Correcting Invasiveness

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Metaphors shape and constrain our thinking. We navigate through our own abstraction using our each other and this is supposed to demands a concrete world. The human mind, doing the best it can in a job to which it’s not entirely suited. Yet, still, there remains a fundamental disconnect at the center of the public policy agenda today. While on the one hand we are urged to build a big society where citizens run things for themselves, on the other we are told to grandfather them in this or that direction and make decisions on their behalf. By big society I mean featuring key qualities like the needs of different places which are dealt with in different ways, letting people take control, leading to similar senses of community arising in inner city and rural areas that weren’t there before. We find ourselves reacting to bureaucracy that stifles rather than nurtures, isolation or government systems missing people, feeling shut out or the system shutting us out rather than involving us. Should we be at vanguard[i] in the world? A society in which we don’t feel small.

Yes, the public sector is often adversely compared with the public sector. Yes, leadership is at the heart of organizational effectiveness and employee engagement.  Yes, the public and private sectors have traditionally been regarded as very different. But, in recent years, they appear to have been culturally closer to each other. However, there are significant differences as well as similarities in leadership development in public and private sectors. Effective leadership helps our nation through times of peril. It makes business organization successful. And yet, there are common dilemmas. One of these is ‘growing’ versus ‘buying’ leaders. But, something strange has happened to public services over the past decade or so. Services that were once a part of the social settlement that led to the creation of the welfare state have increasingly become a tool for telling people how to behave. Whether it's creating better citizens or trying to change their lifestyles, the only question raised is how best to do it.

Specifically, the government's approach to restoring faith in the community is to fund local initiatives rewarding good residents with points redeemable at local retailers, which to me, falls short of the most rational mode. We want to see people helping us to boost recycling rates by putting out their rubbish correctly, but bullying them with fines is not the way to do it. Opponents, particularly local authorities none too keen on reverting to the weekly bin collection, only object that scarce public funds would be better spent on other behavior-controlling initiatives such as the cuts-threatened SureStart centers. There is nothing rational about keeping

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The world of social care has grown to be complicated in theory and practice.  While theoretically in favor of more independence, choice and control, for its users, is obsessed with testing the behavior or practice of staff, volunteers, or anybody else that might come into contact with a vulnerable person. Which is why lockstep adherence to advance instructions comes at an opportune moment where there is no reasonable solution for accountability when circumstances are fundamentally unpredictable. But that doesn’t mean a manager is free from accountability. Literal fidelity[ii] to orders is no reasonable solution; indeed for those driving public policy today the delivery of public services is not the point. It is all about shaping new 'active citizens' to better meet corporate objectives. But surely this gets things back to front right? Let us look at the environment some more.

 

If we are a public manager we should gain an appreciation through (exhibit A. definition purpose) for the staff members' concerns in a given year when the director asks to facilitate a staff team that is developing a new method for managing customer information. I call it a problem solving process. However, an organization's customer knowledge should not sit in various information silos[iii] either or have staff not knowing what they already knew about their customers. I believe we need to picture ourselves in this organization. Over the next six months, a manager and other workers who meet several times about a project should not encounter an ongoing stream of negative comments. If nothing that a worker does pleases manager something needs to be change. We must understand that many workers become very frustrated when they are labeled as ‘resistant to change.’ On change: People don't resist change rather they resist loss. A good public manager needs to deal with resisters. The assumption is that there are always people who resist change, and many resist any and all changes. Sure, there are some folks who routinely get upset when their orderly world is altered. But it's not the fact of change that most of us oppose, it's the perception that we'll be worse off because of it. In the manager's case, he/she worries that his/her staff members carry out changes without thinking about the unanticipated consequences of their actions. As he/she put it, ‘They get enthusiastic, which is great, and then they move forward without consulting key stakeholders. They forget to learn what happened when we tried something similar in the past. They don't appreciate the sizable effects created by any change. How can I support a new initiative that solves one problem and creates three new ones?’ So is this fair not only to oneself but to the manager?

Staff teams make much better progress as all learn to anticipate the director's questions and tried to see their concerns in a positive light: He/she may love the organization and want to be sure they don't lose its core strengths as we innovate. Workers should also plan to play devil's advocate at times, asking coworkers to anticipate negative consequences of our plan and tell each other how to avoid them. After incorporating many of his/her suggestions into your plan and make the final presentation to him/her, he/she starts beaming. The next time you're working on an innovation, keep in mind that your real challenge isn't the fact that it involves change. Your challenge is what people think they'll lose. Everyone will benefit if you ask those who will be affected these questions: If we implement this project as planned, how might it help you and your colleagues? What problems might it create for you? What will be harder for you? What about its impact on our customers? What changes should we make in the plan to ensure that has a positive impact on staff and customers? Can you help us monitor implementation so that we learn early on of any problems? Engaging in this kind of open, candid conversation will help you create a better product or program. And those people who've been labeled as ‘resisters’ may just turn into advocates.

In developing a strategic plan for our organization, we should be building the plan as a description of the status quo. We should also be sure that our mission statement describes all the things the organization does rather than its purpose. Make sure the plan is a checklist of things that need to be done. Don't put anything in the plan that you might not be able to accomplish. Make sure to align the language of the plan with the organization's culture so that it does not provoke anyone. Sometimes strategic plans are written as an impersonal task. More often than not, strategic plans that provide powerful new direction end up getting lost in the day-to-day pressures of organization life. By contrast, many have also served in organizations where the strategic plan was a centerpiece of all-important activity. It informed allocation of resources not just an annual budget but the use of time and political capital as well. The plan was used as a guide in making difficult decisions and setting priorities for work. It was the principal standard against which progress and performance was measured. And based on what was learned through action, the plan was regularly improved.

What accounts for the difference in whether or not a strategic plan gets used? First, the content of the plan matters are important to correcting invasiveness because if the existing strategic trajectory of an organization is working and is expected to work under projected future circumstances, there is no need for a plan. Strategic plans alter the trajectory of an organization, prepare it for new circumstances in the organization's environment, and/or are a response to an impending threat or opportunity. The strategic plans with the most vitality are those that reflect planned change. Specifically, the content of a well used strategic plan describes five things: (1) in 10 words or less, the purpose of the organization (mission); (2) its desired future state (vision); (3) a few high-level approaches for changing the course of the organization (strategies); (4) a very few measures that reflect the extent to which the organization is moving toward its vision (indicators); and (5) a few principles that should guide day-to-day behavior (values). These five elements are important; what you call them is not. Second, how the plan is developed matters is important to correcting invasiveness because often in an effort to be inclusive in strategic decision-making, we doom future use of strategic plans by muddling important distinctions in decision-making roles. With input from the ranks, formal leaders should define the organization's purpose and vision, how progress will be measured, and a few high-level strategies for achieving that vision. With input from formal leadership, the ranks should define a few common values that guide all actions and annual operating plans aligned with the strategies. Such a decision-making structure aligns responsibility for doing work with accountability for the results of that work. But there is much more to strategic plans than caring and sharing.

Strategic plans are important leadership tools. They are also an essential element for empowering employees. When leadership direction is provided along with the measures that will be used to assess progress, then subordinate units in the organization can be freed to innovate in how the strategic objectives are realized. Plans that include lengthy lists of activities to be carried out are stifling. People will find a way to neglect such plans. Third, how the plan is used matters and is important to correcting invasiveness because organizations in which people are actively engaged over time in pursuing the strategic direction see strategic plans as part of a leadership process. This process, or cycle, might not always be as formal as I will describe here, but the concepts are there regardless of the terminology used. We should be developing a brief high-level strategic plan, investing in a strategy. This is not just about budgeting, but also includes investing time, leadership attention, project priorities, political capital and use of material assets. Nothing makes a strategic plan more quickly irrelevant than an organization that fails to reallocate all of these resources with emphasis on its strategy. Change will not happen without investment. Next, we should be taking strategic action. Many a public manager’s clients successfully uses annual operating plans, sometimes called ‘business plans’ or ‘work plans’ as an intermediate tool for helping mid-level units apply strategic direction to their day-to-day work. These can be renewed every year or even more often. Finally, make strategic assessment. Many organizations conduct monthly or quarterly operations reviews. The focus of these reviews is neither blame nor credit. The focus is and should be on learning. Sometimes that learning precipitates improvements in the strategy. Often it precipitates improvement in operations. This kind of activity is increasingly taking place at the gubernatorial and mayoral levels as well as within departments. Strategic plans are never perfect. Circumstances change. Strategic assessment keeps plans relevant. After all, the vitality of a strategic plan rests on keeping it simple and high-level; providing leadership direction and accountability for change while empowering subordinate units to pursue implementation; and using strategic planning in the context of strategic resourcing, strategic action and strategic assessment. That kind of strategic plan gets used every day.

Despite public agencies' rhetorical preoccupation with the idea of teams, it is a rare government organization that has achieved the consistency, agility and stamina that characterizes a high-performing, competitive enterprise. Often the charge to work like a team is in reality a plea to subdue competitive instincts, play assigned roles and not disrupt. The challenge in most large, complex organizations is that the units of identity and action are often narrowly programmatic, isolated from one another by authorizing legislation, budget codes or differing constituencies. Breaking such sub-organizations out of their siloed interests is challenging, and harder still is maintaining a cross-agency perspective. But, even still, often the problem is in the framework through which leaders within an organization learn about others' interests, priorities, competition for resources and political support. The agency head must commit the time to exchanges that inform and weld together units that may see themselves as parallel strands with little interest in others' goals. Strategic planning that does not break down these boundaries will be of little use. We must ask ourselves, how does a leader jump-start a process that can lead to true cohesion within an organization? We must look at approaches that have been tested and seen replicated successfully by others. For example, ingredients are important to invasiveness because crucial to this process, in addition to the agency head, are leaders of programmatic units as well as senior support staff or budget, legislative affairs, policy, legal, press. Pre-meeting assignment are important to invasiveness because program leaders must be prepared to sketch out the transformation they want to achieve over the course of three to four years, a time frame based on the agency's lifecycle, such as the term of a mayoral or gubernatorial administration. Senior support staff must be prepared to respond knowledgeably about legislative, budgetary, policy and political issues faced by the agency as a whole.

We must remember that after a short period, many public managers will have the luxury of being back to hoarder status. The truth is, the way you work means accepting that all your efforts to reorganize mean nothing until I change how I work. If you only waste about six days a year reinforcing your lesson, and the time spent stacking others is only your own then you might be ok in the short term. When we do this at work though, you waste months discussing who should answer to whom, meeting with facilities management to see how we could rearrange the cubes and trying to find money in an already tight budget for new carpet squares. We can waste a year in reorganization. As a newly appointed head of a government agency, fight the urge to reorganize. Do everything in your power to resist the temptation of taking what may look like a discombobulated office and "streamlining" it by moving around boxes on an org chart and cubes on your floor space. Failure to resist, and you run the risk of wasting a year or more and finding out at the end of the day that the organizational structure has less to do with the work your organization does than almost anything else you could have spent your time on. From an employee perspective it's another round of ‘been there, done that.’ Workers need to ask people in their workshops how many reorganizations have they survived. The numbers are staggering. In a 20-year career, there are people that have experienced 10-plus attempts to streamline through reorganization. We must remember that it's not where you sit; it's what you do. Improvements to your work do not come from reporting structures. If you want to improve the work, you have to get into the pipes. The pipes of government, where the work occurs is where the real problems are. The problems your agency is facing, the need to increase capacity and reduce the costs is all in the pipes. Your pipes are twisted and clogged, and reorganization is akin to replacing the sink faucet without ever thinking about the tangled mess behind the drywall and under the floorboards. As a new leader, be encouraged to take the time to look at the pipes before looking at the people. Reorganize the work before the organization.

Finally, underneath the metaphorical floors, behind the walls and up in the ceiling are the pipes of your agency. The pipes, that is, the systems and processes, are how you deliver value to those you serve. Whether it's food stamps, permits, health inspections, court orders or whatever, they all travel through our pipes to meet the needs of those we serve. Those pipes, unfortunately, are rarely short, straight pathways. Instead, they are kinked-up, gummed-up, twisted, contorted messes ravaged by 15 years of work, four reorgs and two failed technology projects. What used to be a one-day, three-step process has become a nine-month, 15-step journey. And that journey is very expensive. The pipes, in addition to being how we deliver value and service, are also where all the money is going. Costs are in the pipes. If you want to lower the cost of government, you have to fix the pipes of government. You have to find a way to remove the kinks, straighten the curves and speed the flow. When we speed the flow, more ‘stuff’ you don’t want gets through. If we can move more ‘stuff’ with the same resources, then we are reducing costs. If we move more water with less resources, then we have our gold mine. Simple concept, yes. So why isn't everyone doing it? Why aren't there teams of people in each agency working to understand their pipes, straighten them out and freeing up the lost capacity (and money) that inefficient systems contain? Because we have a vision problem. Not vision statements but actual vision. We don't find the gold because we can't see it. We don't see the pipes in our agencies because we don't think of the work of government this way. We don't see the systems because we don't think about systems. The converse of that is that we continue to focus on what we can see. We tend to see government in two ways: physically and fiscally. The fiscal view of government questions the efficacy or necessity of the pipe. The physical view is trying to use cheaper pipe for example plastic instead of copper. The reality is the pipe is here to stay because the people need the water it delivers. What we can change and must change is how that pipe is configured. A short, straight, high-velocity pipe is fundamentally cheaper than a long, twisted, low-capacity pipe. If we can move more people through a faster, shorter pipe, we have found our gems. We need maps of the pipes that reveals where all the treasure is hidden in your agency. We need to be shown what drives cost, which drives cost, and most importantly how to make those costs disappear. We also need to understand the complex relationship between time and money and show how the things we do to improve actually make things worse.


[i] Public Management & Administration illustrated. Vol. I. Holzer, Marc, Charbonneau, Eteinne. 2008.

[ii] Donahue, John, Moore, Mark.  Introduction: On Management and Metaphor.  2012.

[iii] GOVERNING. The States and Localities. People Just Naturally Resist Change, Right? Linden, Russ.  April 18, 2012.

 

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