Friday, March 26, 2010

Leading (Not Managing) Culture Change in Government

My response to Chris Jones' excellent post, "Culture Change in Government: No Small Task," prompted me to get my blog, "Within the Slipstream," up and going. I need to make one acknowledgment up front: This blog entry is essentially my response to Chris' blog post with more elaboration added.

I'm also going to explain why I chose "Within the Slipstream" as the title for this blog. As a recreational cyclist, I've learned the value of staying within someone's or a group's slipstream. It is one of the keys to maximizing efficiency when going out an extended bike ride, tour, or race. Amateur and professional cyclists know the value of slipstreams in winning their races. Nature is also replete with examples of slipstreams from birds flying to pools of fish moving through water to move their collective bodies in the desired direction. 

"If an object is inside the slipstream behind another object, moving at the same speed, the rear object will require less power to maintain its speed than if it were moving independently." It is sometimes thought that only the trailing entity benefits from the slipstream. However, "in addition, the leading object will be able to move faster than it could independently because the rear object reduces the effect of the low-pressure region on the leading object."  In effect, the lead entity and the trailing entity both benefit by working together (read: collaborate) to create a slipstream.

Similarly, government organizations are in the process of determining how to best work together to achieve mutual goals, not just with other government organizations, but also with citizens, businesses, and non-government organizations (NGOs).  Government, at all levels, has moved from e-government to collaborative government.

Government organizations are looking at new ways to collaborate.  Open Government is one reflection of this collaboration.  In many cases, organizational culture change must take place to optimize this collaboration, especially changes associated with Open Government.

Chris cites an excerpt from Beth Beth Noveck's (the Deputy CTO for Open Government) 2009 “Wiki Government" book: "The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

The above is very much true. Nevertheless, leaders still have to step forward and lead that culture change.
  • Leaders have to publicly state that they value “taking risks and implementing collaborative strategies" (as an example).
  • Leaders have to articulate a vision of what that change looks like in a way that leaves little room for ambiguity and resonates with people's hearts.
  • Leaders have to prioritize what they want their organizations to focus on so that there are opportunities to take risks and make change happen.
  • Leaders also have to recognize people that succeed not just by rewards by also by narrating stories to others about these efforts that resulted in positive change. This will encourage others to do the same.
Is this alot to do? Absolutely, but that’s what comes with being a leader.

The point about leaders prioritizing what they want their organizations to focus on is sometimes not emphasized as much as it should be. Every organization has what I call a “Capacity for Change.” If no prioritization of effort is provided, organizations can exhaust themselves in trying to do too much. If they exhaust themselves, the desired change may not be achieved. This point, referred to as “Motivate the Elephant," is well made in Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book, “Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard.” I recommend this book for anyone involved or interested in organizational change (and who isn’t these days?).

Lastly, work associated with cultural change is often referred to as “change management.” That is not the best term. Yes, change must be managed but to succeed, it really must be led. Change leadership is a much more appropriate term and reflects the tough work that must be involved for cultural change to succeed.
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