In my book Leading Out-of-the-Box Change (Governance Edge, 2012), I call really significant, self-planned and self-managed innovation and change a “road less traveled,” observing that it “is not only extraordinarily difficult to accomplish, it’s also the distinct exception to the rule.” One of the most important potholes you can expect to encounter on this little-traveled road has disrupted many more than one change journey: the very natural and virtually inevitable human resistance to change. Indeed, my long experience working with nonprofit and public organizations has taught me that the psychological – often viscerally emotional – resistance to change tends to outweigh technical considerations, witness the fact that so many technically superb, meticulously crafted change strategies – often known as “strategic plans” – sit on the shelf collecting dust, little consulted and making little practical difference.
I’m reminded of a retreat I facilitated early in my consulting career involving the board, CEO and senior management team of a midwestern transit authority. While we were discussing what seemed like a pretty sensible, easy-to-implement change initiative – engaging board members in a meaningful fashion earlier in the annual operational planning/budget development process when they could make a real difference, under the leadership of a proposed new planning and development committee – a couple of long-tenured board members grew visibly upset. I was aware that both were long-time members of the traditional board finance committee that had for years worked closely with the CFO in putting together a largely financial document with little planning content and virtually no substantive guidance from other board members, so I expected some push-back, but the level of emotion took me aback. Since then, of course, I’ve come to expect emotional resistance when considering change that threatens familiar, comfortable, and often ego-satisfying routines, and I’ve made overcoming such resistance a staple of the implementation process.
You’ll see that Ben Limmer pinpoints such resistance as one of the most formidable barriers to innovation and change in the video interview that Dave Stackrow, former APTA Chair and long-time chair of the board of the Capital District Transit Authority (Albany, NY), and I recorded with Ben three weeks ago. Ben well knows whereof he speaks, having over the course of his very impressive 20-year public transportation career been engaged in designing and implementing successful, high-stakes innovation initiatives in Cleveland, Phoenix and Atlanta. Among other factors Ben discussed with us: the need to actively engage board members in leading change efforts; to foster an innovation-friendly internal culture in your authority; to make sure change initiatives are aligned with your authority’s vision, values, and mission and verifiable need/demand; and to cultivate the support of influential external stakeholders.
In the always changing, challenging world of today and tomorrow, systematic innovation and change are key to a transit authority’s growing and thriving over the long run, and accomplishing such change depends on the creative work of such change-savvy senior executives as Ben Limmer. Dave and I are pleased to highlight Ben’s path breaking work at www.boardsavvytransitceo.com.