When I was 10 years old, my parents sat my sister and me down and informed us that we would be moving from our beloved home in Silver Spring, Maryland to the uncharted, alligator-laden waters of Florida’s Gulf coast. I was resistant, to say the least. But over the next few weeks, promises and potential unfolded; I would get to pick my room. I’d be allowed to adopt a cat. We’d have a pool. Gradually, moving to Florida became less of something that was being done to me, and more something that I was a part of. Though they didn’t know it, my parents were doing an excellent job of instituting change management philosophies.
At a time when technology adoption is occurring at a rapid pace and organizations are simultaneously struggling to maintain a well-staffed and experienced workforce, successful change management can be a panacea to all that ails the infrastructure industry. And as the rate of change increases, the importance of instituting a positive culture of change management grows alongside it. When an organization pursues a change in technology or process, change management helps ensure:
Disruptions caused by transitions are reduced in favor of focus on building together
Employees and leaders alike are bought into the same mission and vision
Investments in technology are actually providing value instead of creating disparate processes
What exactly is change management?
Before we get too far down the road of exploring change management philosophies, let’s take a minute to define it - while acknowledging, of course, that it’s a fairly autological concept. But I was fortunate enough to chat with several change management experts recently, and I’ll borrow from their wisdom for this definition:
“We live in an age of constant change. Individuals go through change at a different rate. Change management addresses specific changes that happen to individuals on a large scale, so we can predict who will adapt quickly to change and who will be more resistant to change, and we can adjust our change management to meet those individual needs across the board,” said John Oberdiek, a Project Manager and change management specialist at Infotech.
Essentially, it’s thinking about the ramifications of change within an organization down to the person-to-person level. And as Mike Bousliman, the former CIO for the Montana Department of Transportation, pointed out during our conversation, it doesn’t necessarily apply to just new technology, but to any shift in process or philosophy that impacts an organization. Really, the majority of organizations worldwide got a crash course in change management during the pandemic as they coped with shifting workforce requirements and the increased usage of remote technology like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
The role of change management in transportation agencies
With both federal funding and construction technology increasing in availability and accessibility, transportation agencies have placed a strong emphasis on change management. Many understand that much of their organizational knowledge is in the hands of people who have been doing things a certain way for a long, long time - and if those folks aren’t bought into change, there’s a risk of losing that knowledge and having to replace it with inexperience.
Even for organizations that holistically embrace change, there are risks that the change won’t be sustainable if it isn’t implemented properly. Anyone familiar with the phrase “it is what I asked for, but it’s not what I wanted” can attest to that. The change management experts who provided insights for this article all highlighted the importance of communication as the crucial element of effective change management for the advancement of digital project delivery initiatives.
“Inclusiveness and communication. Informing people of the impact of what’s happening and making them part of the process are important facets of a good, disciplined change management strategy,” said Bousliman. Take my example of moving to Florida - the simple act of informing me that I’d be allowed to choose my room gave me a sense of control and input over the process.
Pat Lane, Digital Delivery Project Manager at the Montana DOT, echoed this with a specific example of how communication needs to happen across different departments to make the change effective:
“The way that we design and deliver roundabouts - the 2D planset is delivered, and there’s a tremendous amount of information in that design deliverable. As we moved into how we model that roundabout in 3D, capturing all of the attributes and intelligence, we started asking ourselves if we needed all this data. We reached out to several senior Project Managers and began to ask them - what do you need to successfully build a roundabout from a design perspective? What does the contractor need? Design became aware that the level of detail with 3D modeling has changed and therefore allowed the roundabout design to become more efficient and remove a lot of that noise of data that’s no longer required.”
The simple act of involving a different department’s perspective in the change gave everyone a sense of shared investment while also informing a better end deliverable.
Oberdiek emphasized the importance of communication, to the point of over-communicating. Since many transportation agencies are dealing with relatively siloed departments, information can travel through an agency like the old game of telephone, where the meaning and intent is slightly distorted every time it spreads from one person to another. “Constant communication to clarify and make sure everyone’s on the same page,” is something that Oberdiek considers a best practice for effective change management.
How executive leaders contribute to change management
Bousliman, Lane, and Oberdiek all agree: change cannot strictly come from the top down. Nor can it merely come from the bottom up. Change is a process where everyone has a role to play. To identify those roles, Bousliman suggests thinking about leadership in a different way when it comes to who will be the most involved in the change management process.
“There are certain people in organizations that their peers look to as a leader, and they don’t have to be the one in charge. They might be a developer, or a front line supervisor, but everybody knows who those people are. Bring those people up to speed and getting them on board is important,” he said.
The people Mike is referring to are often called “Trim Tabs” in change management philosophy. A trim tab is a smaller rudder that is attached to the larger rudder of a ship that ultimately controls the ship's direction. When the trim tab turns, so does the ship. Architect Buckinster Fuller is credited with the concept and even had the phrase “call me Trim Tab” etched on his headstone.
“Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab,” said Fuller.
According to Lane, while a top down approach won’t work in isolation, it’s still vital to engage with organizational leaders early and often to ensure their perspectives are acknowledged and supported.
“There’s a role that each change agent and practitioner needs to play. Here at [Montana DOT], when we implemented the digital delivery initiative, the first thing we did is put together an executive intelligence training workshop to talk about change management with all of our executive team and bureau chiefs… we developed a formal accountability plan because we knew we would need to have accountability to change. We also talked a great deal about our team and our workforce - how can we create paths through this change to give people choice? How can we engage our people to follow those paths?”
By engaging and creating buy-in with executives early on in the process, those leaders had the tools and knowledge necessary to initiate similar buy-in from the bottom up in their own departments. Lane also highlighted an organization-wide emphasis on “failing forward” and learning from mistakes gives people more comfort and confidence in adjusting to change.
The role of consultants play in change management
With many organizations struggling with staffing, external consultants have played an increasingly important role to change management. Previously, a consultant may have focused strictly on instituting technological change, be it a new system for tracking construction projects or the use of new hardware like rovers or drones. Now, consultants are playing more of a role in guiding organizations through change. As Bousliman outlines, “bringing in someone who is educated and trained in the discipline of change management is the first step - recognizing that there is some external expertise that is going to help you, especially if you’re a people-focused organization.”
A change management consultant can be considered an essential part of ramp-up costs; an investment in the beginning of the process to prevent unnecessary expenditures at the end. External consultants can lend wisdom and a sense of authority that comes from offering a perspective that originated from outside the organization. Still, it’s important to ensure any external consultant interfaces extensively with the internal leaders who are close to the culture, people, and sensitivities of the organization.
Reinforcing changes after initial implementation
How do you combat regression after the implementation of a new process or technology? According to Lane, you focus on the end result; the product. He mentions McDonald’s as the gold standard, a company that can roll out a new burger and have it taste the same across thousands of locations. Transportation agencies can reinforce change by ensuring their people are focused on their own product; the transportation system they use everyday.
“Our consumer is the traveling public and the transportation program is our product. Letting people understand and educating them as to how these changes are going to impact the product we’re delivering and giving them pride that the product becomes better, safer, and more efficient - I think that in itself can help move forward the continuing support of change,” said Lane.
Oberdiek also highlights the importance of rewarding the people who quickly become adept at the new processes, even just through recognition, as a key component of sustaining and reinforcing change. Creating an environment where change is celebrated helps combat change fatigue as the rate of new technology adoption increases.
Embracing the next wave of change
IFC and data standards. Digital twins. Artificial intelligence. Predictive analytics. Some of these technologies and process changes are right around the corner, some are already here. Without proper investment into change management, organizations can be swept away by the waves of change. But with an approach that involves internal stakeholders, external expertise, and an adaptive culture, this wave can also propel organizations forward.
As a 40+ year industry leader, we’ve overcome, adapted to, and adopted many waves of industry change. If there’s anything we can do to help you navigate new and emerging technologies, just let us know.