Organizations go through predictable stages or life cycles: start-up, growth, maturity, decline, and extinction. They can move backwards through these stages as well as forward (e.g., replacing a “mature” product or service with a more innovative one), and not all of them reach extinction. In order to avoid the decline or extinction stages, organizations must adapt to changes in their environments. We see various types of adaptation every day in the private sector: new products or services are offered while old ones are dropped, or companies merge or acquire others to provide a competitive advantage or enter a new market. We even see re-invention among individuals. A recent story in the Los Angeles Times noted that former (and likely future) presidential candidate Mitt Romney has re-invented himself – again. Why? What he was doing before wasn’t getting the results he wanted to achieve, so he’s trying something different. Most often we think of companies going through such life cycles. However, public sector agencies and government entities also experience them.
Many agencies and government entities today arguably are in the “decline” stage of the life cycle. The world has changed, and most public sector entities have not. Although current economic conditions did not cause the decline, they did bring it forcefully to people’s attention. Procedures, programs, processes, rules, regulations, systems, organizational structures, and policies, many of which are decades old, are not working any more. Individually and collectively, these organizations no longer are able to support the outcomes they initially were created to achieve. Without substantive change, public sector (government) organizations will continue their current downward spiral.
What will it take to reverse this decline? Here are some suggestions to get started:
1. There must be a compelling and common “big picture” (i.e., vision or mission) that people can buy into. There is a serious dearth of such pictures once you get beyond the agency level. For example, how many cities have a clearly articulated vision?
2. There must be a commitment to transformative change; incremental change is not sufficient. The current challenges did not arise overnight, nor will they go away quietly or quickly. Change takes time and requires an acceptance of prudent risk-taking.
3. Begin with the end (i.e., the big picture) in mind; that must be the starting point. Then ask, “Given where we are now, how will we reach the desired end?” Examine closely what is being done, how it is done, and why it is done, then make purposeful choices about how to move forward.
While reversing course is not easy, the rewards are great. And considering the alternatives – e.g., mediocrity, service failures, inefficiency, wasted resources, despair, anger, frustration – one cannot possibly suggest that not trying at all is a viable option.
© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.