| When I talk with project
managers the question I get, perhaps more than any other,
sounds like this: "I want to do things differently, but
my boss is just not receptive. What can I do?" That question
is always troubling to me because I have no ready answer.
Certainly people clinging to the status quo resent
change and, oftentimes, the advocate of change too.
This is so everywhere, but especially in Government,
where an aversion to managerial risk abounds; plus,
in Government, there is often a greater premium put
on not failing than there is on truly doing something
So what do I say? One answer is, of course, to "go-with-the-flow."
Many project managers choose this course because it's
easier, less frustrating or less risky to them personally
than being an advocate for change. For those whom the
status quo is unacceptable, I have some thoughts that
they might find useful.
|If you can't
muster the courage to stay until the bitter end,
then don't pick the fight!
Persistence pays off
Don't give up right away if your boss rejects your brave
new idea for change. Repackage it differently and have
another go. One successful approach I have found is
to add an "escape provision" to the proposal. Show your
boss how, if your idea begins to go awry, that you can
revert to the status quo without a major catastrophe
Another approach that can work is to show your boss
how championing your idea will personally benefit him.
Most often this means illustrating how implementing
it will make him look good to his bosses. Tie your idea
to the coat tails of some speech, document or policy
emanating from the agency's senior leadership. Another
suggestion is to shower your boss with detailed analysis
about why your idea will produce a better outcome than
clinging to the status quo. Such an analysis may be
nothing more than quantitative speculation but can be
persuasive. Unfortunately, many managers, especially
those coming from scientific or engineering backgrounds,
do not trust intuition or judgment as a basis for decision-making.
Analysis works for them especially if there are numbers.
Besides, if you have a lot of supporting analyses, your
boss will know that you are earnest about your idea.
Finally, it really helps in selling your idea to a reluctant
boss when you can drum up some allies or collaborators.
These cannot be just anyone, but persons whom your boss
is likely to find credible. Many bosses will resist any
new idea coming from one person but will begin to embrace
it when others also tout it as "good." It's called the
"bandwagon effect," and it often works to good effect.
|"Hot Shot" lithograph
by Robert Rauschenberg depicts the Space Shuttle.
Click image for closer view.
I would be derelict here if I didn't point out that
being persistent in the face of bureaucratic obstacles
implies being courageous. Challenges to the status quo
threaten many people, their sense of self-worth, their
belief that what they are doing is important, and, in
some cases, their jobs. When bureaucrats feel threatened
they fight rather than flee. The fight almost surely
will be a relentless street fight where ad hominem
attacks, whisper campaigns, and email wars are the norm.
Commonly, those who feel threatened by change use the
"chicken little" tactic, whereby they tout the worst
imaginable outcome of a change as the most likely outcome.
It takes true fortitude and passion for the agent of
change to keep from withering in the face of fire. If
you can't muster the courage to stay until the bitter
end, then don't pick the fight!
Selectively challenging the status quo
at small changes, I have gained the credibility
necessary to take a crack at larger changes.
In all our organizations there are doubtless many processes,
practices and policies that need changing. My natural
tendencies are to either go after them all in hopes of
winning one or two, or to single out those that appear
to offer the most promise for a dramatic improvement.
Both approaches are probably doomed to fail. Challenging
everything at once marks you as a "Don Quixote," someone
who tilts at every windmill and is simply a dreamer. In
short, you appear to lack credibility and no one takes
The second situation, identifying those changes that
would seem to offer the most improvement, is sinister
in its allure. The problem is that such changes are
likely to be the hardest to implement. In some cases
they may involve statutory changes that are near impossible
to make happen at any reasonable time. Look for what's
doable -- changes where the decision authority is clear
cut -- changes where it will be easy to secure influential
allies -- changes that can be implemented fairly quickly
without having to get everyone and his brother to approve
-- changes that have some sort of precedent.
I've seen my own power to affect change grow over time.
By succeeding at small changes, I have gained the credibility
necessary to take a crack at larger changes. I admit it's
tough to be patient, but in the long run patience pays
to believe that getting approval to do something
different is the end of the battle. Not so! It's
only the beginning.
Focus on execution
Any proposal for change can generate endless debate
and consume enormous energy when deciding whether it
is a good idea or not. As the advocate it's tempting
to believe that getting approval to do something different
is the end of the battle. Not so! It's only the beginning.
I have seen a lot of change proposals that seemingly
were good ideas turn into disasters after the wheels
came off during implementation. A few years ago I proposed
to make past performance the most important factor in
a big-dollar source selection of offerors. I knew it
made eminent sense and resented that it was such a tough
fight to get "the system" to agree. It was a major mindset
change to have a factor other than cost or technical
as most important. Nonetheless, after extensive dialog
I won the battle, but as we got into actually doing
the evaluation it quickly became apparent that I had
vastly underestimated the complexity of doing what I
Truly, "the devil was in the details." I had become
so enchanted by the philosophical need for the change
that I failed to come to grips with the pragmatic aspects
of implementing it. What pulled us through were sheer
doggedness and some luck.
Ultimately the test of whether a challenge to the
status quo is a move forward or backward is not resolved
by debate; results are what matter. And make no mistake,
if you challenge the status quo it follows that you
must be accountable for and own the results, good or
bad. If you can't do that, then keep quiet. Our system
has more than enough critics willing to whine about
the status quo but unwilling to accept accountability
for the results.
Little is in the civil service with the Department
of the Air Force, where he has been a program manager
for five major defense acquisition efforts. As a
civilian employee, he has been an operations research
analyst, a program director for a classified program,
a deputy program director for both a large, multiple-program
office and a Navy-led joint program office, and
a weapons development planning manager.