Advocating for change can be difficult. My 1995 experience at the National Archives and Records Administration illustrates a few lessons:

Innovation In A Change-Resistant Organization: A Story

In 1995 few federal agencies had robust Internet presences. Most had none at all.

As a lawyer with the National Archives and Records Administration my duties did not include technical matters. Despite this in my own personal life I had some ideas of the exciting things that were happening with the Internet, and I recognized the enormous potential to improve organizational effectiveness. I drafted some white papers explaining email, the Worldwide Web, and various other Internet features and providing advice on how to implement them in the federal environment.

This was not part of my job. I was just a lawyer. I had no IT duties. I had learned about the Internet on my own time, more or less as a hobby. I was no great tech wizard, but I knew enough to understand the basics of how the Internet worked and have an idea of some of the ways it would change the world.

With some trepidation, I gave the white papers to my supervisor. He laughed.

He thought the Internet was just a fad, something that would go away soon. He was not stupid, quite the contrary. However, his attitude was consistent with the thinking of many, probably most federal managers at the time. He wanted nothing to so with something as frivolous as “surfing the web.”

I didn’t let it drop there. I was too low in the bureaucratic pecking order to know anyone as august as June Gibbs Brown, the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services. As that time she was Chair of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, an interagency working group. I forwarded a copy of the material to her office.

She loved it and asked if I could present the ideas at a PCIE meeting. At that point my supervisor had a 180 degree change in attitude. Once he learned that a higher ranking official believed the ideas were valuable, he decided he would champion them. He insisted on attending the PCIE meeting to present the white papers himself.

At the request of June Gibbs Brown, I revised the white papers to format them as an article for the Journal of Public Inquiry, a new publication for Inspectors General throughout the federal government. The resulting article, Adventures in Cyberspace: An Inspector General’s Guide to the Internet is available at this website. It is also archived at the website.

This was one of the first published articles to make the case for federal government use of the Internet in a systematic way. It’s kind of fun to see how things have changed: Compuserve, anyone?

Lessons Learned

Lessons for Innovation Champions:

  • Be stubborn. Don’t be discouraged if there is opposition to new ideas, even if others ridicule the ideas. This is not an aberration. It is normal.
  • If lower level managers are unreceptive, seek out higher level audiences.

Lesson for Managers:

  • Be alert for good ideas coming from unexpected sources. Your IT staff is not the only–nor even always the best source of IT advice.

Fighting for innovation will not always make you popular in your organization, but success in improving organizational efficiency is one of the biggest satisfactions you can have.