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Leaders Offer Insights into Change Management in Public Sector

State CIO Liana Bailey-Crimmins and HiPER Solutions CEO David Morris agree that the keys to success in managing change and projects include vision, planning, leadership, trust and teamwork.

How leaders can drive and manage change effectively in some of state government’s largest departments is a complex question. It calls for vision, planning, leadership and teamwork.

That’s the assessment of a panel of experts who presented a webinar recently on “Leadership Strategies to Drive Organizational Change,” a presentation hosted by the Center for Digital Government* (CDG) and sponsored by HiPER Solutions. The session was moderated by Teri Takai, a former California state chief information officer and currently senior vice president of CDG. Participants were state CIO and California Department of Technology Director Liana Bailey-Crimmins and David Morris, CEO of HiPER, a San Francisco-based consultancy that works extensively with state and local governments, among other clients.
Liana Bailey-Crimmins
Liana Bailey-Crimmins

“The challenge is, we know that many technology projects fail, not because the technology doesn’t work, but because we haven’t really thought through the organizational changes,” Takai said. “And we see that there’s resistance as we bring in new technologies because individuals are worried about how that’s going to change their jobs. But clearly, with the right leadership structure and strategies, state and local government transformations can happen.”

Bailey-Crimmins offered three tips that she’s developed over her career in state government:
  • “Stakeholders need to be at the table, not just … during the user acceptance testing. It’s pretty important that they get to be a part of prototyping and looking at the design of the screens, and talking through the workflows.”
  • “Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. When I was in Correctional Health Care, we had moved all these images onto the computer. But when I went out to an institution and sat and watched a dentist utilize the new system, what I saw was that he was drilling on a patient’s mouth, and he was wiggling the mouse with his foot — not the ideal thing to do when someone’s working in your mouth as a dentist. Afterwards, I said, ‘Why were you wiggling your foot?’ and he said, ‘Technology does such a great job; they put all these great images on the computer. But there’s a security policy that if you don’t log in or use the system for every so many minutes, it locks up. And so I kept moving the mouse with my foot.’”
  • “My last tip for everyone is that we hear about ‘fail fast.’ I don’t necessarily like that model; I believe ‘learn fast.’ It’s about how you have iterative wins. When you have the stakeholders at the table, you can make incremental pivots to make sure that you’re all heading in the right direction. We like to build, we know how the technology is going to be able to utilize all this functionality, and then we give it back to the business and say, ‘Aren’t you really happy with this gift that I gave you?’ And if you don’t really think about organizational change things — the gift that you think they’re receiving — they may not see it exactly the way you see it. So learn fast. Optimize a process before you automate a process.”

David Morris.JPG
David Morris
Takai asked panelists about the different approaches state technology leaders take to bring in stakeholders and increase stakeholder adoption.

Said Morris: “We look at it initially through the lens of the executive sponsor, and we’re seeing change across private and public sector is happening more now than ever; everything is being digitized. And where we’re seeing really successful projects is when the executive sponsor is able to create alignment upfront — across the vendors, the stakeholders, and bringing in a very strong project leader. It’s really about prudent planning upfront and getting the alignment. If you can double down on the alignment upfront, then once you go execute these projects, they happen a lot faster and with fewer moving pieces.

“How do you work with your executive sponsors? … What we call ‘upstream change management’ is right at the beginning: Get the stakeholders involved, and choose the right project director based on that team — someone that people like to follow. Especially with a lot of remote work now, [you want] someone who’s good at influencing from a distance. And then on the vendor front, how does the vendor become part of the extended team? Because we’ve seen system integrators be extremely successful and all of a sudden it almost feels like they’re integrated with the team. Everyone is connected and going in the same direction. But upstream … you get the executive sponsor aligned with everyone upfront, rather than having to do it on the back end.”

Bailey-Crimmins warned against over-reliance on vendors: “The vendor is not going to solve all of our problems for us. We have to be a part of the journey, as well,” she said. “So how do you transition? How do you start weaning yourself off? One of the things we did successfully was sit down with the vendor, and they started being in the backseat and focusing on the knowledge transfer that was required. It was basically state staff taking it over, and the vendor was there in order to assist them to be successful, versus feeling like we were completely reliant.”

Morris cited the importance of developing relationships and trust at the very beginning of a project.

“Blind spots are ultimately the biggest risk,” he said. “So if you can have the relationships upfront, you can turn some of your biggest critics into your advocates. Really developing those relationships upfront, so they proactively will come with you, is key. And No. 2 … is really about personal responsibility. It’s not about outsourcing the risk. … With a growth mindset, you have very high odds of success.”

He said there’s an additional benefit to having an executive leader work with and get to know the technologists at the staff level.

“One of the great opportunities that executive sponsors have when working on these projects is to really observe talent, maybe a few levels down … and how they rise to the occasion. It’s great for succession; it’s great for figuring out who’s going to lead your next project. So there’s a lot of byproduct we find effectively from a project, other things you get out of it. And I think sourcing great talent is a big one.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, parent company of Industry Insider — California.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C.