Spring 2015
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The Public Manager

Mastering Change Management

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Learn how government leaders can execute organizational change better, faster, and with fewer resources.

Organizations everywhere are struggling with an environment of nearly continuous change. This is particularly true in the federal government, where new and expanding missions, increased numbers of stakeholders, and severe resource constraints are forcing agencies—and employees—to be more creative, flexible, and adaptable than ever before.

The ability to manage organizational change has never been more important. Unfortunately, as several of the authors point out in this Forum, this ability remains elusive. To help government leaders with this challenge, each Forum article examines how to better execute organizational change in the federal government from several important perspectives.

Dan G. Blair sets the stage for the discussion in his article, "Change in the Federal Government Is Coming—Are You Prepared?" Drawing on his government-wide perspective as CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), Blair highlights two competing factors that are complicating organizational change in the federal government: "mission creep" and scarce resources.

He notes that good faith efforts by federal agencies to accommodate new missions with decreasing resources are not sustainable in the long term. He suggests that a critical step in managing change is to initiate better government-wide planning that is able to continuously clarify mission priorities.

Allyson B. Coleman and Kate Garvey shift the discussion to a focus on improving the organizational change process. Their article, "Transformational Change Takes Time and Effort," proposes that real transformation in the public sector requires focused attention on "three critical levers of change—human capital, infrastructure, and culture." They note the importance of integrating change efforts across all three levers, and of making fast progress so people can see—and believe—that real change is underway.

Patrina M. Clark continues to focus on the change process by asserting that great performance management is a key component of effective organizational change. In her article, "Bringing Meaningful Change in Performance Management," Clark notes that current performance management processes in the federal government are ineffective in advancing individual and mission performance, and advocates new ways to think about performance management. She also suggests that great performance management is an important factor in creating change readiness.

Peter R. Garber makes organizational change more relevant to the individual federal employee in his article, "Understand Change—Position Yourself to Win." He writes that a big problem with organizational change in the federal government is that the people most affected by it (and most needed for its success) don't understand the reasons for change—and hence, they never fully engage in making the effort successful.

Garber contends that information about organizational change is critical and that federal employees should become more proactive in obtaining this information. He offers "six ways to stay ahead of the information curve."

Meanwhile, Robert M. Tobias discusses the role of leadership in organizational change in his article, "Why Do So Many Organizational Change Efforts Fail?" He asserts that poor leadership is a key reason why federal change efforts under-perform and that managing change better means leading change better.


According to Tobias, great change leadership is more than being persuasive or finding the right words to create urgency. Instead, great change leadership begins with the ability of the leader to personally change. Organizational change leaders who are able to change their own behavior for the sake of their agencies and teams are more than just authentic; these leaders are inspirational.

Building on the themes of leadership and learning, I suggest in my article, "Creating Talent-Enabled Change Leaders," that great change leaders are great talent developers. Talent-enabled change leaders use the opportunity of change to accelerate the development of their teams and build talent capacity for their agencies.

Further, the ability of these change leaders to "reframe" change efforts as opportunities for personal development is a key element in performing change across the federal government. Simply said, managing change better is about developing people better.

Two ideas about managing change in the federal government are present across these articles. First, managing change in an organization as large and dynamic as the federal government is incredibly complex. Second, managing change well is a great opportunity to develop the federal workforce, increase engagement, and improve mission effectiveness.

Federal agencies of the future must be able to do more than manage change; they must be able to use change as fuel for performance improvement.

About the Author

Walter McFarland [RG1] is the founder of Windmill Human Performance and a former senior vice president at Booz|Allen|Hamilton in the areas of learning, HR, and change. Walter’s clients include Global Fortune 500 organizations, international organizations, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations. He was the 2013 Board Chair of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), and was a member of President Obama’s 2012 and 2013 Rank Award Council. He is the co-author of Choosing Change from McGraw-Hill (a Soundview Best Business Book of 2014 and an Axiom Silver Medal Winner); the “Neuroscience of Motivation” in the Handbook of NeuroLeadership (2013); and the “Neuroscience of Learning” in the ASTD Handbook (2014). He can be reached at [email protected].       

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