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The Public Manager Magazine Article

Conquering Culture Change

The federal government is wrought with continuous change. How can agencies foster a culture that is more creative, flexible, and adaptable than ever before?

By and

Mon Jan 11 2016


Culture change takes commitment and buy-in.

The federal government is wrought with continuous change—revolving administrations, shifting stakeholders, expanding missions, and fluctuating budgets. To excel in this environment, agencies must foster a culture that is more creative, flexible, and adaptable than ever before. Cultivating a team of innovators and developing a shared understanding of the case for change can go a long way toward helping agency leaders better execute organizational change.

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Beth Beck

Open Innovation Program Manager Office of Chief Information Officer, NASA

Growing Seeds of Change

The federal bureaucracy is like an ancient tree, with deep and wide roots, thick branches, and rings of experience that tell of its ability to weather leadership extremes. This "BureaucraTree" (as I like to call it) may sway to the left or right, depending on the prevailing political winds, but it always settles back to center. Schedule C gardeners can prune its foliage, but sprouts in unsuspecting places can grow unnoticed into thickets of twisted rules and regulations. No doubt, bureaucracy can thwart change, but it also can shelter seedlings of innovation.

As an innovator and 30-year bureaucrat, I know well the jagged contours of our complex federal ecosystem. I have scars that bear witness to all the times I've entangled myself in a thorny thicket. Yet, each experience also taught me to acknowledge the steadfast—and sometimes inflexible or uncompromising—nature of bureaucracy. I've learned to respect the federal environment as a living, breathing creature.

Creating change in this sort of complex system requires new eyes and new solutions to leverage resources. Rather than bemoan how the bureaucracy gets in the way of progress, our challenge is to climb around, under, and over the cracked and brittle limbs of status quo and sow seeds of change.


No shift can happen, however, without engaging the stakeholders—those bureaucrats who must implement change. The federal bureaucracy is a relational ecosystem of human beings, who operate within organizations through complicated interrelationships of expertise, experience, and expectations. Here are a few tips for cultivating fertile soil so change can take root and flourish.

Build a change brain trust. Identify innovators and early adopters in your organization. Yes, they exist—even in a bureaucracy. Bring them into a conversation of change to build credibility in the design, and spread new ideas within their spheres

of influence.

Don't give "no" a chance to sprout. Identify potential naysayers, road-blockers, and saboteurs. Think of ways to wrap your new product or process in terms of how it alleviates their pain points. Wrap your change around their pain, and show them a new way to save the day.

Prototype your way to success—in stealth mode. New programs threaten status quo, but change that is packaged as prototypes often goes unnoticed. Once your prototype succeeds, the harder it is to squash. And, it's in our nature to chase after success. While bureaucrats are busy replicating your success, set up your next prototype.


No matter how you feel about the federal government, we exist to protect our citizens and bring about public good. Can we do a better job? Absolutely. If we're clever, excellence will bud on our unwieldy branches, and we'll build tree houses with bird's eye views of the world around us. Indeed, the blossoms of change happen when we leverage existing assets to transform the stale into fresh, old into new, ho-hum into awesome.

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William R. Dougan

National President, National Federation of Federal Employees Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Plotting a Course for Culture Change

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire is one of four government-run naval shipyards in the United States. In 2009, it found itself dead last among its counterparts with respect to costs and time spent in dry dock associated with maintenance done on the nuclear submarines that make up the business at Portsmouth. Every submarine that came into Portsmouth for maintenance and upgrades took longer and cost more to complete than was budgeted for in work project plans.

Dissatisfied with the state of affairs, employees, managers and the unions came together to change the culture. They all recognized that significant changes in the culture and work processes were needed to accomplish the shipyard's mission.

So they collectively crafted a "Declaration of Excellence," which lays out a vision and the guiding principles for the shipyard and its workforce. It is a statement of values, beliefs, and attitudes that the workforce should strive for to achieve "continuous improvement of the service to our nation." This Declaration of Excellence offers a personal choice, providing each worker the option to strive to be the perfect shipyard worker and contribute to the perfect shipyard workday. It represents a collective commitment to strive for excellence and to be part of something bigger than the individual.

While words on paper may look and sound impressive, the Declaration of Excellence by itself was not capable of making the changes necessary to turn the shipyard around. Management and the unions came up with the idea of placing whiteboards on a wall in every building on the shipyard where work is performed.

The purpose was to provide a place for workers to write down ideas for changing work processes to save time and money or ideas to make the work safer.

Ideas posted on the boards were collected and reviewed by a joint labor-management group and those deemed to have merit were implemented. This has led to significant improvements in how work is accomplished within all workgroups, whether they are pipe fitters, welders, electricians, or one of the other many groups of skilled workers that comprise the shipyard workforce. The whiteboards give workers the opportunity to become innovators in re-engineering work processes.

One significant training innovation suggested by workers was the implementation of "mock-ups" for testing new work processes and for training employees on performing work. Submarine models (or mock-ups) are built for specific workgroups to use in training new employees and to test out new ideas for performing work. Working off the notion that it is better to make mistakes on models than on real submarines, these mock-ups provide laboratories for workers to gain needed skills so that once work progresses on the actual submarine, the chance for errors is greatly diminished.

The above is only a small snapshot of the overall cultural change that has occurred since 2009 at the Portsmouth shipyard. While this effort continues to evolve and adapt, the initial results are impressive: In a five-year period, Portsmouth has gone from the bottom to the top in government shipyard rankings. Now, every submarine that comes in for maintenance leaves ahead of schedule and under budget, resulting in millions of dollars of annual savings and ensuring the nation's submarine fleet remains on the job keeping the United States safe.

As this example illustrates, it is possible to implement significant changes to both organizational culture and work processes within government agencies. However, it is not easy work and it does require time. Results do not happen overnight and significant organizational changes can take years to fully implement.

Leadership must be willing to accept those timeframes and commit sufficient resources to implement the changes for that extended period of time. And the most critical requirement for successfully managing change is an engaged workforce and leadership throughout all levels of the organization. Organizations willing to make the investments necessary to effectively manage change position themselves to remain competitive. They retain the ability to adapt and evolve despite the uncertainty all organizations face in the future.

This is an excerpt from "Organizational Evolution Requires Successful Change," an article published in the December 2015 issue of TD magazine.

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