How should federal leaders deal with change?

The place to start with your own team is to get over moaning about the problems. It's not just the government. Everybody does that. You're trying to create a sense of urgency for the change, not around the little pitter-patter stuff that's happening every day, but around a big opportunity for the agency or organization. Focus on what it demands from Congress or constituencies. Where is the big opportunity for doing something that makes sense in light of our mission and what we personally care about? It takes strong feelings to make something challenging happen.

How should leaders engage employees during times of change?

Don’t just assign a task force of employees to work on the change effort. Ask people from all across the organization to volunteer to be part of the group that leads it. For this “guiding coalition” you want the idealist with a good reputation and relationships in different parts of the organization. Some other members might have expertise in technical aspects of what you're doing. If you're geographically spread out, you want somebody from each area, and you want young and old. You need diversity to help the overall group become the center of any big change effort. One client of mine put together a team to come up with 100 ideas to get the organization rolling. It’s amazing how many ideas they came up with in this one-day meeting.

As this group of volunteers makes progress, displays more confidence and has evidence something real is being achieved, that will help bring along some of the more skeptical employees who didn’t believe something significant was possible.

How can federal leaders motivate employees during a major transformation?

Set up mechanisms to help these volunteers spread the message. We worked with a division of the U.S. Army and helped them put together volunteers on an “urgency team” – this is a cross-functional group that helps senior leaders communicate the organization’s opportunity and get buy-in from everyone to help achieve it. People on this team aren’t necessarily powerful in the hierarchy of the organization, but they’re considered leaders by their peers.

The Army team used all kinds of techniques. We created kits for supervisors to help them understand how to talk about the big opportunity. The urgency team created inspiring videos with messages about the change effort that were played in meetings, on an Army cable channel and an intranet site they created.  We wanted the creative juices to flow so people would get excited and help others get excited. We didn’t want to have a flip-chart session about strategy and plans. We wanted to exponentially increase the sense of urgency in the organization around its one big opportunity.

What are the benefits of change?

The wonderful thing about change is it’s both a good news and a bad news story. The bad news is, if you don't see it, you don't react to it or handle it well and then you've got six bullets in you. The good news is that change always opens opportunities to do things that you personally care about that relate to the organization’s mission. With no change, the system is stable. In a perfectly stable system, there are no windows of opportunity opening out there.

What errors do organizations make during times of change?

The number one error is that people don’t know the right methods to use today – they don’t know what they don’t know. That’s the killer. Change is happening today in a more rapidly moving world with much more uncertainty and volatility. People think they know what the change game is all about because they worked on an initiative six years ago, but it’s a different game now.

Have you seen major change occur in government?

Yes. In one government organization we advised, we were told nothing had changed since about 1957. They were being hammered by Washington to increase their development and deployment of trained employees by 25 percent, among other things. They'd spent a year making all kinds of incremental improvements and increased it by about 2 percent with lots of excuses why you couldn't go faster than 50 miles an hour because of the fundamental nature of what they did. After 18 months they eliminated this “braking system,” if you will. They're up to 25 percent even though they thought that was impossible. For the first time, they've got people talking about how it is possible to make relatively dramatic changes and get results, like reducing the training backlog, not over ten years but over two.

What advice do you have for the mid-level managers who often feel powerless to effect change?

Don’t get pessimistic. Talk about what you think the big opportunities are for your organization in every meeting, even ones about mundane things. Look each day for even a little thing you can do to push the agenda along. It’s hard to lead by yourself, so get others involved; make it a group effort. Once things start rolling, the key thing you can do from the middle or the bottom is stick up your hand and say, "I'm in the game coach, if you want me."

Read John Kotter’s recent oped for On Leadership: The debt ceiling time bomb, and Washington’s complacency cancer

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