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July 17, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Bastille Day – and Other Days of Change

July has apparently been chosen by the forces of the universe to be the time of celebration of the success of national independence movements. Besides the 4th of July, the most famous of the July events occurred on July 14, 1789 when French citizens stormed the Bastille prison in Paris. The Bastille was the symbolic representation of the monarchy. The event became a catalyst for what we today call the French Revolution.

In July 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by a very disappointed office seeker. This event was a catalyst in the transition to a merit/civil service form of personnel management. President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July of that year. The Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1973 – in, you guessed it Ñ July.

One of my favorite July events occurred in 1848 when an organized women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Did I mention the Apollo 11 "one small step" event in July 1969? The Egyptian Army revolt of 1952 began in July and led to the change from monarchy to republic. The Cuban Revolution began in 1953 with Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement ultimately forcing out the prior dictator, Batista.

What these and other anniversary commemorations really represent, however, is the "tipping point" of movements for change in fundamental ways. So far, the HR Doctor has succeeded in not using the phrase "paradigm shift" even once. Well, okay, once Ñ I just used it. However, if I did use the phrase, these diverse events would be prime examples of the catalyst moments in a long series of growing pressures resulting in such shifts.

Replacing one framework of thinking or governing with another is not generally an overnight event. It occurs with a build-up of pressures and increasing failures by the in-place approach to respond properly to changing events.

In the case of the French Revolution, there were decaying economic conditions, increasing perceptions of a non-responsive and non-caring monarchy not meeting the people’s needs, and no other internal mechanism to bring about fundamental change. In effect, the analogy to a steam engine with increasing pressure and no relief valve seems appropriate.

In our own lives, we encounter circumstances where we, too, feel that something is not happening the way we wish it to happen. Perhaps this is happening with our health, our children, our significant others, in our careers or in our relationships with others. We don’t find alternatives to improve the situation gradually, and at some point we look for more revolutionary ways to declare our independence and bring about change.

Perhaps the change is spurred on by some catalyst event. It may be the savagery of a terrible hurricane like Katrina propelling to the forefront arguments about a city’s disaster preparedness or past warning signs of great flooding risks going generally unheeded. It may be that we hope for positive change in policies and programs we recommend only to see the governing body turn a deaf ear to our "genius."

We may find that, as appointed officials, our relationships with our elected leadership team are not going well from our perspective, and maybe it is time to look for another job or hope for a change at the next election.

Whether it is a personal "microscopic" issue involving one or two lives, or a much more fundamental agency-wide or nationwide situation, we need to build into the way we think and act as public administrators several key pressure relief valves:

• The first is the ability to clearly and continuously scan the environment for signs of anomalies and the need to respond to those. We must all be HR Doctors in the sense of respectfully listening for symptoms and observing and knowing when the time has arrived to make positive change and innovation happen.

• We are very well served by investing now in building a network of colleagues who can help us diagnose the need for change and be aware of our treatment options. These may be other colleagues inside an agency or they may be outside consultants. They may be friends or fellow professionals in an agency next door or across the country.

Wherever the source of the network help comes from, no professional will survive pretending to be an island not needing "to get by with a little help from our friends" (with apologies to John Lennon).

• Professional training and development is a key component of being able to grow and adapt. An agency that spends little time and few of its resources improving the knowledge, skills, behaviors and capabilities of its human resources is committing malpractice. It cannot be successful in a world of changes in law, practice and technology without internal staff development.

• As we spot the symptoms of the need for change and we take in advice, ideas and experience from other people, we move to another critical step – the ability to recommend specific approaches with one purpose in mind Ñ to control the uncertainty that is building up around us.

The French sociologist Michel Crozier studied the relationship in a bureaucracy between power and uncertainty. His thesis was that power flows to the people who control uncertainty.

The role of the leader is to learn and act in ways that control and reduce, rather than increase, the uncertainty in the organization and in the minds of individuals. The best parents, the best elected and appointed officials, the best detectives in police organizations, the best physicians as well as the best HR professionals are those people who are the most adept at the control of uncertainty.

The world around us is changing and will continue to change at an even faster pace. The changes are the result of many factors including the impacts of technology as well as climate changes, and shifts in population demographics, world economics and much more.

The great Tom Lehrer song in the 1960s was dedicated to the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. It sarcastically discussed his apparent "flexibility" in working for Nazi Germany and then for the United States in the development of rocketry. The most memorable line from the song was "In German or English I know how to count down, and I am learning Chinese," said Wernher von Braun.

America’s place in a changing world and the place of every reader of HR Doctor articles, whether elected or appointed in government services, is also subject to change. The change can be in a more planned, more orderly and more positive manner, or it can be the bureaucratic equivalent of being run over by a tanker truck in the middle of a crosswalk. The difference is in the ability of top leaders to anticipate change and to offer hopeful innovative alternatives, otherwise known as the control of uncertainty.

The choice is not up to faith or George Lucas’ "force" from Star Wars. In fact, the decision is within the reach of each individual leader. Not responding to change, not adapting to it, not anticipating it means that our own inertia will take over and produce an outcome which we may very well not like at all.

You get to decide whether it’s time for your own independence in terms of thinking and acting in a proactive manner. What’s it going to be? Choose wisely.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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