Managing Change is the New Normal - Observations on the TRB Annual Meeting

Managing Change is the New Normal - Observations on the TRB Annual Meeting

Peter Plumeau TRB
Washington Convention Center
I was part of the decidedly smaller group of people who participated in the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC earlier this month. While only about one-third of a typical year’s 15,000 attendees were present, it was nonetheless a worthwhile and educational experience.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the stark contrast in attendance and in-person events portended what I took away as a key conference theme, both implicit and explicit; that is, the “new normal” is change. Almost without exception, each session, workshop, committee meeting, and even informal conversation I participated in had “change,” or more precisely, what we should do about change, at its core. Perhaps this isn’t surprising in the shadow of the last two years. Yet, the consistency of this theme throughout the conference, even in settings where the nominal topic was something else, is noteworthy. 

Different events addressed the change issue in different ways. For example, in the State DOT CEO session on Monday, we heard two agency heads discuss how they are seeking to reengineer internal processes and perspectives as a means of being more agile and customer-responsive”organizations. In other meetings, discussion centered on how the transportation industry itself needs to change in response to new realities of commuting, land use, climate change, etc. Still elsewhere, many talked about whether and how we can predict or anticipate looming change.  

Obviously, we in the transportation world need to do more than just talk about change. We need to acknowledge and accept that change, in all its forms and flavors, is, perhaps more now than ever, part of the environment within which we function. However, the effect of external change on transportation providers and organizations will usually mean the organization itself needs to change in some way. This moves us into the realm of “change management,” which basically means using a structured process to help the organization – really, its people – become more responsive, resilient, and effective. One example we learned about during TRB is the SCOPE (safety, cleanliness, ownership, partnership, and engagement) initiative undertaken by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to actively and continuously engage its employees at all levels to expand its social outreach efforts by deploying outreach workers to multiple stations throughout its system. In essence, SCOPE is about SEPTA rethinking its role in the region and embracing an important social services role. SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards discussed how agency leaders talked extensively and worked closely with front-line employees to ensure policies and procedures would facilitate, rather than impede, the goal of helping vulnerable population members who use SEPTA facilities. 

So perhaps it’s more accurate to say the new normal is about managing change. As we become accustomed to this dynamic and even unpredictable environment, it is important for transportation providers and planners to look closely at both the people who use the transportation system and those who provide transportation services. Both groups are rapidly changing, and our future mobility and vitality could be largely determined by how intelligently and thoughtfully the transportation industry itself changes. Since successful organizational outcomes are the product of collective individual changes, agencies that engage their people and stakeholders in well-designed change management processes are likely to find it easier to remain effective and relevant well into the future.  

We at EBP have a long history of working with our clients in identifying how change may affect them and finding opportunities within that change. We would love to talk to you about your experiences, compare notes, and exchange insights about what we see in the industry.