There is an old story Victoria Grady likes to tell of a NASA employee who, when asked about his job by then-President John F. Kennedy, replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The employee was a janitor.
“That’s how NASA makes its employees feel,” Grady, an assistant professor of management in George Mason University’s School of Business, said recently. “The mission is well-defined and they hold onto it.”
Service to the mission—a “transitional object,” Grady called the sentiment—is a reason NASA is one of the federal agencies best at handling organizational change and disruptions, Grady’s research found.
“It’s what enables them to maintain some level of success and performance and productivity,” she said.
Grady’s research into more than 100 federal agencies was sponsored by and done in conjunction with Booz Allen Hamilton, of McLean, Va., a provider to the federal government of management and technology consulting services. Patrick McCreesh, a senior associate at the company and part of the research team, called it the first deep dive into understanding federal employee reactions to change.
“The academic applications are we can monitor agencies over the years to see which are better at managing change efforts,” he said. “The practical application is government leaders can easily understand the impact that forthcoming changes might have on their agency.”
That is important because, as Grady points out in her research, the average length of an executive appointment is 2 1/2 years. That’s a lot of change. There is even more in Washington, D.C., this year with the installation of a new presidential administration.
“Change causes a lack of stability,” Grady said. “The optimal scenario is to minimize or mitigate those symptoms so you don’t suffer a decrease in performance or profitability.”
The research has been featured on the Bloomberg Government website in a series of blog posts co-authored by Grady and McCreesh, including an analysis of the “change management challenge” President Donald Trump faces in setting up his administration.
Grady, a founding member of the Association for Change Management Professionals and author of “The Pivot Point: Success in Organizational Change,” worked her research with data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
That data was incorporated into Grady’s own Change Diagnostic Index, which measures intensity of behaviors related to change and anticipates strategies that might work best within an organization to make change initiatives easier; strategies such as using workplace leaders to deliver messages and supporting skills development while change happens. Having that “transitional object” is key, as well.
“NASA is different than the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation is different than any organization,” Grady said. “The constant is they all have a transitional object they hold onto. They’ve been able to hold on to their mission.”