Training courses aren't enough to initiate changes

The truth may set you free, but it won’t necessarily make you happy. In fact, it
can make you darn unhappy.

I’ve had that experience with some management classes I’ve taken. An
intensive management training program can spark creativity and enthusiasm for change that
contrasts sharply with the mundane bureaucracy many of us inhabit. After some programs,
I’ve seen freshly minted graduates begin job hunting because they believed that their
new skills and insights would not be fully appreciated by their home agencies.

Could such courses be a clever plot by Catbert, the evil human resources manager in
Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon strip? If we resign ourselves to mind numbing, petty
bickering and nit-picking, we’ll be simply putting in our time until retirement.

But exposure to these courses tantalizes us with the possibility of change, raising our
hopes for something beyond the endless round-robin of memos, correspondence and pep talks.

A naive graduate may return, fired up to change things at his or her agency. But the
reception the graduate actually experiences can vary widely depending on the
organizational culture. At one extreme, you may hear a blunt, “They may teach that
nonsense, but here in the real world, we’ve always done it this way.” In other
words, this is your job. Love it or leave it, but don’t change it.

At the other extreme is the fuzzy illusion of support. Warmly received, ideas and
recommendations are sent for study in an endless series of debilitating meetings and
reports. There is much spinning and gyration but little outcome except to wear down the

During the heyday of total quality management, such meetings were held by so-called
process action teams, or PATs. Too often they were more like process inaction
teams—the PITs. After a few months of this everyone, rebels and reactionaries alike,
would breathe a silent sigh of relief when the senior manager, still imbued with the inner
fire of TQM, would leave for a better job—in another agency, they hoped.

The late W. Edwards Deming understood the lip service management can give to improving
a corporation or agency. One of his fundamental principles of process improvement was,
“No sloganeering.” He had little tolerance for pithy epithets and flowery
mission statements uttered by managers whose actions contradicted their words.

On one occasion, Deming was introduced by the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500
company to an auditorium filled with the company’s managers. Seeing the CEO stride
out the door to his next appointment, Deming promptly left the podium, saying that if the
CEO wasn’t interested in the quality message, why bother?

Frankly, we may not be getting the most for our tax dollars on these management courses
if the enthusiasm of graduates can quickly sour on their return to work. Both trainee and
agency can be worse off afterward.

I recommend that the courses devote a significant portion of their time to re-entry and
post-graduate support. Simply telling graduates to seek out like-minded change agents
isn’t enough; that’s as easy as finding roadkill on a freeway. Rather, these
folks need weekly support groups, ongoing training and retooling, and intervention with

Too often the day-to-day urgent minutiae overwhelm the important, but seemingly less
urgent, business of process improvement. Management tracking systems lack the capability
of tracking re-engineering tasks. Savings Bond and Combined Federal Campaign drives are
more likely to get attention and measurement.

Graduates need to organize themselves, pool their resources and encourage one another.
They need periodic refresher courses and workshops to report on their obstacles and

The seminar sponsors need to talk with agency managers to assess what impact the
graduates are having on the organization. Interventions can also raise the profile of
junior-level graduates who might not otherwise be heard.

Bringing change to an organization can be a revolutionary act. We need to train these
folks in how to conspire to improve resistant agencies. We need to prepare them for the
range of countermeasures the organization will take to prevent change from spreading.

They need to know how to identify, cultivate and manage sponsors and champions. They
need to know how to organize constituencies, and how to develop and implement stealth
projects before the organization has a chance to thwart change.   

  Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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