Bloomberg Business Week: Jonathan Alter's Checklist for Change

August 23rd, 2012

Bloomberg Business Week
August 23, 2012
By, Jonathan Alter


Anyone who has ever tried to change something knows about committee hell. That’s when people in a meeting talk in circles for an hour or three and feel they’ve accomplished something when they manage to schedule the next meeting.

Occasionally, a charismatic leader can bust through the bull and make things happen by force of will. More often, an effective leader—in any sector—develops a strategy, analyzes the culture of his organization, handles the ever-present politics—then identifies other committed “change-makers” willing to help. That means creating ad hoc teams. If the project is humming, these become teams of teams.

In the U.S., broad change usually originates with social movements, which are often years or even generations ahead of the politicians. Think of movements for abolition, prohibition, labor, women’s and civil rights, tax cuts, and dozens of other causes.

Narrow, specific change—especially at the local level—is on a much shorter time horizon. But whether it’s a movement to save the planet or to save cans and bottles for a local recycling drive, the process always begins with a tiny group of like-minded citizens sitting in a room (or chat room) somewhere.

For 20-plus years, I’ve covered large- and small-scale change in both government and the citizen sector (a better term than nonprofit) and learned a thing or two about the process of actually getting stuff done. Here are a few do’s and don’ts that might help separate the change-makers from the time-servers.

Do call yourself a team instead of a committee. It’s not a trivial distinction. “On a basketball team, the only goal is getting the ball into the basket and keeping the other side from doing so. You’re not playing chess on the side,” says Bill Drayton, founder of the Ashoka Foundation, a global association of 3,000 highly successful social entrepreneurs. On a team, everyone has to take initiative, stay relentlessly focused, and, in certain situations, lead. Nobody is scrolling through a BlackBerry. The same can’t be said for a committee.

Do build the team with volunteers. Meetings should usually include only those inside the agency or organization who volunteer to help achieve a narrowly defined goal, not those who supposedly need to be there because of where they sit in the pecking order. Titles and hierarchy should be almost meaningless. To test the commitment of participants, meetings might even be scheduled occasionally on nights or weekends, with no overtime. Nobody will get in trouble for not showing because the boss isn’t there and a promotion doesn’t depend on taking part. But those who do come will be present for the right reasons. Passion must trump position to get things cracking.

Do create competition. Business is set up for internal competition between units, with profit margins as the way to keep score. Now, public officials are increasingly adopting “managed competition” to see which model delivers services better. For example, Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation dramatically reduced its absenteeism when it was pitted against Waste Management (WM). If the bake-offs are seen as fair, they can leverage change quickly.

Don’t tolerate Debbie Downers. There are two types of people in any organization—those who tell you why something can’t be done and those who tell you how it can. From the outset, any team member who introduces obstacles to moving forward—no matter how legitimate—should couple the description of the obstacles with a plan for overcoming them.

Don’t “reorganize.” Any time the boss announces a reorganization plan, huge amounts of energy get wasted resisting it. The stove-piping that hampers so many bureaucracies can’t be busted on paper, only in practice. Organization charts only matter in organizations that aren’t nimble and effective in the first place.

Don’t make the Xerox mistake. For years, Xerox (XRX) was one of the world’s great innovators. Its famous Xerox PARC research lab did as much as any institution to develop the Internet and touchscreen technology. But the company was so fixated on improving copiers that it didn’t know what it had. Xerox managers wanted to make change but weren’t receptive enough to the change under way all around them. The same goes for many organizations built by social entrepreneurs. They wither when the founder moves on. If you “design for change” instead of for repetition, as Drayton puts it, the organization more often adapts and thrives.

“Change is hard,” Barack Obama reminded audiences long before taking office. It’s especially hard when people expect it to be delivered from above. The country has been conditioned to expect a deus ex machina—a god lowered by a crane into our midst to untangle our problems.

That Roman god is us, sitting in our little groups, working the problems, from a “Grand Bargain” worth trillions to what to do about the faulty stoplight down by the Piggly Wiggly. Americans have always been a resourceful people, hard-wired to renew and refresh our institutions. We will do so again.

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