Our 45th president will be a businessman who promised to change government, and our nation is poised to find out whether change management principles applied in commerce can work in public office. After years of working to change how government works in relation to technology and innovation, I have some hard-learned perspectives.
Changing large organizations is a tough challenge. Most organizations reach a point in their operational history where they lose their way, and their methods no longer provide the profits and growth necessary for survival. The reality in the private sector is that a business must have profitable growth to survive. Growth creates opportunities for employees and wealth for the owners.
The subtext here is highly important. Growth in business creates personal satisfaction for those involved who feel like what they are doing matters, and that their daily activities have consequences. And, conversely, stagnation and decline cause dissatisfaction and accelerate business decline.
To grow a business, impediments such as unproductive employees, products that are no longer compelling, antiquated technology or unappealing working conditions must be removed and overcome. The status quo must be disrupted.
Organizational change requires a few things to succeed. First, a compelling vision for others to follow. Second, a targeted core group of individuals within the organization excited about the shared vision. Third, a way to restructure the environment around employees to reinforce company goals. And, lastly, the ability to encourage those who do not adapt to change to find employment elsewhere. Simply put, you can change an organization by rewarding employees who “get with the program” and trim those who don’t. That is the nature of business.
Massive change of large business organizations is possible. Consider how IBM modified itself from a main frame computer business to a consulting services and software provider. Or, how Netflix went from a DVD rental business to an over-the-top content provider challenging the primacy of traditional networks and cable companies.
However, changing government is a very different thing, with two types of issues: the mechanics of government —how government benefits such as programs, entitlements and rules are provided to society, and government itself — what is appropriate for government to do.
Resolving both issues involves the interplay of politics and policy. However, only the first is suitable for a business approach to organizational change.
Business principles of organizational change to government were recently applied to the Pentagon’s DIUx or the GSA’s 18F innovation programs. However, the take-it-or-leave-it attitude to resolving the question of what government should do is not an option — it’s not in the nature of a representative democracy.
The U.S. Constitution provides for separation of power and delegation of authority for a reason: we can’t just fire our citizens if they don’t agree with a vision. While that might be great reality television, it’s not how our country works.
This very important distinction is why being the chief executive of a company is not the same thing as being the president of the United States. Change is possible, but it requires finesse and the utmost respect for how government works.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.