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5 change management best practices to fuel large-scale system modernization

When updating legacy systems, supporting the system users is as important as the technology solution. Follow these change management best practices to set the stage for a successful implementation.

Last Update: 03/06/2024

As technology improvements continue to enhance our daily lives, users have come to expect streamlined and cohesive experiences across all channels and touchpoints—including their government interactions. And the same applies to prospective talent: the modern workforce wants the systems they use to propel and streamline their efforts rather than slow them down.

For agency leaders, the modernization of monolithic applications is a once-in-a-career opportunity to make meaningful changes for staff and users and improve stakeholder experiences across the board. But executing large-scale system modernization in the public sector comes with distinct challenges: federal agencies operate within an ecosystem of legacy IT infrastructure, complex IT governance, siloed stakeholders, and mission objectives that are more nuanced than the profit-generating motives that drive private sector decisions. What's more, agency leaders who spearhead modernization initiatives often engage with a workforce that is resistant to change, which is a top reason that modernization efforts fail according to our latest federal digital transformation report.

Agencies need to be prepared for the shifts that come with new processes and solutions—and the potential impact those shifts can have on executive priorities, workforce morale, and customer experiences. A successful portfolio modernization—especially on a large scale—requires more than the right technology; it takes a strategic approach to change management.

But it isn't enough to know that a change needs to be managed. Change management must be handled correctly, or agencies risk making a sore subject worse. Done well, change management ensures open-minded and welcoming behavior, which is vital: especially because cultural resistance to change is a leading cause for modernization failure. Failure to adopt can lead to decreased impact, employee fatigue, wasted effort, and lost time if a transformation needs to start over.

Change management: A critical element in system modernization success

Effective change management provides support throughout the full transition lifecycle. While many government leaders recognize the need for modernization, agencies are still working on how to successfully transition legacy systems and improve service delivery in a climate of heightened customer expectations—and the federal government is well-aware that it lags behind all other industries in customer experience quality.

“It’s important to point out that there are both people and organizations included in the change management definition,” says Brianne Turrentine, change management specialist at ICF. “Individual change does not always correlate to large-scale, organizational change. But organizational change—and the success of that change—must take the individual change experience into consideration.” 

Bar chart with some stats

The success of large-scale system modernization hinges upon awareness, acceptance, and ultimately the adoption or buy-in from all affected individuals—from stakeholders and staff to the often highly matrixed breadth of end users. Often organizations focus on the specific technologies necessary to overhaul a portfolio but fail to properly consider how users will interact with those solutions—and how they’ve been prepared for them.

The big question: How can government leaders get an entire organization of users and stakeholders to not only adopt but fully embrace new technology solutions as a means to accelerate and amplify mission outcomes?

Though each agency and mission are different—in scope, details, and needs—there are some strategies and change management best practices that can help guide you toward successful modernization.

Cultivate shared accountability through a common vision

A cohesive vision is an important part of large-scale change projects. It’s important to consider how changes will impact employees, external users, and stakeholders. People need to understand not only what changes are coming but why those changes are necessary to achieve a broader mission goal. That shared vision will allow for the transformative process of change from a project’s beginnings to its implementation.

Create and communicate a shared vision for modernization. Address and continue to reiterate the “why” behind change and tie organizational and cultural values to that vision. Far too often the implications of a change are overlooked and approached in a reactive fashion.

“The fear of potential change implications is intrinsically human,” says Turrentine. “Our amygdala—or lizard brain—prompts resistance to change because, from an evolutionary standpoint, change represents the unknown which unconsciously correlates to risk or danger. Fearing change, or being reluctant to indulge in change, is a primal preservation tactic. If users don’t know the what, how, and why surrounding the change, then transitioning them beyond fear will not be plausible. This could derail your capacity for achieving user adoption or ownership upon delivery.”

A common vision is also central to a shared accountability model—which defines and delegates areas of individual and collaborative responsibility across the organization, from data scientists to IT teams to business process managers. Shared accountability sets clear roles while encouraging collaborations. And success starts with leadership, who need to be fully invested when it comes to implementing wide-scale change and enforcing areas of ownership. Without active participation—attending meetings, being “on the ground” in the places where changes are made—leadership will not be able to understand, convey, and steward the transitions needed to make a large-scale overhaul impactful.

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Consider adaptation as a fluid process

Anchoring modernization in a “North Star” solution can guide implementation as it progresses. Continuously refer back to that main solution goal when prioritizing and making important decisions.

But as work continues, it’s important to remain nimble and adaptive. While product clarity and buy-in are paramount, effective change management must prepare users and stakeholders for pivots as well as course corrections during the change management process—an aspect not often expected, but synonymous with success. As agencies work toward implementing a road map to their destination, realize that there may be detours along the way. Encourage teams to challenge initial perceptions to cultivate better processes and produce results.

The evolution from traditional to adaptive governance requires shifting from a top-down, plan-driven approach to one that is allowed—and encouraged—to continually evolve based on continuous learning and changes in the environment.

Questions for assessing external components

☑ How are external subgroups impacted?
☑ How do subgroups currently use the product?
☑ How might subgroups want to use the product in the future?
☑ Would external users benefit from incremental releases as a form of change/new feature training?

Assess external components

Change management is often seen as exclusively internal—the planning, triaging, and testing of everything that will impact staff and processes. But external components of any major overhaul also require attention and scrutiny. For new applications and releases, how are external subgroups impacted? How do they currently use the product and how might they want to use it in the future? Would external users benefit from incremental releases as a form of training for new features and changes? Supporting end-users is critical to the successful adoption of any system modernization overhaul.

Develop diverse training and documentation methods to meet disparate needs

Training and documentation are critical to any modernization effort. But taking a one-size-fits-all approach to training and documentation often ignores the particular challenges and needs of disparate user groups within an organization as well as outside of it.

This is where skills assessment and forecasting become essential ingredients for training. With them, agencies can look ahead and see skill and knowledge gaps before they become barriers to modernization, discover which skills employees really have, and upskill to stay ahead. Thanks to AI, this is now more efficient and fool-proof than ever.

Based on numerous factors, groups will vary in terms of which training and documentation processes resonate with them. One group may be eager to join an interactive virtual training session to gain more knowledge and ask questions, while another may be fully resistant to this concept, wanting to simply dive in hands-first once the technology is ready. For resistant groups, it’s important to find approaches that do work for them rather than assume that there is no way to reach them in advance. This could take several different forms, including self-paced opportunities, inter-department lead trainers, or other more dynamic and creative methods.

To reach resistant groups, consider asking them about their preferences, motivations, and level of awareness that they have over upcoming changes. Tailored findings can impact the approach you take to reaching these departments or groups. Such information can also provide insight into how redundant the training experience needs to be. Some users will adopt quickly, whereas other users will need frequent “microdosing” of information and training touchpoints to internalize changes to workflow.

It’s important to keep end-users in mind for training opportunities, as well. Though many online learning platforms (OLPs) exist, organizations might consider generating an interactive microsite or OLP uniquely crafted to specific user group needs if the technical capacity and resources permit. Adopting game-like techniques for such a site can also increase adoption. Ultimately, finding engaging and innovative ways to increase user excitement and ease of learning will inevitably lead to a more successful change adoption process. Ensuring that training is digestible and enjoyable—or better yet, fun—is paramount to post-deployment performance.

Change management in practice

We worked closely with a federal agency to develop a change management process as it updated a comprehensive public-facing platform that supported more than $5.5 billion in annual transactions.

One of the key implementation challenges was the need to move two distinct user groups into one system. From a change management perspective, that meant the key objectives and requirements for each group—and its subgroups—varied.

To address that challenge, our staff identified the implications for various user groups and their distinct challenges, motivations, hesitations, preferences, and trends in order to develop training that best meets each group’s needs.

In part, by identifying and addressing individual needs, we earned the trust and confidence of the agency, and our team was able to deliver a change management solution with multiple levels of support that increased workforce buy-in and support.

Empower staff to become change advocates

When implementing wide-scale change solutions, it’s important to empower staff to become change enablers and change advocates. Identify influential personnel that can represent the various group entities within the organization. Invite these individuals to explore new features and rollouts, and empower them with information that they can bring back to their teams. Encourage them to play with new iterations of a product in an attempt to more fully understand or even break the technology—each sector will bring its own distinct approach to using a product.

As these internal influencers become more familiar with the changes and their benefits, they will naturally become change advocates and generate excitement among colleagues. Effective digital solutions are designed to create efficiencies. There's real power when an employee experiences workflow improvements first-hand and then shares those experiences with coworkers. Positive testimonials from trusted internal influencers can inspire the broader workforce to raise their hands for training and documentation—creating a virtuous circle that propels modernization forward.

Change advocates also help organizations keep communication open and continuous. By listening to their feedback, an agency can better understand the ideal experience for the product from a variety of perspectives. It also highlights pain points, challenges, motivations, hesitancies, preferences, and trends that can help inform both the product and staff buy-in.

For successful modernization, focus on people and product

Agencies operating with legacy software are increasingly finding themselves at a crossroads: maintain the status quo at the cost of maintenance and security or undergo a massive overhaul within an industry that can be resistant to change. For organizations that are evaluating large-scale modernization projects in the service of improving mission delivery, remember that no IT implementation can be successful without the support of strategic and empathetic change management. Without consideration of staff and clients at each iterative stage, modernization can be a disruptive and ultimately unsuccessful venture.

And the stakes are high. Monolithic application modernization is a marathon rather than a sprint, and agency leaders cannot afford to let these initiatives fail. By following the best practices outlined above—establishing shared accountability and a North Star vision, focusing relentlessly on users, and cultivating champions from within—you can set the stage for a large-scale modernization that sticks. A crawl-walk-sprint mentality is essential, along with an agile, iterative, and collaborative approach to application delivery.

As shown by our extensive experience with federal agencies, working with a partner with deep-bench expertise in change management can deliver not only the working technology solutions for a modern interface, but it can also mean the difference between successful adaptation or disruption and dissatisfaction.

Meet the authors
  1. Kyle Tuberson, Chief Technology Officer

    Kyle brings more than 20 years of experience in technology and data science to IT modernization services that help government and businesses improve efficiency and reimagine the way they meet customer needs. View bio

  2. Darren Bryant, Senior Director, Program Management
  3. Brianne Turrentine, Change Management Specialist