Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

“Do you not know, my son, with what LITTLE understanding the world is ruled?”

Pope Julius III

I spoke to a group of  University of Texas LBJ School graduates in Washington DC last night. The sky let loose like a water stampede the VERY moment I stepped to the lobby door at NASA Headquarters to catch a cab for my ride over 19th and Pennsylvania. Great. Nothing like showing up bedraggled (I love that word). Thanks guys for braving the weather to make it there!

For our discussion, I pulled together a list of the undercurrents that prevent progress in the federal government.  In my early years at NASA, I charged forward with starry eyes and idealistic plans, only to trip over unseen obstacles on my way to my grand scheme to:

Change the World for Good. 

I know, I know. Goody two shoes. Believe me, I’ve been called worse. 😉

In my idealism and enthusiasm, I made a good many mistakes. I failed to see all the unwritten rules that govern how work is done — the CULTURE of the organization. Often, people steeped in the organizational culture are blind to it. So was I, at first.

My biggest (and hardest) lesson over the years:

Change does NOT appeal to everyone.

Shocking, I know. But as hard as it was for me to conceive, many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now.

Change = Unknown.

The unknown may appear dark and murky and unappealing to some. To others, the unknown is an intriguing, thrilling challenge.

Quick story: When my Mother came up to DC years ago, I suggested she hop on the Metro and explore what the City had to offer. Day after day I came home to find she hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t imagine all those missed opportunities, all the treasures left undiscovered — all within an easy 10 minute ride from the house. I mean, REALLY. WASHINGTON DC!!!!

When I pressed her, she made this comment:

“I don’t explore. YOU do.”

Wow. I’d never thought about it. I realized for the first time that I truly AM an explorer. I want to know what’s behind the unopened door. I look for new pathways, new approaches, new solutions. I want to know what I don’t know. My mother helped me understand why I was such a “pain in the backside” to my colleagues at work who dragged their feet with new projects or new approaches to old processes. They MUST have felt the same frustration with me my Mother did. They were perfectly content doing the same things the same ways as they always did before I entered the mix.

I began to reassess how I viewed those resistance to change. I needed a better understanding on how “the world is ruled” (Pope Julius IIII quote above). I offer a few “unspoken truths” I’ve gleaned about everyday behavior within change-resistant people and the organizations in which they thrive. 

Change-resistant Culture:

  1. Every new idea is an idea that didn’t work in the past.
  2. Don’t ask why. Do it because it’s always been done this way. 
  3. Activity IS the outcome.
  4. The answer is no, no matter the question.
  5. Hole-digging is easier than mountain-climbing. (Or, it’s easier to dig a hole than climb out of one.
  6. Ruts provide a narrow point of view. The deeper the rut…
  7. Comfort in process can mean discomfort with change.
  8. Bureau-train on autopilot. Conductor need not apply.

None of these are solutions. They simply give me a starting point to understand where we get stuck and how we might inch forward from here.

For example, look at #3: Activity=Outcome. I firmly believe this as the #1 reason the government resists telework/telecommuting initiatives. “Managing by Activity” means we measure success by how busy someone looks. We create “activity reports” and spend time filling them — which is “activity” in and of itself. We list the number of phone calls we make, or meetings we attend. Whew! Full day indeed! Yet, what did we accomplish? If managers measure performance by watching employees “be busy” rather than produce results, then how can a manager allow the employee to work outside his/her line of sight? “Managing by OUTCOME”…now that’s a scary thought to a culture steeped in activity-based success. We’re not good at giving employees a project with clear goals and deadline (OUTCOME), then setting them free to make the magic happen. If we were, we wouldn’t care where they got the job done — telework.

Here’s another example. Let’s look at #6: the dreaded rut (read habit). If we’re stuck in the rut and want out, what tools do we need? Maybe it’s as simple as a rope or a ladder. Perhaps we need blasting powder. What next? Do we fill in the rut to prevent backsliding or retreat? How do we fill the rut? Sand bags? Dump truck? Shovel? Now what? Where do we go from here? What new path do we want to forge? Do we need a compass? Do we face barbed wire? Forest? Desert? Sea? Whichever direction we take will require different tools. You get my drift. 

Unspoken “givens” in an organization influence how we get the job done, whether we know it or not.  

I haven’t even TOUCHED the topic of change in a toxic organization, which can represent a direct assault on the power structure. Those in power will resist change with all available resources to preserve even the smallest appearance of authority. But, alas, I’ll leave this for another blog-post.

Kudos to all of you out there COMMITTED to CHANGE in governmental process. Yay! You won’t be at all surprised to learn this:

 the Federal bureaucracy moves at glacier-speed.

Think about it. Have you EVER tried to stop a creeping ice mound? We have MUCH work to do, so GET OUT your PICKAX! But when you do, ALWAYS remember:

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

Hyman Rickover


Filed under federal government, NASA, space

10 responses to “Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

  1. Celeste Merryman

    Great post. I to have received feedback that I am pain in the backside of my employers for the reasons you explain here.

    Thanks for the pep talk. Makes me feel that I am not alone. But there are consequences.

  2. “…many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now. ” — so true! That is something I learned this year in a leading role in a volunteer organization. There aren’t as many as I thought who are looking for a cause or a revolution to join. Many are just putting in their time and getting a pay check. They do good work, but they aren’t thinking about the greater good. Unfortunate.

    I love your paragraph about telework – spot on!

  3. OMG! Beth, you’re in Washington, D. C., you understand the NASA mentality (or lack of), you’re a rebel from Texas (me too), you’re looking for a new “raison d’etre” (me too). You must immediately go to: http://www.cyrus-space-system.com and give me some feedback, ASAP! Can you attend the open meeting of the first Augustine Panel on August 17, 2009 in D. C.? Will you stand up and scream bloody hell at the panel and defend the CYRUS SPACE SYSTEM, which I promise you, is the only intelligent proposal that the Panel will ever see IF they get to see it. HELP! PLEASE! THANKS, Daniel Sterling Sample

  4. One thing to remember: The thing you are out to “change” was at one point the change that someone else fought just as hard as you are to create.

    • bethbeck

      Not every process or decision made is fought for. Some just “happen” with little thought. We may make a decision “in context,” yet when the context changes (or the decision-makers leave for other jobs), the decision remains in place — never questioned. Or, we may create rules based on political expediency or for an easy fix. The “right” solution appears too difficult. The easy fix becomes fixed. My point is simply to ask “why.” If the reason for an entrenched process makes sense, by all means, keep enforcing it. Otherwise, figure out a new way to address the issue. 😀

  5. Beth, The Space Shuttle may rise again. Stay tuned.

  6. @markratterman

    I have worked for nearly 34 years for the FAA as an Electronics Technician. I have often wondered about how to promote change. Sometimes it seems I’m too far from the middle (much less the top of the bureaucracy) to hope for much input. I’m going to look further and think about how to sow some seeds and hopefully see some things change for the better. Great blog, thanks!

  7. Pingback: Open NASA » On openNASA

  8. As a fellow civil servant in NASA’s estranged cousin agency NOAA, I thank you for your blog and for helping chip away at the cultural problem management has in government.

  9. Pingback: Castles and Foundation Stones | Bethbeck's Blog

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