13 October 2014

Creating the conditions for change

Dr. Hans Gutbrod (@HansGutbrod) responded to "What can a California state employee do to fight corrupt policy" with some excellent advice:

"I read with great interest your post on the state employee who says that his organization is going around in circles, and who was wondering about how to change things. The question resonated, since I have been involved in a number of situations that required a degree of turnaround. Most of them worked well, though I learned even more from those that failed spectacularly.

I would recommend two books to your correspondent. One is John Kotter, who has written about how to lead change. He suggests an eight step process. This may sound formulaic, but when I looked back at cases of successful change and compare them with cases where the change did not succeed, the comparison lined up rather well with the eight steps that Kotter describes. To initiate change, according to Kotter, you need (1) a sense of urgency and (2) a guiding coalition. As your correspondent describes it, there is not yet any such sense of urgency, and one had the impression that he was relatively isolated. Those are key things that need to be addressed, and Kotter has a number of suggestions on how that can be done.

Note that it obviously is not a formula for guaranteed success. I once found myself in charge of a big project where things were going terribly, in which a key client was telling me that they were unhappy, but where the organization I had just joined was unwilling to change, and my supervisors expressly instructed me not to talk about a crisis, or aspects of a crisis. There was no sense of urgency. I still tried to build a guiding coalition but a power struggle higher in the organization made that difficult. Ultimately Kotter's steps illustrated that the basic preconditions for change were not in place. This in turn was useful, as you do not want to continue spending your lifetime in places that refuse to change. (I departed a few weeks later. The key client indeed stopped working with the organization.)

The second book that is worth reading, even if it is written for the mass market, is "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" by the brothers Heath. The authors do an excellent job of highlighting a number of approaches to change, including the focus on the bright spots: where are things already working that could be expanded further. Another interesting aspect they mention (again, it is for the mass market) is the need to "find the feeling". They describe someone at a large firm who wants to streamline purchasing, and has absolutely no success in doing so – until she puts, on a single table, all the gloves that the company has purchased with respective prize tags. Executives review the pile of gloves, realize the disparity in quality, and how sometimes the same kind of gloves seems to have widely varying prices. They recognize that they have a problem, and that it is worth streamlining all the purchasing.

So a vivid and salient illustration of how bad things really are matters. This has also been the experience in my latest project. There has been, for some time, a concern about how policy research is being funded, and how some of that funding remains opaque. Influenced in part by the considerations above (and other research that showed that improvement often comes from wanting to catch up with your peers) we set up Transparify, an initiative to assess how transparent think tanks are about who funds them. We used a simple and robust method to assess 150+ institutions from around the world. Through the five-star rating system, institutions could compare how they were doing in relation to others. In other words, we made transparency transparent. We also gave institutions an option to improve their rating, which many think tanks decided to pursue.

The effort was more successful than we had anticipated, with many institutions engaging positively with an effort that (as someone at a major institution said) essentially "came out of nowhere". We were lucky in our timing (there already was a sense of urgency out there) and we did find good partners (the guiding coalition). More could be said, but the brief sketch illustrates the approach.

Using some of these approaches, I think it should be possible for your correspondent to come up with a strategy, adapted to the very specific situation he or she is in. If your correspondent finds that things cannot be changed from within (by the criteria), then that is also a good indication that it is time to tackle the issue from another perspective, and potentially from another institution."


  1. Dear Dr. Gutbrod,

    Thank you for time, interest, an insight. I'm looking forward to reading your suggestions. All the replies and interest in the original post have been very encouraging and energizing.

  2. Well, good luck! Change typically begins with one person gathering others...


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