What a Picture is Worth

Standing outside the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ office, people clustered nervously in small groups, waiting to be ushered in for the photo shoot.  Unlike the rest of the Hubert Humphry building, the anteroom is carpeted and wood-paneled, and I was self-concious of my lack of a necktie.  I don’t even own a tie.  The organizer called my group.  A set of awkward dances followed as we made our way past the exiting group, and were positioned for the photo.  Secretary Sibelius shook our hands and made some encouraging comments about our project, we smiled politely, and the photographer rescued us.  On our way out, I turned to one of the other fellows and whistled a bit of the circus song.  Is there anything more pointless than meeting the head bureaucrat just for the sake of a photo?

Later that day, we met a group who participated in prior government innovation projects.  They shared their understanding of what creates success and failure in changing an organization of this size and momentum.  When you’re introducing change, you must find a way to win over the loyalists and conservatives: people who believe in working within the hierarchy.  When asked to do something new, people will look up to their supervisor to see if the supervisor has bought in.  If not, no go.

You’ve seen other changes fail—are you going to risk being connected with that failure if your boss didn’t like it in the first place?  What about your boss’s boss?  Peculiar to government is the regular replacement of leadership through political appointment.  People who believe in the mission of the organization want to stay there, and if you’re proposing something new, new equals risky, and their attitude may be, “I can wait you out”.

Now I understood the photo.  This was physical proof of buy-in at the top, and I appreciate it.