'Be unreasonable': making change happen in a bureaucracy

By David Donaldson

November 28, 2017

Change inevitably triggers resistance.

Niccolò Machiavelli knew it, writing all the way back in 1513:

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than an attempt to introduce innovations. For the leader in the introduction of changes will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

Attracting naysayers is a good sign you’re actually making a difference, says Sally Curtain, strategic director for customer focus and innovation at Victoria’s largest council, the City of Casey.

“I’m almost worried when everything’s fine. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but I can assure you that if people aren’t complaining, they’re not changing,” she told last week’s ‘Making bureaucracy agile: MBA in a day’ event in Melbourne.

“Basically you protect your people who are doing the work. So my job as an exec is absolutely to lead from the front, hold back the naysayers.”

How can you avoid resistance derailing important changes?

“You have to be unreasonable,” says Curtain, who was a key figure in setting up the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, and has led Casey’s IT team in completing 16 service projects over the past year.

“In organisations and in cultures we can get along with everyone — I’ve never done that,” she explained.

Sally Curtain.

“It’s finding the right line where you’re not pissing people off, but you’re also moving forward and staying true to yourself and what you know, and what you can change.

“So putting yourself out there, not accepting the status quo. Nothing ever changes from being reasonable, so you need to be a little bit unreasonable to get the change through.”

You also need to know what you’re doing: do your research and be articulate in prosecuting your case. Be “change fit” — keep your skills up by being involved in reform projects on a regular basis. And convince executives to focus on the value produced by your proposal, rather than the cost.

Delivering on promises is a good way to get buy-in, so start small and work your way up. Don’t start out your next project with fanfare, she says — “it’s a trap”. Results will generate word-of-mouth.

Consider how to appeal to constituencies based on their interests.

“Always think about: people in the public service are driven by community, so find the thing that’s common, not the thing that’s different,” thinks Curtain.

If you’re reforming services, that means emphasising how the changes will improve things for customers.

And although being in a senior position can make it easier to push change, more junior staff can be effective too. Finding supporters and sponsors certainly helps, she says.

“I did do that in my past as well … I had people around me who believed in me, and made me believe I could do things I had no idea I could do.

“As much as I had my own interest and passion for improving things for people … I had people who helped me see that and supported me when I had good ideas. And it just takes one or two to support you.”

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