The other day, I had lunch with senior transition folks and visited with federal careerists later in the afternoon. The transition teams — those vying for appointments and the careerists — are in the early stages of team building. Specifically, they are (1) trying to get oriented, (2) trying to build trusting relationships, and (3) trying to establish goal and role clarification.

Hope and frustration are rampant. Many people are going through a presidential transition for the first time. There is confusion, but confusion is the highest state of learning. It is the moment when an individual or group recognizes the status quo has changed.

Having been through several presidential transitions — Reagan to Bush, Bush to Clinton, Clinton to Bush and Bush to Obama — it is easy to see the familiar patterns in this repeating cycle. Consolidating what I learned through all these experiences, here are just a few suggestions on how to successfully navigate a presidential transition.

For appointees


The window for effective realization of your agenda is incredibly short; no more than 18 months. If you want to be successful, you need to be crystal clear on what you want. Your chances of success greatly increase the clearer you are about what you want. Then — and this is key — the people who are most successful do everything about the fewest, most important things versus a few things about everything.

Early adopters:

Identify and enroll the 13 percent of the careerists that are the early adopters — those willing to take on risk once their basic questions are answered. They are not pushovers, but once you enroll them on your agenda they will enroll the other 87 percent of the system for you. The rookie error is trying to "get everybody on the bus." Focus all your energy on the early adopters and the rest will follow.


You are going to get bombarded with information. You are taking on change agendas in massive systems. The people who fail just take in information. Those who succeed parse the information into three buckets: (1) what is fact, (2) what is story and (3) what is belief. What these people discover is that very little of what they hear is fact — most is story. The most successful leaders dig for people's beliefs because they know people's beliefs control what facts they see and share and what stories they choose to tell. Parse the information coming at you and surface the beliefs people are attached to.


Lose the myth that change in government is hard. Most of the restrictive bureaucracy in any agency is self-generated and self-inflicted. The key is to distinguish the real rules and laws that must be obeyed from all the internally generated policies, habits and procedures that don't add value. The former must be adhered to. The latter can be ignored. Don’t focus your time and energy trying to sort all this out. Instead, find a trustworthy careerist/early adopter to do this for you.

For federal careerists

The inherently governmental "why we exist."

Government agencies are just like people. They accumulate baggage as they age. Baggage is a drain on resources and does nothing to meet customer needs or the needs of the agency. This is known as Muda — a Japanese word for uselessness or activity without added value. Over time we get comfortable, we fall into routines and we fail to recognize Muda. If we do recognize it, we think it doesn’t matter — it’s simply part of our job. In times of transition, it is dangerous to be involved in activities that can be considered Muda.

The key for the careerist during times of transition is to take time to get really clear on and be able to state the "inherently governmental ‘why’ your agency exists." By doing this, you will distinguish the activities that are (1) exclusively the role of a full-time government employee and (2) directly linked to the justification to Congress for the agency funds to be appropriated. Attaching your brand to the inherently governmental ‘why’ is the full metal jacket that will shield you from the hurricane force of the transition.

For all of us

Give up "something is wrong" and replace it with "something is possible."

Resistance and fragmentation are the nails in the coffin of change. Both are generated when our desire to change is prompted by the notion that what happened in the past is "wrong" and needs to be fixed. Real change happens when everybody understands that things are the way they are, because they are the way they are. That’s it. No judgment. No defense necessary or warranted.

By looking at the current situation and asking, "what is possible" instead of "how can we fix this," we are free to ask: "What is possible if we work together?" Our chances of success in this transition go up radically if we all adopt this mindset — just because we can imagine something better does not mean that we were doing anything wrong.

Chris McGoff is founder of The Clearing, Inc., where he has spent the last 30 years helping governments and organizations to engender new, transformative possibilities for a better world.

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