist with reaching these audiences effectively.

Additionally, as progress is made, business cases can be updated or adjusted to take into account new circumstances or lessons learned, helping to maintain buy-in and justify continuing resources.

While every transformation initiative will be different, each will share the need to account for the personnel, resource and time constraints as well as the appetite for change within an organization. If you embrace these circumstances early, drive each of these success factors into your planning and use them to your advantage, you will see results.

Reprinted with permission of GOVERNING, copyright @ 2014.

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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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