How to Manage Organizational Change in the Public Sector

In my long and somewhat-chequered career (the missus occasionally refers to my lifestyle as 'self-unemployed') my beliefs about managing organizational change have evolved.

I used to believe in technology, but I got better;-) I used to believe in methodology, but I came to realize that 'methodology' falls in the category of 'necessary but not sufficient'. So what works? Engaging the interest and attention of your people and holding the vision of success until they grasp it.

This is the real job description of the 'change agent', whether she is a manager or a consultant. You have probably read some version of the 'six phases of any big project':

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment,
  3. Panic and hysteria
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honour for the nonparticipants

Well, been there, done that (but only the lucky nonparticipants got the T-shirts). It's hard to maintain course when you are sailing into unknown waters; and sometimes the political winds of change can blow you off-course (I can use as many nautical metaphors as I want, I'm from Newfoundland. ARRR!).

So how do you keep organizational change going when caught in mid-project doldrums? The project leader has to keep sight of the goal; even more than that, the leader has to understand and believe and communicate the idea that the crew is sailing to a better place. If you know the goal, a few diversions and setbacks along the way won't matter.

I worked on a big project a number of years ago, leading a large and cross-functional team in a change exercise. The goal was to combine several administrative functions and create a 'single window' service model.

We struggled a bit with achieving our objective, and had to change course – i.e. approach – a couple times, but we got there. I and the client project lead knew where we had to go; we just had to hold that vision until we could bring the team with us. Not everyone made the transition, or accepted the changes - see in my last newsletter Secret 5: Some people won't change – but the organization made the transition and we achieved the expected benefits.

One trick we used when disillusionment set in was to do a review of progress made. We would ask the team to look back at where we started, and the progress we had made to this point. The things they were currently questioning weren't even on the radar when we started out; we had made enough progress to at least ask better questions!

It's rewarding when the team's understanding becomes congruent with the vision; once they 'get it' they will work to make it happen. Meaningful organizational change is only possible when this occurs.

Always close with a joke . . .

Q. Why do we send only the dumbest Newfoundlanders to Ontario?

A. Because it raises the average intelligence of two provinces!

It's OK, I can say that, because I Arrr! one.


Update: New Training for Public Sector Managers: I've mentioned before that I'm involved in a series of training workshops for public sector managers and executive, offered through the Canadian Government Executive Learning Centre.

The team I'm working with has secured the location (Minto Business Centre in Ottawa) and we've begun booking dates from January through December 2013.

I'll update you when specific course schedules and descriptions are available, and keep an eye out for more info in Canadian Government Executive Magazine.

If you want us to send you more information directly, include your contact info in the form or contact PRS

We can also arrange custom training on your site for any of the topics shown below.

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Business Process Reengineering
Data and Information Management
Governance and Accountability
Integrated Management
Knowledge Management
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Risk Management
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