In a recent interview with the Source, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. described some of the longstanding organizational challenges facing the territory’s government, which we discussed in last week’s column. As they say, now comes the hard part.
What do you do?
Helping to find workable solutions means putting yourself in the place of the decision-maker and trying to understand the constraints that go with being governor of a small place. Being small is a plus in the sense that the leader is close to the points at which change has to take place. The problem is that those who are most affected, initially in negative ways by being forced to change, are also close. Unlike a giant corporation where people – and their families – being laid off or facing some other change become an abstraction, in the smaller place, they are neighbors, people whose kids you know and who you may run into on the street. Anyone wondering why “they” don’t “do something” needs to understand this reality.
Then, there is the second problem, the shortage of nongovernmental jobs that provide the kind of year-round security that working for the government does. In a number of ways, the problems the governor described are the inevitable outcomes of a long-term process in which public service agencies become a jobs program and the agencies’ mission and goals get crowded out by the needs and desires of its employees. This is hardly a Virgin Islands problem, as anyone who has dealt with a motor vehicles or tax agency in any state knows, but it is an easier trap to fall into in a more seasonal, tourism-based economy.
So, what do you do? How do you change longstanding practices, which – despite their negative consequences – are seen as “just the way we do things here?” The first kiss of death in situations like this is telling someone or some group what they “should” do and “here is why you should do it,” the standard approach of the so-called outside expert. The second is to throw up your hands and say it’s all hopeless, the “we tried that, it didn’t work” line. It’s not, and “we” didn’t try it.
Here is a list of options and approaches that have proven successful in similar circumstances, beginning with an acknowledgement that change is hard, and the forces of resistance are always ready to resist.
Number One: It’s all about execution. Strategy is easy, execution is hard, especially in a change-resistant environment. But execution is the key to success. In a basic sense, execution – the discipline of getting things done – is success. And we know it’s possible because there are all kinds of examples. Going back to the governor’s interview, here is a starting point, a “checklist” and an equation. Success equals a clear and achievable strategy plus the right people in the right jobs plus basic systems and work processes that function well plus norms and behaviors of high performance, accountability and support for work well done plus usable information plus effective communications plus implementation tools. When you can answer “yes” to “Do we have all of these?” you have a successful and healthy organization.
Number Two: Have a vision. Start with a vision of a better future, including the visible and measurable positive impacts of change, instead of a list of problems. The vision is not some soft pie-in-the-sky stuff, but a clear operational description of the future we want. In this case, the original “we” would be the governor, his staff, the heads of the territory’s agencies and other community leaders. Describing this vision is also a litmus test of buy-in/change resistance among the leaders of agencies and a good time to make clear that this is a commitment and not a consensus process. That is, get on board with what we decide because we are going to do this.
Number Three: It’s a process. John Kotter is the recognized authority on this kind of change, and for good reason. His approach works and has stood the test of time. Here is a summary of Kotter’s nine-stage process:
1) Create a sense of urgency. The governor, through his interview and related actions has begun that process.
2) Form a powerful coalition for change. This coalition will include agency heads and community leaders who commit to an action agenda that will require facing opposition.
3) Create the vision for change described above.
4) Communicate that vision. This is a far-reaching, complex and important step involving reaching down to the supervisory and line worker level in agencies and focusing on performance rather than “feel good” themes.
5) Remove obstacles. This will be the hard one in two ways. One will be getting individuals who try to undermine the changes out of the way. They will get some sympathy. They don’t deserve it. But moving them out of the way plays an important role in making it clear that this is serious. As a leader once said to me, at this early stage, “I have to take a life.” She didn’t mean literally, but it only took one dismissal of a passive-aggressive naysayer to convince everyone that this change was going to happen. The other obstacles are going to be institutional, and they need to be addressed in a sustained effort to explain why the status quo is indefensible and to discredit those who defend its bad practices.
6) Get some short-term and highly visible wins. There is a Rapid Change Model that is designed to achieve this goal, one that sends a message that we are serious and we are getting quick results that are part of a larger change process.
7) Build on change. Avoid resting on your laurels, or, after some improvement, thinking “Well, that’s that.” Keep your foot on the gas pedal or whatever they call it in the age of electric vehicles.
8) Anchor the change. Make sure that changes are sticky before moving on.
Number Four: Understand and reinforce what motivates people. Given the inevitable forces of resistance to change, there is a critical need to reinforce the things that motivate people in work. This goes back to the governor’s comment on public service. The big theme is to excite people with the idea that we are making progress here, and that we are doing something that makes our community a better place to live.
It’s also useful to understand that all organizations are dysfunctional. What the governor described in his interview isn’t something specific to the Virgin Islands. Organizations – public and private – are screwed up in different ways, but all for the same reason: people and human nature.
We know that people can also change and build a better future. It is never easy, but the examples of it are everywhere. They are the places that citizens or customers have the greatest respect for, and where people say, “I’m glad I work there,” or “I want to work there,” and, the pinnacle, “I’m proud to work there.” The governor started the territory on the path to being one of those places. The tools and approaches listed above provide one path for getting there.