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Using Adaptive Spaces to Increase Innovation in Government Agencies

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

By Bill Brantley
July 20, 2018

“People will always resist change” is an oft-quoted truism by both management practitioners and academics. Because most change agents believe people in organizations will resist change, the change agents use two tactics for organizational change. The first is to convince people that their attitudes about change are wrong so that they will willingly accept the change. The other is to overwhelm the resistance with the need for change so that they will go along with the change. However, what if the belief that people resist change is not completely true?

According to Dr. Steven Kelman from Unleashing Change: A Study of Organizational Renewal in Government, 2005, the view that people resist change is “often oversimplified and misleading, and that common change strategies growing out of this view are

therefore incomplete as well.” Kelman’s research demonstrates there is often a group of organizational members—the “Change Vanguard”—that are waiting for organizational change because of their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Activating the change vanguard is one tactic of initiating organizational change. The second Kelman tactic helps consolidate change by having the change feed on itself. Change feeding on itself is the use of positive feedback and time to increase the number of people who support the organizational change.

Kelman used these tactics in his efforts for procurement reform during his time as a senior procurement policy official at the Office of Management and Budget between 1993 and 1997. The federal government is currently undergoing another period of procurement reform spurred by the adoption of agile project management by many of the government agencies. From my observations as a federal government employee and agile project management practitioner, there is a change vanguard as evidenced by the 400 plus members of the government agile project management community, the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services. However, it may be too early to determine if the change is feeding on itself. There are still significant organizational barriers to the new procurement reform and the adoption of agile project management.

How Organizations Resist Change

There is an “inherent tension between organizing and innovating.” It takes a lot of resources and effort to create a high-functioning organization. Organizations need to “develop structures, training, a culture and incentives to enable them to do their current job well” as Kelman writes. Organizations recruit people that fit the current organizational processes and rewards organizational members for adhering to the current organization’s culture. Existing power relationships also discourages change. Still, the biggest barrier to change may be the organization’s shared mental models that essentially blind the organization and its members to the need for change. In bureaucratic organizations, change is even harder because rules and policies “limit the competence of employees and thus their capacity to behave differently,” according to Kelman.

How Adaptive Spaces Could Overcome Organizational Resistance to Change

Dr. Michael Arena, the Chief Talent Officer of the General Motors Corporation, recently published Adaptive Space (2018). In his book, Arena describes private sector companies are using the concept of “adaptive space” to overcome the built-in barriers to change in organizations. He describes adaptive space as “the free trade zone for ideas within large complex organizations.” Adaptive spaces allow for connections and interactions between “people, ideas, information, and resources” in new and innovative ways. Adaptive spaces provide a “social bridge to transport ideas from entrepreneurial pockets found throughout the organization into the more formal operational system.”

Key to the success of adaptive spaces are the “4D Connections:” Discovery Connections, Development Connections, Diffusion Connections and Disruption Connections.

  1. Discovery Connections: These connections are made by “brokers” who create the links between groups and individuals. Brokers help the flow of ideas by overcoming the organizational silos to open up access from the entrepreneurial pockets to other entrepreneurial pockets and the larger organization.
  2. Development Connections: Connectors create the entrepreneurial pockets and help the pockets to refine and scale their ideas. Connectors work best by developing the social cohesion between the members of entrepreneurial pockets.
  3. Diffusion Connections: Energizers are responsible for creating positive energy in the organizational networks. “Energizers tap into existing relationships, spark the interests of others, and unleash the passion necessary for learning, insights, and adaptation.” They create the conditions for the innovations to diffuse through the organization.
  4. Disruptive Connections: Challengers are the final step in bringing about organizational change from the adaptive space. Challengers “leverage the discovery connections of brokers, the development interactions of connectors, and the diffusion connection of energizers to provoke disruption. Challengers, therefore, open up Adaptive Space to create a new normal.”

Adaptive Spaces for Government

There are many entrepreneurial pockets of innovation in local, state, and federal governments. What may help government agencies to become more agile and innovative is recognizing the presence of the change vanguard and appreciating the four different roles that change vanguard members could take. In a sense, governments would have the best of both worlds: highly-performing organizations that are constantly being renewed by their third spaces.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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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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