Principi: Changing with the times

Transformation isn't easy, but it is necessary and inevitable

The following are excerpts from Anthony Principi's speech at the 2005 Executive Leadership Conference in Hershey, Pa. Principi is chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Oct. 27, by a vote of 85 to 324, the House of Representatives defeated a motion to disapprove the report of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. As a result, the commission's recommendations will have the force of law. That means 22 major base closures and 33 major base realignments

will go into effect in the next six years.

The commission estimates 20-year savings of $35 billion, or $15 billion if you exclude "savings" attributable to personnel who will be reassigned rather than removed from federal payrolls.

But contrary to common perception, the BRAC process is about much more than saving money. The Pentagon's recommendations were as much about transformation as they were about money.

The BRAC process, and reshaping of defense infrastructure, is only one example of the ongoing and constant change that government and government institutions must embrace if our nation is to succeed in a constantly changing world.

Changes in technology and changes in the environment surrounding us are obvious. Perhaps even more profound are our citizens' evolving expectations for the role of government in their lives.

The work of government and the lives of the American people continue to be ever more intimately intertwined. At the dawn of the republic, our citizens may have looked to the federal government to do little more than defend the shores and deliver the mail, but those days are long gone.

The responsibilities of government and the scope of government have evolved with changes in conditions, changes in expectations and changes in technology.

Not many years ago, no one would have known or cared about dying chickens in China. Epidemics were considered unfortunate facts of life, to which our only reaction could be stoic endurance.

Today, our citizens expect their government to detect potential epidemics, develop the vaccines needed to prevent infection and provide for effective treatment if disease comes anyway.

The same progression of increasing expectation and responsibility can be seen in virtually every arena of American human experience and endeavor.

That transformation of our government's responsibilities is driven by technologies that shrink time and distance -- technologies rendering immediate and concrete events that would, at one time, have been distant and abstract. It is driven by changes in technology that make possible and effective responses to events or conditions that, at one time, could only be endured, not addressed.

I make these observations from the perspective of a former Cabinet secretary responsible for implementing the programs enacted by Congress -- programs that over time have become ever more expansive and sweeping, ever more complex.

Organizational change or transformation and responding to changing technologies and evolving expectations are necessary and inevitable.

Technology by itself can't ensure success or prevent failure. But technology, as an enabler, can accelerate transformation when it is rooted in a coherent concept of leadership's goals and the strategy to achieve those goals.

Communicating change

I doubt that I am the first to observe that in the short-run most organizations, like most people, perceive change as painful at worst and disturbing at best. In the short run, the comfort of stability frequently is more attractive than the challenges of change.

Soap bubbles are spherical because a sphere is the form requiring the least energy to sustain. Similarly, for organizations, the status quo is the state requiring the least energy input to sustain. The status quo balances the inputs of mission, resources, stakeholder and employee expectations, and for federal agencies, congressional and Office of Management and Budget inputs as well.

But over the long run, the status quo and a dynamic environment are incompatible. Change and transformation can be either continuous, constant, imperceptible adaptations to a changing environment or discontinuous, infrequent and dramatic events, like the sudden shifts in tectonic plates that we perceive as earthquakes.

Continuous adaptation could be less traumatic for an organization, but it also runs the risk of responding to perceived environmental changes that turn out to be nonexistent, unimportant or irrelevant. No organization benefits if it, or its leadership, changes direction with every puff of wind.

But no matter what the benefits of stability, organizational transformation is both inevitable and necessary if our institutions are to remain relevant and effective as the world evolves around them. Our challenge as leaders is to identify the moment when the benefits of transformational change will exceed the organizational costs inherent in making those changes.

Successful transformation is proactive and embodies:

  • Strong leadership with a passion for excellence.
  • A clear-eyed understanding and acceptance of reality, especially unpleasant ones.
  • A clear understanding of the goal and a coherent strategy to achieve that goal.

But perhaps one of the most indispensable keys to successful transformation lies in effective communication.

We have to take proactive steps to not only listen but also actually hear and understand what the people who define our organizations, our organizations' missions and our organizations' environments have to say about what they need and what they want.

My views on the conditions necessary to transform transformation from good ideas into actual changed behavior and circumstances on the ground are shaped by experience.

The BRAC process provides numerous examples reinforcing these points.

Changes in the world situation and technology and the resulting changes in military force structure and doctrine combined to spotlight the need to rethink and restructure our nation's military facilities.

However, Congress is acutely aware that military facilities are composed of human lives as much or more than they are collections of acreage and buildings, runways and ranges. Transformation significant enough to make a difference is transformation traumatic enough to compel political vetoes, unless the transformation strategy accounts for lawmakers' necessary and natural sensitivity to the desires and fears of their constituents.

Transformers tune in

The BRAC Commission was open to input from all members of Congress and extremely conscious of the human impact of the proposals we were considering. We conducted an open, objective assessment of the Defense Department's proposals and called the shots as we saw them.

Change is constant in the world, and institutional transformation responding to that change is both inevitable and necessary. However, transformational change can be traumatic to the individuals and institutions involved.

Change agents -- the leaders entrusted with stewardship of institutions and programs -- can set the stage for needed transformation by emphasizing communication and accepting the necessity of compromise.

Principi is chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

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