The roadblocks to change

Every customer we’ve ever engaged with has told us they are special, operate differently and are unlike anyone else. But out of all of them, regardless of type, size and sector, experience tells us that only local councils are truly unique.

Corporate organisations are typified by a singular goal: to make a profit for the shareholders or the business owner. While these organisations may have different approaches to achieving their goal, they share far more similarities than differences.

By comparison, local councils have a specific and valuable role in our society and community. And it’s to generate outcomes, not income. Councils deliver a diverse range of services to meet the needs of those who live in their catchment area—from setting and collecting rates to dog control and noise abatement, managing infrastructure, and more. And council employees value using their skills to serve their community.

So, why and how does that make it more difficult to successfully introduce new technology that will benefit users and ratepayers? What are those differences?

1. Hierarchical structure

Local councils tend to operate under a hierarchical structure, where the CEO directs change. Their directive is passed down to the ELT (executive leadership team), which includes the directors who head up an organisation’s individual pillars or workstreams. The directors are then responsible for initiating the change directive at the middle management level.

And this is where it often gets sticky. With business-as-usual a priority at the middle management level and, more often than not, multiple projects already on the go, garnering employee enthusiasm for yet another change is challenging. Along with the general “busyness” at this level, there’s often a negative hangover from previous (and often incomplete) projects from discouraged employees.

Effective leadership and buy-in are the first steps to a successful implementation. The decision about who leads the change and their previous experience, leadership style, and communication style is mission-critical. When the wrong person leads the charge and fails on the communications front, local council implementations are frequently either partially delivered or fail to deliver to scope.

Why is communication style important – and a potential stumbling block?

Given the hierarchical nature of local councils, there are often at least three communication layers. The highest level is from the council or CEO to the ELT; senior management (ELT) to direct middle management reports; and from there, the middle management to their teams.

The language and messaging at each step are important – communications must be appropriate in tone and detail to each level. The information must be transparent and accurate. Inaccurate, blunt, uncompromising, or ambiguous communication is a barrier to change, as it creates false perceptions and expectations.

2. Council culture

The next change management roadblock is local council culture. While every council has a public persona that reflects its philosophy and approach to serving its citizens, there’s also the ‘behind the scenes’ culture that employees live and breathe. This includes established (although not always acknowledged) internal cultural norms, behaviour, and processes.

Trying to implement a change that automatically goes against internal culture is never a successful strategy.

3. People

Every project has its supporters and detractors. If not understood and managed, they can have a significant and sometimes detrimental impact on an implementation.

  • The influencers. While not officially in leadership roles within the business, the influencers have ‘mana’ within their teams and departments due to their long tenure and experience. They often control the culture in their immediate circle and feel challenged by the introduction of new processes. And as they can recall every failed project, they can actively undermine the value of new (here we go again) projects within their peer group.

  • The stay-puts. After working the same way for the last 20+ years, some long-tenure employees do not welcome change with open arms. Despite this, these council veterans have extensive knowledge and insights that could potentially add significant value to a project. However, given their experience of failures past, they’re often reluctant to try anything new or even engage if the communicated benefits aren’t immediately and inarguably obvious.

  • The procrastinators. While ostensibly engaged with the project, these people are, in fact, entirely focused on BAU and often use delaying tactics to avoid attending workshops or training. They may nod their heads in agreement that they need to be involved, but that’s as far as it goes. They won’t engage. Instead of adding value and input throughout the project, they don’t listen or contribute, and at the point of go-live, they cannot use the solution. As a result, they require post-go-live handholding or additional training at extra expense and effort.

  • The experts. Realistically, any local government has the capacity to manage a limited number of change projects at any one time. Undertaking too many concurrent change projects can impact the delivery of all of them, as too much change can be overwhelming and unmanageable. Typically, the internal subject matter experts who are most effective and knowledgeable are ‘rewarded’ by having their burden of responsibility increased – often across all current projects. As a result, they have too many demands on their time and must adapt to new processes while undertaking BAU tasks.

4. The choice of change and project managers

The change and project manager is at the very heart of an implementation’s success – or failure. Their ability to manage the personalities within a project team and the underlying organisational culture of a local council is critical.

A common mistake is to bring in technology partners and consultants who have worked effectively on implementations in a commercial organisation but have no hands-on experience working with local councils. As said earlier, local councils are very complex and quite different from corporate organisations, and it can take months for consultants to adjust to a dramatically different pace of change.

For the inexperienced consultant, getting up to speed with the hierarchical structure, the priorities within the organisation, clearly defined silos between departments with different mandates and points of focus, and the cultural differences between each level, department, and team are near impossible.

Over the last five years, the appointment of internal change managers and the establishment of change management offices have become more common for the larger councils. Some of the smaller councils may be lucky enough to have a project manager with change management skills.

The three Cs of success

Communications: Understanding the mechanisms of communication, ensuring it’s targeted to the needs of each level, and embracing the diversity of the audience are essential to gaining support.

Culture: Understanding internal culture and the hierarchical structure behind it is critical. Implementing change that goes against the grain and challenges internal cultures is rarely successful. There will always be teams and influencers that are change-resistant, and they can seriously undermine both engagement and adoption.

Change management: Like it or not, you are unique. Engaging with solution partners familiar with the change management process necessary for success within local councils should be regarded as non-negotiable.

Great outcomes start with great conversations


Great outcomes start with great conversations

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