We do not tend to love many things that are “slow”. Think about how awestruck we are at the speed and agility of a cheetah and how bored we are with the slow-moving turtle. We love the speed of technology and ridicule the hand-written letter as a charming artifact from the past. We are addicted to information as if it were crack cocaine, however we have little patience for how long it takes to use it well. Our addiction to “fast” has deeply affected our ability to take the time we need for meaningful public judgment and dialogue. We want the quick fixes, the button we can push to make a problem disappear, the miracle technology that will make everything OK.

Human beings are notoriously impatient, impetuous, demanding, and fickle. We move on to the next “best thing” when the mood strikes us. We like excitement, entertainment, cookbook solutions, and fast turnarounds. So, it is not surprising that we often try to apply fast and simple cook book solutions to complex problems, only to find that in most cases, they fail. Money and time are often cited as the reason for the failure, and this may be a contributing factor in some cases, but often not the main factor.

I submit that the main reason we fail to fix so many problems is that we are often absurdly unrealistic about what it takes to make any real change stick, whether it be inside business or government institutions, or among  the citizenry that government relies on to prevent or address many problems. When solving complex problems, it turns out that being slow and methodical is often fast. Throwing money and simple, fast solutions at a complex problem rarely wins the race.

Did you know that in the business world, roughly 70% of organizational change initiatives fail?[1] Managers typically underestimate the complex nature of the change they want to see and how difficult and time-consuming it will be to make the change stick. I saw many change initiatives fail to produce the desired outcomes in my years in government. Clearly, the private sector is no better at this.

In our heart of hearts, we must know that promising quick fixes to complex problems is not honest and is misguided, yet time and time again, we move forward thinking that if we will something to happen, it will happen. Turns out, people, who are an essential ingredient in fixing most problems, are exceedingly complicated, flawed, resistant, egotistical, competitive, confounding, disorganized, uncooperative, busy, uneven, temperamental, and fickle.  Even if we also account for all the wonderful traits people bring to the table, like commitment, caring, sharing, ingenuity, goodness, intelligence, generosity, imagination, and graciousness, it does not negate the challenges and the fact that humans are inherently slow to change – in pretty much any way.

Colin Price and Emily Lawson, authors of an article called, The Psychology of Change Management, found that four basic conditions must be met before people (employees in this case) will change their behaviors and institute new ideas:

A) A compelling story: They must see the point of the change and agree with it, at least enough to give it a try. In other words, they must understand and agree with the fact that there is a problem and that change is needed.

B)  Role modeling: They must also see colleagues they admire modeling the desired behavior. If no one they respect is modeling the change, why bother?

C)  Reinforcement systems: Surrounding structures, systems, processes and incentives must be in tune with the new behavior.

D)  The skills required for change: They need to have the skills to do what is required of them. They must build their own capacity as leaders and participants. However, even when leaders become trained, it is important to know that there can be many ups and downs before change sticks.

In my experience, most of these conditions often did not exist in the places I worked. Ideas may have been generated, but there was little done systematically to build the mindset, skills and infrastructure needed to support implementation.

That is why Civic Organizing© was such as breath of fresh air. The framework addresses the weak links so often found when trying to encourage changes on the ground to protect water quality or address other public management issues. How?

  1. Civic Organizing tells a compelling story – democracy, active citizenship and governing for the common good.
  2. Civic Organizing develop the skills of civic leaders that can be models for others as we work through the messy realities of democracy and cleaning up the environment.
  3. We use a Civic Organizing governing document to create the structure, process, and civic leadership skills that give active citizens the confidence that their efforts will add up, that their time will not be wasted, that they will have a say and that the process will be transparent, fair and inclusive.
  4. We help people to develop their political skills (small “p”) and key disciplines that will make them effective leaders and change agents.

This work cannot be done overnight and suspending judgment for a time is required. However, if people can summon their patience and persevere, the slow, baby steps forward gain momentum and lasting change takes root.

[1] The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management: Why It Isn’t Working and What to Do About It, by Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken, 2008.

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