Navigating the politics of change

The unfortunate consequence of being a new contractor working alongside respected and experienced incumbents is that there’s a natural inclination to be deferential to the opinions of those permanent, or long-standing members of staff, regardless of whether you feel they are right or not. I’ve seen good contractors holding back from throwing in the benefit of their experience, for fear of ruining their work prospects.

Being the new kid on the block, you really don’t want to rock the boat in the first few weeks into a contracted assignment, so you politely try and get your point across and resist the urge to fight your corner, for fear that you will upset your client and come across as a trouble maker. It’s a difficult balancing act – you’re there to share your knowledge and expertise, but if you go too far in trying to correct bad habits and incorrect practices, you can end up offending those who have always worked that way.

When working in a public sector organisation as part of a team brought in to introduce best practice, and align with Government Digital Service standards, it became apparent that those standards were clearly open to interpretation among the higher echelons of the organisation. Despite being asked by our Team Manager to compile a list of our preferred technology, in line with the recommended GDS guidance, we soon found our suggestions subjected to various, often inconsistent, opinions of those people with the authority to grant or deny our requirements. The result was that our expectations were dashed – our vision of working in an exciting, dynamic and technically efficient way, was looking as if it would be bloated and less technically astute than we had hoped, as the wishlist of technologies we had compiled from the GDS Design Manual was slashed in half.

Asking our contracted Technical Lead to compile this list of technologies in the first place, wasn’t the same as empowering him to implement them. What this exercise did instead was put those who we were asking to approve the list on the back foot, so rather than consider our suggestions in the spirit they were intended – they became defensive and suspicious of our intentions.

This rejection was hard and made no sense to a team who were expecting to be breaking new ground. I could see that if we didn’t act quickly the team could very quickly spiral into a cycle of disappointment at not being able to work in the way they had expected.

In this situation there was only one way to go – escalation and seeking assistance from management to intervene and put a buffer in place to support our technical lead. We needed somebody with the technical authority to fight our corner and allow us to push ahead with the tools and technologies we required to do the best job. This came in the form of an in-house Technical Architect who was also new to the organisation. He had authority, but wasn’t tainted by years of being told ‘no’. With his help, and with our support behind him, we were able to progress and get in place the tools needed to start doing the work the right way, following the government standards set out in the GDS design manual.

There is no easy way to navigate the politics of an established organisation when you are tasked with bringing in new ideas and experience. You have to tread carefully. Work out who has the appetite for change and who needs gentle encouragement to accept that things move on. Timing is critical…don’t go in all guns blazing with new idea, unless it’s very obvious this is what is required. Instead take you time to get a measure of the appetite for change and those who it is going to affect the most. Diplomacy is your friend, use it wisely.