Managing Complex System Change Takes Guts

Change is hard.  Especially large, complex systems with multiple layers of stakeholders.  Senator Brock, in announcing his bid for Governor, recently commented that “Vermonters don’t want to live in a laboratory for change.” Whether you agree with his statement or not, Vermont is most certainly ripe with change that predates the recent initiatives that dominate headlines.

Many of us miss the perspective that change is ubiquitous and constant.  My peers in the human service field joke that we don’t finish one reorganization before we begin the next.

I subscribe to Anthony Ambrose’s (1987) model for managing complex changes.  He asserts that in order to successfully manage change, leaders must focus on five key elements: Vision, Skills, Incentives, Resources and an Action Plan.  Missing any of them results in some level of failure. 

  • Change without a vision results in confusion;
  • Change without skills results in anxiety;
  • Change without incentives results in slow change;
  • Change without resources results in frustration; and
  • Change without an action plan results in false starts.

I offer a sixth element that absolutely must be present in cases of complex organizational and political change: decisiveness.  Leaders in all areas of our state are charged with a very serious responsibility.  And that is to make decisions.

A strong leader is not just intelligent but also a risk taker.  Any decision made at the top will be unpopular with some and be championed by others.  This is the cost of leadership.  If you want the salary, perks and power that come with leadership positions, you have to make decisions.

As our government seeks to find its place in a new economy while still meeting the needs of the people it serves, the demand for strong leadership is more potent than ever.

This need for strong leadership supersedes elections and politics altogether and falls on our current and future leaders to make decisions when it seems all options lead to conflict.  Having a vision for a strong Vermont, a skilled workforce and the incentives, resources and plan to effectively manage complex change is not enough.  A strong leader is decisive when their political instinct is telling them to sit on the fence.  A strong leader is willing to burn the occasional bridge in order to realize a vision.

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