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Strategies for Change

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Once a demand is made, it must gain access to the formal decision-making system if it is to become a change in policy or program. Key here is a sympathetic “gate-keeper,” a person or group who can put the demand on the authorities’ agenda. Without a supportive gatekeeper, demanders must be powerful enough to break the gate down and be willing to take that risk. Committee and task-force chairpersons and upper level managers and members of the C-suite can play gate-keeping roles concerning demands for policy change. Once on the agenda, the demand gets deliberated. It is studied and debated, often modified or changed, usually by an executive or some committee. If it survives this buffeting, it emerges as a formulated proposal for change which then gets reviewed, modified, revised, reduced and in general worked over by all the persons or groups concerned about its potential impact on their vested interests.

Will this new program or product gain our department more attention, more autonomy, more status, more funding? Or is this program or product likely to have the opposite impact? Is it likely to attract more customers or are we likely to lose customers? Usually, coalitions of interest will form pro and con. Compromises are made to get some decision through. Much of the debate may focus on the proposal’s soundness of reason and evidence, but savvy observers know that the issue is who gets what coveted “goodies.” Important to the survival of change proposals in this river of nibbling piranhas are the persistent efforts of highly influential “issues sponsors” who are determined to carry the change through. Without such determined advocates, the status quo powers will defeat any change attempt.

In most organizations, change proposals can take the short route if the demander is a president or CEO who goes ahead and exercises formal authority to set policy, or it may take the long route by moving up the hierarchy or through layer upon layer of committees. In either case, the outcome is not yet change. It is an authoritative decision to change. Now comes the problem of making it stick. Usually, an executive instructs organizational units and individuals to carry out the new idea or behavior. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the Political model breaks down in implementation unless that executive can force units and individuals to comply, identify whether or not they are complying, and get rid of noncompliants. The formal authorities turn out not to be the real authorities. Departments and employees (accountants, engineers, information technologists, etc.) in many contemporary organizations have considerable autonomy—illustrated brilliantly in the “Dilbert” cartoons of Scott Adams. If these autonomous “experts” do not like a new policy or program, they often can avoid serious implementation and, meanwhile, build a new coalition to get the policy rescinded or program dropped. The process is not one of open collaboration seeking consensus. It is instead a constant struggle for control. Losers of today’s battles do not give up. They mount a new demand.

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