The Workplace Conspiracy Against Change

Planners sometimes feel that there is a “conspiracy against change” when they encounter inertia and resistance to new ideas. Decision makers may not be enthusiastic about their plans and proposals, preferring the status quo to the risks of change.

Even within a planning department, there may be a tacit agreement to not rock the boat. This can be frustrating for change-oriented planners.

Planners joining an organization may have ambitions to introduce new analytic tools, their diverse life experience, advocacy for sustainability and social justice, or ideas learned from innovative organizations.

For example, these planners may seek to introduce race and class issues in a comprehensive plan process or propose interdepartmental project review. Technically oriented planners may champion a cross-department GIS platform or propose the use of pricing mechanisms to manage public resources. Recent hires at planning firms may encourage new product lines, and nonprofit sector planners may advocate a new strategic vision.

How can planners be effective change-makers? This post suggests taking a broad view of the change process and your role. Here are three tips based on my experience as a transportation consultant.

Understand the Logic of the Status Quo

I’ve worked for transportation agencies that are seeking to manage rail station parking. My client is usually a planning department within the agency whose job is long-range thinking and innovation. I frequently recommend using market pricing to manage demand, a proposal that encounters resistance from staff in operational departments who would implement the idea. They are on the front lines of rider complaints and must deal with implementation problems.

Change is at odds with a natural human inclination to the status quo — current programs are known and change brings risk.

There is merit to simplicity. New ideas generate work for implementing departments, and to some extent, highlight their lack of imagination. One such person said of a program I proposed: “It would take someone with a PhD to figure out how to use the transit system with that scheme!” Ouch, but I got the point.

Lesson learned: Change is best accomplished if innovators take a genuine interest in the issues that implementing departments face.

Whispering the Change

A jurisdiction was facing a storm of controversy about a parking management study it commissioned from a respected consulting firm. The consultant suggested everything I would have recommended, yet no action had been taken. I was hired to help things get restarted, in a role I call the “parking whisperer.” I conducted a listening tour with staff, commissioners, council members, stakeholders, and the public.

The process of listening seemed to calm some people down, perhaps changed a few stakeholders’ minds, and provided information on the dimensions of the controversy. I suggested incremental changes and a multiyear work program that included feedback and monitoring. This “go slow” approach was unsatisfying to advocates for parking reform, but it was the right way to move forward in this community.

Lesson learned: Incremental change is better than no progress on an apparently perfect solution. It is often a wise strategy, not a sellout.

The Happy Warrior *

My mentor and friend, UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, has been working on parking reform since the 1970s. He was recently rated in the top 15 in a list of the top 100 most influential urbanists. For almost 40 years, his ideas about parking were ignored or rejected, and despite his recent influence, most cities still have the minimum parking requirements that he suggests eliminating. He kept at it, though, with insightful studies, convincing writing, penetrating criticism, and a sense of humor.

Shoup was not discouraged by disinterest in or rejection of his ideas. For him, resistance was an invitation to clarify his argument and find better evidence.

Lesson learned: Your greatest impact may happen decades from now, building on the work you are doing today. Change takes time.

Summing Up

As a planner, there is no guarantee that the change you seek will happen. But with your earnest effort, it could.

View setbacks, failures, and delays as a type of ordeal; perhaps change requires an ordeal. Planners’ awareness of the urgency for action on problems such as climate change, housing affordability, or economic development makes this uncertain prognosis for change upsetting. Even so, we are more effective if we set aside the upset and move forward as happy warriors.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

* The Happy Warrior reference comes from an 1806 poem by William Wordsworth entitled “Character of a Happy Warrior.”

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


August 13, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP