More Alike Than Different: Big Business and Big Government

Think about a really big, really bureaucratic governmental organization with many, many public stakeholders. Then think about that organization trying to make changes to the way it operates which actually impact people’s lives on literally a day-to-day basis.

Sounds like a really complex change leadership challenge, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t a consulting engagement. Believe it or not, I volunteered for this assignment as a parent through my local school district. I served on the District of Innovation (DOI) Committee appointed by the School Board last year.

To give you an idea of the size of this change, this particular public school district covers 127 square miles and serves over 53,000 students each year. This encompasses 13 different municipalities. And it’s still growing!

After more than 25 years of consulting business clients (both internally and externally), I was very interested to observe a process like this at work without being the one (or the team) to drive it. Here’s the headline of what I learned: big business and big government share many challenges and could learn from each other.

Many learnings from the business world were transferable to this situation. Specific examples included:

  • Ensure you involve all of your stakeholders. Our committee of 35 volunteers encompassed all the relevant stakeholder groups, just like we recommend to our clients on big change projects. In this case we were parents, teachers, community members (e.g. business leaders) and district/campus administrators (e.g. principals).
  • Watch out for competing priorities. The DOI committee could not accomplish its charter in the original timeline planned. This was due to the school district taking on a $737 million bond package at the same time. Passing the bond package became a higher priority with the school board. This same issue of juggling multiple priorities often befalls change projects in the business world. Senior leaders have to make significant trade-offs regularly.
  • Misinformation runs rampant. As a committee member, I had the facts about our proposal and what it would mean (and not mean) upon implementation. However, the general public was not privy to those details. It is human nature: when people do not have the information they’re seeking, they make it up. Rumors ran wild through social media and across social circles. When the actual plan was published and presented to the school board, things calmed down. But the damage had already been done. I’ve seen the same thing happen countless times related to big change initiatives in companies. There are NO SECRETS in organizations. Use the grapevine to your advantage instead of working against it.

NOTE: The District of Innovation Plan did pass the school board on May 15, 2017. However, it was too late to include an academic calendar for the 2017-2018 school year. It was not unanimously supported by the School Board.

Betsy Winkler is a Partner at PeopleResults. She has 3 children in middle school. She can be reached on Twitter @BetsyWinkler1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.

Betsy Winkler