Best practices for reorganizing and transforming agencies

By Chris Cox | August 25, 2020

Through our work with federal agencies, we frequently see common management challenges that hinder mission performance. They include:

  • Outdated and ineffective end-to-end talent management systems.
  • Absence of comprehensive, career-long leadership development programs.
  • Outdated and siloed organizational structures.
  • Difficulties adopting innovation and new mission-enabling technologies. 
  • Lack of delegated authority to support streamlined decision-making and workflow.

Federal leaders have initiated targeted or agencywide transformation efforts to tackle these challenges, and some have produced meaningful organizational change. However, many have not. To help leaders address these challenges, we offer the following that can help drive successful transformations.

  1. Gather and analyze data to assess and prioritize organizational needs. Before committing to a significant transformation effort, speak with leaders from both inside and outside the organization to gather their input on what needs to change. You may find that the input from those outside your organization is just as valuable as input from those internally. Also, spend generous time gathering data from the agency’s workforce across disciplines and ranks. Employees know and will tell you what needs to get fixed. And be sure to look beyond just shifting organizational lines – organizational culture, leadership, strategy, governance, technology and other key areas may reveal the more urgent need for change.                        
  2. Support and engagement from top leadership is essential. Senior leaders must invest significant time and energy setting clear expectations and promoting the change throughout the organization, otherwise it’s difficult to achieve meaningful transformational change. It’s also important to identify your organization’s top influencers and enlist their help in both formal and informal ways.
  3. Change management is a full-time job. The initial assessment group and the team responsible for implementing their recommendations should comprise full-time, cross-discipline leaders whom employees respect. Trusted career leaders may be exceptional in their professional discipline but may not bring the right expertise in organizational transformation. So it’s important to assign, hire or contract the right expertise to guide the effort, identify transformation best practices and support planning and implementation.
  4. Put the right leaders in the right positions. For new leadership roles, choose a diverse group of leaders who will bring an “enterprise” mindset, putting mission and organization above personal or office-specific interests. You should take into account gender, race, ethnicity and professional discipline to build a team that reflects the agency workforce, which will help build trust and support for the change.    
  5. Be patient—it’s going to take time. Change is disruptive. Prior to rolling out the changes, set the conditions for success by spending time to ensure leaders, key stakeholders and other internal and external bodies of influence understand what organizational changes are being put into place and why. Some employees will get on board quickly, while many others will take more time. Understand who makes up the dominant culture in the organization, as they may be especially resistant to the change. Include them in the transformation process and celebrate their wins, ideas and efforts to garner their support.
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. A transformational change expert once said, “communicate until you begin to feel sick, then you’ll know you’ve just begun communicating.” It’s important to explain why the changes are happening throughout the effort. Keep internal communications brief and speak in plain language. Consider sharing the most significant updates in person to field questions and provide clarity. Stay connected to the workforce with discussions, pulse surveys and other feedback channels, and adjust your messaging based on the common themes that emerge. Be prepared to address employees’ concerns about what will happen to them, such as possible changes to their supervisors, assignments and promotion opportunities.

And in the end, leading a large, complex organizational change to enhance your department’s performance will be difficult, yet it will also be one of the most rewarding jobs you will ever have. If you have any questions about this article or organizational change in general, please email me at ccox@ourpublicservice.org.

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Chris Cox