Posted Tuesday, June 20, 2023 by Team Northwoods

Overcoming Obstacles That Slow Organizational Change in Human Services

Change is hard, especially in human services. When you’re so committed to empowering clients and families to change their own behaviors, it can be challenging to flip the lens and see the value of change for yourself—especially when your capacity is already limited.

There are plenty of reasons that human services agencies may be hesitant to change that often boil down to the same key issue: workers are already so overwhelmed they simply don’t have time and energy to add one more thing to their plate.

On the surface, this key issue can make change seem impossible. In fact, for many agencies, the pain of change is perceived as being so great that it seems easier to simply live with the pain of staying the same. But this can be a costly mistake, as inaction can hurt human services agencies in the long run.


One of the critical first steps to any successful change management initiative is identifying the obstacles you’re most likely going to face. By knowing what questions and concerns to expect ahead of time, you can mitigate risk by being prepared to address them when the time comes. A few common examples:

Why are we doing this?

You’ve likely heard of “Start with Why,” the book, TED Talk, and general concept made famous by author Simon Sinek. If not, it’s quite simple: every individual has a personal why—a purpose, cause, or belief—that drives everything they do. If someone can’t see how a change directly connects with that “why,” it’ll be very difficult, if not impossible, to get them on board.

You have to connect your efforts to each individual worker’s internal motivation and values. For example, knowing that so many human services workers are driven by a desire to connect with and help others, show them how the change you’re asking them to make can help them do just that.

How will this change provide value?

Many workers and supervisors are comfortable in the way that they practice. They view change as a direct threat to their competency or a fundamental loss of familiarity and expertise. Here’s where you’ll have to help them see that the gain outweighs the loss. Similar to connecting with each person’s why, you also need to explain in their own words how the change will help them do their job better.

Think about the “What’s in it for me?” principle. Will a child welfare worker have more time to spend with families? Will an eligibility worker be able to process applications faster? Will an adult & aging worker have an easier time collaborating to streamline services? Similarly, if you need to secure budget or support for the project from upper management, stay focused on operational efficiencies, productivity gains, and the expected return on investment (ROI).

How will we make time for this?

You’ll most likely have at least one person who thinks, “this isn’t in my job description, so I’m not doing it.” Even the workers who are excited about a change may initially be hesitant to get started because they can’t imagine how they’ll find time to learn and adopt something new.

You have to meet them where they are. A new process, practice, or tool should be so simple, logical, and meaningful that workers don’t have to give up their already limited time to learn how to make it part of their daily routine or be convinced why they should. (Think back to 2007 and how many people were willing to wait for hours in the rain to get their hands on the iPhone because they believed it held tremendous, unimaginable value.)

You have to be able to help workers think long-term here too. Even though it may take a bit of extra time and effort to adapt to the change now, prove that it’ll be worth it by showing them how much they’ll be able to save time in the future. Showing vs. telling is especially important here, as you have limited time to influence someone’s decision to accept or reject change before you lose their attention.

How will we know it’s working?

Finding ways to save workers’ valuable time is always important. But it’s likely not the only thing that matters to your agency. Beyond giving thought to how a change will impact each person individually, you also have to define why it matters on an organizational level.

How does your agency define success? What financial, operational, or community-driven goals are you hoping to achieve? What specific indicators will you use to measure if you’ve met them? Nobody wants to waste time on a project that’s bound to fail, but if you can’t define what “getting it right” looks like, it’ll be difficult to do anything else.


A word of warning as you think through how to answer these questions: Stick to the facts and don’t use hype. Overpromising results will only create unrealistic expectations—which if they aren’t met, could discredit you, slow down your momentum, and stop change in its tracks.

Another critical factor for helping your workers embrace change is by tying your efforts back to a very specific, well-established problem that’s creating ripple effects across your agency. (To be clear, this problem should be determined before you even decide to make any changes.) Each person may feel those effects differently, but you can often trace all of them back to a singular root cause—think lack of staffing and resources or struggling to keep up with documentation amid ever-changing mandates).

Keep in mind that a clearly defined problem will also help you answer each of the questions above. For example, being able to demonstrate how a change will solve your workers’ most pressing problems is a compelling way to help them understand how it will provide value and connect to their why. Similarly, this problem statement will help determine what factors you should evaluate to measure success.


This blog post is an excerpt from our new resource, “Change Management 101: Empowering Human Services Agencies to Embrace Innovation." Read it to learn more about how your agency can approach change in a way that leads to lasting and measurable success.

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