Five myths of change management

Why the federal government needs to fund change management efforts alongside IT modernization.

business opportunity (Khakimullin Aleksandr/

From tax refunds to reserving campsites at national parks, almost every American makes use of some selection of government services. Increasingly, they are accessing these services online. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the government lags far behind the private sector with regards to the quality of the experience that it offers its online customers.

According to a recent survey by Booz Allen Hamilton, more than half of Americans want the federal government to make it easier to find information online, but seventy-five percent of federal IT spending currently goes to operations and maintenance of antiquated legacy systems.

Agreeing that IT modernization is a priority, the administration and a rare bipartisan coalition of policymakers are taking tangible steps in the right direction. The 2018 President's Management Agenda lays out a long-term vision for modernizing the federal government and sets ambitious goals for improving the digital services that it provides to its citizens. Recently, the administration's budget request for fiscal 2020 called for $87.8 billion across civil and defense agencies.

These steps are encouraging, but federal agencies still often overlook funding for a less tangible but crucially important component of any large-scale IT modernization effort -- change management. Change management is necessary to ensure that users understand new technology and then actually use it to its full potential once it's implemented. What good is new technology if it's not put to good use?

A big part of why change management is so often overlooked is that it's frequently misunderstood. Here are the five most common myths about change management in IT modernization.

Myth #1: Change management should focus on the end users.

Successful change management requires a whole cultural change that goes beyond end users to encompass the entire stakeholder community – from your delivery teams and business units to your end user community. You need people to want to use the new technology and know how to use it effectively. To make that happen, you need to know what will make them feel comfortable with and receptive to the new solution.

Among the best examples is the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) automation of its procurement process, which incorporated change management from the beginning. The effort stands out not just for its scope, but its global scale. The project involved all stakeholder communities, deployed strategic communications and messaging before and after implementation and conducted global online and in-person training for mission teams around the world.

Myth #2: You don't need executive leadership to drive change management.

Explicit executive involvement in change management gives your IT modernization initiative the authority and support it needs to succeed. In the USAID example, strong leaders convened key departments and vendors around the common challenge and communicated the project's vision to get buy-in from all parties involved. When people are more vested and engaged in a project, they are more willing to help escalate issues, mitigate risks and resolve challenges. When leadership support is missing, change management can get pushed to the side, jeopardizing the outcome of a multimillion-dollar initiative.

Myth #3: Change management means communications and training.

A company-wide memo from the IT department and mandatory trainings may be the first things that come to mind for change management. But while training and communications are important, they aren't the only necessary activities. The USAID project included pilots and a phased roll-out with end users, which could be used to identify issues with the new system prior to official implementation. Agencies must also implement factors like stakeholder analysis, performance management and policy development to ensure that the needs of key constituents are taken into account, and that priorities, goals and expectations are clearly defined.

Myth #4: Change management can be layered in at the end of a project.

Change management shouldn't be an afterthought. To be successful, change management must start in the initial planning phase and continue throughout the full lifecycle of technical delivery.

Federal agencies should identify their executive champions and key stakeholders (both internal and external) at the outset to weave change management into the fabric of their IT modernization initiatives. After all the effort and resources that go into acquiring and implementing it, you don't want a new technology to take your workforce by surprise. You also have to be flexible enough to respond to issues as they arise. Incorporating agile processes into change management practices can help provide the flexibility necessary to adjust to evolving stakeholder needs and concerns.

The earlier you integrate change management, and the more frequently you take your stakeholders' temperature along the way, the more successful your agency's transformation initiative is likely to be.

Myth #5. It's too difficult to measure the success of change management activities during IT modernization efforts.

Agencies don't typically define project success by level of technology adoption or improvements to customer experience. Most often, success is measured by whether or not the technology works in controlled conditions and if the project is completed on time and on budget. But if at the end of a modernization project you can't tell whether your employees are actually using the technology or whether the new system makes it easier for citizens to interact with your agency, then how can you know if the project has truly succeeded?

Thinking that change management is too hard to measure, agencies often end up ignoring the very factors that most indicate success or failure. There are in fact many ways to determine change management's effect on an IT modernization initiative. By measuring things like user adoption and stakeholder feedback, agencies can empower data-driven decision making around what's working and what needs to be adjusted.

Change management and the road ahead

Despite the persistence of myths around change management, we're starting to see more interest from agencies on the subject. That trend is encouraging, but we still have a long way to go. Bipartisan alignment on IT modernization represents a major opportunity for much needed change. We need to take advantage of it, and we need to get it right. As agencies move forward with plans to finally replace their legacy systems, they need to build in change management from the very beginning, i.e. at the acquisition stage. When agencies make large-scale technology investments, they have a responsibility to the American people to make sure they're truly empowering greater mission success.