Transitional Change Done Right

Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history.
–Joan Wallach Scott


Based on the tracking metrics of visitors to LeadingSpace, the most popular topic is transactional, transitional, and transformational change. I first wrote about this view of change two years ago through the lens of human spaceflight policy at the national level. At that time (this was late 2009), rumors were circulating that there would be changes to the flagship human spaceflight program of the future – the Constellation Program – resulting from the just concluded activities of the Augustine committee chartered by the current White House administration.  Little did I know at that time, nor did most people in the human spaceflight community, the depth of the changes to come:  the outright cancellation of the program, which lead to the shaking of the foundation of policy and purpose of human spaceflight.  As I’ve written several times since, the technical and political leadership took some missteps in the execution of a change of that magnitude, the consequences of which are still with us today. I still believe that.  However, today I’d like to shift to a positive focus, and to a different level within human spaceflight, to cite some examples from an organization that is managing transitional change successfully, and why.

As a reminder, on the spectrum of transactional, transitional, and transformational change, transitional change arises when one of two different situations occurs.  The first way to transitional change is through the accumulation of so many smaller and simpler transactional changes that the effects begin to spillover into noticeable alterations in the organization, processes, or workforce skills necessary to enact the change successfully. Much as in a state transition, add or remove enough heat and a liquid turns to solid, or a gas. Another way for a transitional change to arise in the case where the scope of change is rather simple or the number of changes is small, yet the outcome resulting from the change is unpredictable.

How is transitional change done right?  It’s a matter of pursuing three critical components aggressively: offense and defense, culture, and stakeholders.

Offense and Defense.  The particular organization I have in mind is at NASA and is facing a big change with respect to its traditional role in human spaceflight.  With the retirement of the Shuttle and cancellation of Constellation, the remaining work of this organization is in support of the International Space Station.  The defensive side says to devote the right amount of energy to continue to excel at the support of existing work.  Yet this must be balanced against careful crafting and execution of a new offensive plan.  For the organization in mind, this means breaking away from 100% reliance upon direct support to Government-led human spaceflight and instead building partnerships with the emerging commercial space sector.  This is one of those transitional-class changes that is simple to cite, yet may be unpredictable in what it means to the future of the organization.  However, as long as the organization is true to its mission, guiding principles, and value propositions, the outcome will be very favorable.

Culture.  Understanding the good and bad aspects of the organization’s culture is important for navigating a transitional change successfully.  The organization in mind has a very strong “can-do” spirit codified in a set of guiding principles, and it has significant pockets of strength within it.  Furthermore, the vast majority of people in the organization want to continue to see themselves as successful in the business of human spaceflight.  Recognition of the determination and strength as positive attributes of the culture is imperative so that these are preserved and nurtured through the transition.  Yet not all culture is necessarily good, or else the organization would not find itself needing to undergo a transitional change.  A key step is to identify those deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer contribute to high performance.  For this organization, as is fairly common across NASA, it is the “not invented here” syndrome leading to custom in-house development or contracting with a “here is how to do it” mindset.  Because it’s an aspect of culture, it’s hard to change.  Yet the organization in mind is attempting steps towards challenging that cultural aspect by seeking commercial solutions with minimal to no tailoring for its infrastructure.  This has a two-fold payoff – lower costs to the Government, and makes the organization attractive to potential commercial partners on a cost basis (the technical aspects are already of the highest reputation).

Stakeholders.  Engaging in meaningful conversations with all stakeholders is a must for enacting a transitional change successfully.  This means addressing all factors that go into decisions in the public sector – technical, workforce, budgets, and politics – and to discuss early and repeatedly the value propositions of the organization relative to the stakeholders’ concerns.  For instance, the Administration, with the rollout of the 2010 President’s budget signaled a change in fundamental space policy, failed to engage in meaningful conversations with a key stakeholder – the Congress – until afterwards.  That was too late.  We’ve been living with the reverberations of that failure ever since.  To contrast, the organization in mind made a conscious effort to engage immediately in conversations with stakeholders at its local center as well as at NASA Headquarters, and has even had fruitful conversations with the emerging commercial space sector (who by virtue of potential public-private partnerships could become stakeholders as well).  So far, the conversations with stakeholders have been positive and have served as a key component for helping the organization move forward in enacting transitional change successfully to date.

If you gather it from what I’ve said above, it takes an extra level of leadership to enact a transitional change successfully.  Whether it is Netflix’s bungled steps recently with the handling of its DVD business, or the aforementioned space policy change, a lack of leadership acumen in how to navigate the proper level of change can reduce the likelihood of a successful outcome – or even spell disaster.

Text Copyright © 2011, Joe Williams
Photo credit: iStockphoto/frentusha

Transitional Change Done Right