Managing Change Post Election

How to avoid the impulsive and shallow commitments that have too often characterized IT investments in the past.
November 3, 2010 AT 11:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

As they turn from campaigns to governance, state and local election winners (and even federal officials) will be forced by the recession and the service needs of aging baby boomers to cut costs both immediately and for the longer-term.

The good news is that proven technology-enabled enhancements exist which have successfully boosted private-sector productivity but have not yet been widely implemented in government. For example, online services can be extended to broadband, wireless and self-service offerings (where transactions such as vehicle registrations can be handled without requiring handholding or other direct help from a government worker). Collaboration internally and externally can be extended from the "in channels" few to the "crowdsourced" many, with potentially dramatic improvements in transparency and results (note how many cities have tapped volunteered programming to create public applications, like Boston's next bus application).

The bad news is that more than half of the government projects designed to adopt such changes have been failures. The electorate wants "change," but good "change management" is a rarity.

So what can be done?

The biggest single step is correcting for cultural impulsiveness. Americans are famous for wanting to make quick decisions, and today's incoming administrations feel the pressure to get underway quickly. Like too many of their predecessors, they are likely to make early but shallow commitments to certain projects, only to find that they must delay, water down and/or kill those projects (and their overall credibility) within the first year.

That common mistake can often be avoided by heeding the "slow trigger, fast bullet" guideline.

A slow trigger gives you time to involve stakeholders deeply enough to respond to each other's concerns, understand that there is no way forward that will avoid all pain and gain the commitments required to act together as an effective group. Use the time to:

  • Explore multiple paths over multiple meetings. Don't expect to define the problem, jump to an answer and seek commitments in a single "executive decision" session. First, discuss whether the problem requires a solution at all and assess the pain likely to be involved in living with or without such a solution. Then explore several possible solutions and their expected rewards, pains and other issues.
  • Explore stakeholder interests, especially their pain points. Don't allow stakeholders to be "polite" and not raise objections and possible difficulties. By the time the decision is made, everyone should understand that all paths hold difficulties. They should understand, and be able to communicate, why the chosen path has been chosen. Finally, stakeholders should understand the need to hang together until the battle is won.

After the slow trigger, a fast bullet reduces the time between making a decision and reaching a defensible position where supporters can both gain the intended benefits and explain them. For fast bullet success you need to:

  • Design for implementation speed. Projects where results do not become visible for 3 to 5 years are deadly, and all too common in government. Fortunately, with today's infrastructure and development tools, many projects can show results within 3 to 5 months, not years. The "Where's the bus?" applications described above provide one example. These are much different than the "everything and the kitchen sink" modernization efforts that drag on and on, infamously plaguing agencies like the IRS.
  • Gain strength from your reputation for delivering. The fast bullet key is not only reaching the target quickly, but also using the speed of success to keep your support mobilized and credible. The progress made in Singapore, where they are famous for pulling off a long string of strategic IT-enabled initiatives (including TradeNet over twenty years ago), has often been discounted because "it's really a dictatorship." When you look at how Singapore organizes its projects, however, their "slow trigger" provides much greater adjustment to stakeholder interests than we often see here. Equally important, their insistence on a "fast bullet" gives them a formidable reputation for seriousness and success. Once a decision has been made they don't let "scope creep" or other problems typically found here slow them down.

While America hasn't yet faced the pain and divisiveness emerging in France and England lately, we're clearly facing similar underlying problems. We desperately need to cut long-term costs through productivity improvements in order to reduce the pain of service reductions. IT-enabled improvements will be critical for the new administrations currently taking shape around the country, and indeed for the next decade to come. To implement these improvements, we'll need to avoid the impulsive and shallow commitments that have too often characterized IT investments in the past. What we'll need instead is the "slow trigger, fast bullet" approach.