Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Telling Your Story

April 15th

Leaders in a complicated, over communicated marketplace will need to focus on telling their stories in an increasingly compelling manner, that and to recognize that the audience is listening for a story about a success and the way forward, not another Information Age melodrama

Unquestionably one of the most striking aspects of my experience in teaching at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy was to watch the power of telling the stories that came from my experience in more than 3 decades of working on public policy concerns during times of stress and transformation.  Frankly, I had slipped into a pattern that’s familiar, especially in the business, government and academic, settings where I had worked, of taking the work seriously and sometimes ourselves even more so.  But it was stories that communicated.


And its not as though I had not been given fair warning.  In 2011 I had traveled to Wilmington to teach a class at the National Association of Corporate Directors advanced workshops.  My subject was the experience of telling the Board of the USPS that volume would almost certainly decline unless there were an unexpected change in the patterns that were already visible in  the markets that were being reshaped by the Internet.  But they didn’t believe me.

My story may have been believable from an analytic perspective.  They allowed me to put the forecast of decline into the Strategic Plan that we published in 2000.  But as Vice President for Strategic Planning more should have been expected of me than making the right forecast and publishing it.  The organization did not want to face the painful choices that would follow from accepting this view.  Multiple stakeholders were even more passionate in their rejection of the forecast of decline.  And to be fair, for at least 6 more years the trend seemed to be rising, not falling.  Only later was it clear that this was only a recovery from the decline that followed 9-ll.

“You needed a better story,” one of my director students told me after the session.

I remembered an interview that I had seen in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, (“Storytelling that Moves People, A conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee”, Bronwyn Fryer, June 2003.)  She asked a professional screenwriter and coach “why is persuasion so difficult and what can you do to set people on fire?”

His advice was that you have to unite an idea with an emotion.  “The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”  McKee explains that your goal needy s to be to harness imagination and the principles of a well told story.  “A story expresses how and why life changes,”  He explains that stories begin with a situation where life is relatively in balance “but then there’s an event – in screenwriting we call it the “inciting incident” – that throws life out of balance.  The story is the description of the protagonist’s experience with the crash when subjective expectations confront uncooperative objective reality.

The classes that I taught at Georgetown soon contained the stories that had shaped my perceptions of leadership and what it takes to lead change successfully.  I commited to finishing writing about what I had learned before I returned to communicating it and one of the benefits of doing that will be that now the stories will be included as well.

Including the stories also lends a sobering touch to recalling my experience.  If my story had given the leadership any compelling message that connected an idea with emotion, it had to have been a story that conveyed an ominous warning of pending disaster.  Perhaps that was appropriate.  But its not a story that you want to tell inadvertently, and it would have been even more important to have recognized that the story needed to be about the successful conclusion rather than the pending crash.


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The City on the Hill

August 15th

Working on leadership issues that are being generated every day by the changing market in which we now live, one of the clearest and most notable changes that can be seen everyday has been the growing visibility of leaders.  Future leaders will have to learn to manage this heightened, 360 degree inspection.  Above all will be the pressure to communicate what you believe in, often in the most personal terms.  The following post came from this discussion of the personal leadership statement.

In 1983, I was asked by my college friend, Jim Coyne, who had just left Congress and had joined Ronald Reagan’s White House staff, to come to work as his deputy in the office of Private Sector Initiatives. This was a new program that had the personal attention of President Ronald Reagan. My first task when I came to work was to organize and our budget suggested that that might mean dropping the person who had been there when we came, a White House staffer named Michael Castine.

But I thought that it made sense for me to go and talk to Michael first and to see what he knew. Ten minutes into the conversation I knew that my first decision in the Reagan White House was to bust our budget and find a way to get more funding. This was probably not the small government that President Reagan intended. But Michael had unique abilities to get things done in the White House. He started by getting Jim and me onto Air Force One.

Everyone who has ever worked in government knows that getting visibility for your program is half of the battle. And in the case of Private Sector Initiatives, getting Ronald Reagan’s attention wasn’t hard. He loved them. What I hadn’t expected was the education that I was going to get by watching Reagan up close.

Two days after I arrived, President Reagan flew to Western Pennsylvania to review a jobs training program and, far more visibly, to give a speech to the NAM-AFL-CIO meeting in Pittsburgh where the unemployment rate was 22%. Going to Pittsburgh at all in such a time was hardly what most political strategists would have suggested to the President. Governor Thornburgh, I would soon see, would have just as soon missed the honor as would Senators Specter and Heintz. But there they were, bundled into a job training site in March 1983, listening to President Ronald Reagan talk about the City on the Hill.

President Ronald Reagan had become a symbol of a failing economy by the Spring of 1983. He was so unpopular that his opponents were able to organize large protest rallies to greet him when he went out to give a speech. But before we would see the crowds surrounding the luncheon speech, the motorcade swept underneath a new office building and everyone, President, Secret Service, Politicians, Press, staff – everyone – crowded into a classroom where former steel workers were being trained as computer technicians.

Reagan gave a short talk. At the end of his brief remarks, the trainees were able to ask questions. One young man in jeans stood and asked,

“Mr. President, I appreciate the opportunity that I have been given here, don’t get me wrong. Some of my buddies from the plant were past 40 and were too old to be trained for computers. But President Reagan, I have a question for you. Now that I’m going to be retrained, is there going to be a computer industry in 10 years?”

In that moment I felt as though a hand had shaken me awake. I of course knew in principle that these were the consequences to the policy choices that had been made 10 years earlier during the energy crisis. Policy had said that if the steel industry couldn’t survive with a Clean Air Act and higher energy prices that this was OK, steel jobs could move abroad if that’s what the market decided. Here, the steel worker trainees in front of me were the result of those trade-offs.

Reagan’s answer was memorable. He bowed his head and paused. When he looked up he began talking about wanting to take a Russian leader up in a helicopter to tour an American city from the air. He wanted to show him the swimming pools and the boats in the driveways.

I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Later I would hear the speech a second time and then a third and I came to understand that he was talking about one of his core beliefs in the power of the exceptional American system to manufacture opportunity.

A look back from 1983 ten years from the 1973 energy crisis, reconsidering energy and environmental policy debate of the 70’s showed where the steelworker trainee’s question – “will there be a future?” – was coming from. To look forward then from that point and think about the question of whether there would be a computer industry in 1993, is the preamble to a remarkable story. The steelworker/computer technician was asking a reasonable question at the time. But its truly ironic in light of what would happen when the Internet moved to center stage. Silicon Valley had not been invented. Microsoft had only just been created. The Macintosh had not been presented to the world in the Superbowl. The Internet explosion would have been unimaginable at the time of the question.

Yet, Reagan in Pittsburgh was standing at a strategic inflection point for the American Economy. He could not have proven that his vision of the future would be correct nor could he have steered the course through executive action. His vision of opportunity was an effective way to address a fundamental turning points that are faced by every leader.

I have thought about that cold, rainy morning in Pittsburgh many times. Above all, I was astonished at Reagan’s vision and his optimism that even in a place where the economy seemed to be at its worst that the American system would work its miracle and create opportunity. I was to hear the City on the Hill speech many other times while I was at the White House because it was a core belief of the President’s. But for me personally, Reagan’s visit to the realities of market failure and recession also came at a pivotal time.

I would have found it impossible not to have not seen the Reagan White House through a dual lens. Everything that happened in the spring and summer was a sharp contrast with my experience in the same building exactly 10 years earlier as Richard Nixon’s presidency collapsed. In contrast, the spring of 1983 was when Ronald Reagan turned his presidency from failure to a generational scale success that is often given credit for changing the direction of the country.

In 1983, I could also see, more clearly than ever before in my life, the consequences of decisions.  Here in this steelworker trainee’s angst were the results of decisions that had been made a decade earlier. Just being in the White House had created an echo. This was my experience with the phenomenon of being brought to the acute realization of the consequences of the decisions that we all make whether we see at the time that we have been given a position of leadership or not.

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What Happened to Bi-Partisanship?

June 5th

On the day of Governor Scott Walker’s recall vote when the left and the right seem increasingly hardened, the question of whether there is a future to bi-partisan cooperation seems particularly appropriate.

On Monday Chris Mathews spoke at President Gerald Ford journalism awards. He talked about Tip O’Neill, for whom he had been Press Secretary, and his friendship with Gerry Ford. Both had loved the House of Representatives and both had loved managing legislation on the Floor where the action was.

Their friendship was one of those bi-partisan institutions that seem rare in today’s light. In his remarks Chris explored the question of what has happened to bi-partisanship – beginning by talking about Washington.

This city without smokestacks, without factories…we only do one thing here…we make deals….

Its called legislation, its called government.

We come to this city with lots of points of view. But somehow, he said, we find a way to reconcile divergent, even opposing, points of view and pass legislation and govern.

Scott Walker has the lead on the morning of the Election.  (The polls show a seven percent lead).  But the savvy political pros report that its going to be very, very close.

What’s interesting is that the closer it gets the more it matters.

In spite of the fact that the decision may be made by a hair’s breadth, the winner – whether anti-union or pro-union – will claim the mandate to make extremely significant economic decisions.

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The Leader’s Guide to Transformation

January 29th

IBM’s Center for the Business of Government this week published my Leader”s Guide to Transformation.  In doing so the Center demonstrated the value of communicating in multiple media simultaneously.  They also included the discussion of transformation in their blog and an article about the Leader’s Guide in their magazine.  On February 2nd there will be a discussion of the guide on their radio show.

For me personally the most interesting thing that is likely to emerge from this prodigious output will be to see whether the subject engages the interest of an audience.  What often happens in cases like this one is that high visibility initiatives (Transformation of the Army, Transformation of the USPS) consume all of the oxygen in a debate.  When the smart people call them a cliche they become a dead zone of discussion and even if there is nothing to replace them conceptually they become a subject to be avoided.   Here, in interview after interview I talked to the leaders of initiatives who told me that they had no “new” word, that the concept of transformation was an important one to them.  So the question becomes: even if it isn’t news is it valuable to seek to learn what did the leaders of effective transformation efforts find to be most important?

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The Transformational Leader’s Playbook

August 12th

In the beginning, the opportunity to write a study on transformational leadership – interviewing leaders from agencies across the federal government seemed to be such a straightforward thing that I vastly underestimated the value that might becreated by being able to draw togetherthe views of senior officials at this point in time.

First, there is the point in time. There has been no comparable time in the past 44 years of government. In January of 1969 Lyndon Johnson, the father of the Great Society left office but by many measures the age of “big” government had not even arrived.

A combination of technology (because we can), natural resource and economic crisis (Arab oil embargo) and political and constitutional crisis (Watergate & Ralph Nader) would conspire to make the government much larger than the Great Society Planners had ever contemplated.

By most estimates, however, we have now met a time of constraints in which the bills for global leadership, resource dependence and our lifestyle are coming due. Government will have to “right size”. There will be federal managers who have to drastically cut their programs but they aren’t going to have constituent groups coming in and showing them how they can do more with less.

Many will know where they need to go. But they will need a pathway to get there.

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The Uses of History

August 4th

As noted in an earlier post, in 2011, the U.S. Postal Service faces certain bankruptcy if the Congress does not act to modify the retiree health benefits payment required by the 2006 postal reform law.  Some might find it perverse to imagine that a strategic plan of more than a decade ago could be seen as a positive contribution when there a crisis today.

Yet a review of the 1997 strategic plan shows interestingly that the problems that are creating the crisis today were anticipated years ago.  The plans forecast that mail volume would decline and there was an imperative to rethink the nature of the mission of the agency and the means with which it delivers service.

In the introduction to the 1997 five-year strategic plan the Postal Service presented a vision of the future the follows.

As certain and clear as this path is, the future is not. Ten years from now, this same environment may be transformed by technologies in their infancies today. Ten years from now, the United States Postal Service mission responsibilities may be met only by a new understanding of universal service, access, and how best to deliver them. A decade from today, the Postal Service may have embraced technologies and systems as dramatically different as jet airplanes and robotic package sorters would have seemed to the 19th-century letter carrier.

Because this fiveyear plan is a living document, conceived to be flexible and adaptive to such environmental shifts, these challenges and external factors will be examined, weighed and where appropriate — addressed in the years ahead. Ultimately, the philosophy underlying this plan, these goals, and their strategies is to create unique customer value as the Postal Service grows, improves and strengthens its financial foundation. This is a philosophy that embraces change. Because, in change, there will be opportunity for the United States Postal Service to serve its customers better.

Ultimately, government leaders and for that matter, leaders in every sector, are necessarily limited in their capacity to reshape markets, to alter macro economic trends or to change the nature of their agency missions.  Leaders cannot anticipate that their actions will be judged failures if their plans are undercut by massive societal and market shifts.

In coming years there will’s most certainly be frustration with the need to realign government service and to downsize its presence.  Yet, seeing in a larger context, the requirement to publish a formal strategic plan offers an opportunity for proactive leaders to create markers, waypoints on a journey long journey of continuous improvement.

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UK’s Watergate

July 19th

The Parliamentary Hearing into the actions of News Corp broke new ground and the whole matter has opened a new requirement for business analysts everywhere.

First, the questioning of Rupert Murdoch and his son on live international television was an extraordinary spectacle worthy of, say…Rupert Murdoch.

The opportunity to inquire into the most intimate details of corporate governance of one of the most powerful men in the world is extraordinary theater.

And, in this case, there was an element of human drama that would have been difficult to miss.  Here was Murdoch being asked “what did you know and when did you know it?”  He was given the choice that always dominates discussions like this one – what did you know about this scandal?  What steps did you take?  Obviously, the witness cannot say that he was fully informed and took actions to make things better for his company.  Now that the dam has broken and there is a formal, legal inquiry, any actions taken that were protective have the taint of being conspiratorial.

So what could he say?  He could say that he was a bad manager.  Or he could say that he was foolish or stupid.  Or he could say that he did not know.

But if he didn’t know and if he was a competent manager, then his son must have known.   So there was a human drama of potentially throwing his son under the bus.  Of course, his son was the Chief Executive and perhaps should have taken steps long ago.

Finally, there should be little question that this is not a “UK” problem as much as the Murdocks might have wished that it were.  US law – foreign corrupt practices and licensing before the FCC – make this inquiry a US inquiry as well.

The new ground?  In their answers the Murdochs referred frequently to their reform of the corporate governance committee.   Clearly it would have been better to have had a Management and Standards Committee that reported to the independent directors.   The corporate governance process would have been better protected and that decision may turn out to have been a multibillion dollar decision.

In the end, it’s hard to predict how extensive the damage will turn out to be.  Business analysts everywhere will have to be even better at being able to assess events and processes like this one.

New ground at a minimum, indeed.

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Public Sector Takeover? We Need a New Powell Doctrine

April 11th

Professor Jim Heskett asks When Should the Public Sector Take Over in the Event of a Meltdown? in the newest edition of Working Knowledge.

There’s a need for a new doctrine such as the one that Former Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to define to answer the question when to intervene – remember that “if you break it you own it”.

There is strong value in the HBS “analysis-decision-reflection” framework for questions such as those of Professor Heskett – when should the public sector takeover strategy be used in the case of a meltdown? There are, as has been noted in the discussion that Professor Heskett’s question triggered, significant questions of public sector values as well as public sector competence.

The question of the public’s right to know is a good example of the issues underlying this concern. In Japan there has been strenuous debate following the near meltdown at the Fukashima plant about the right of the public to know about the risks and the state of the crisis. Here the comparison of last year’s BP oil spill is instructive. In 2010 when BP was finally forced to make the video from the undersea camera available on-line, expert estimates of the extent of the damage of the oil flowing into the sea jumped by tenfold in 24 hours in comparison with previous assessments that were limited to company data after it was screened. Disclosure would seem to be one area where there are strong public sector values at stake.

But takeover? Even assuming that the issue of competence could be resolved, that some form of expert conservatorship could be established (as for example, in the case of Fannie Mae in 2008) there are two questions that will require analysis in every meltdown case: What’s the cause of the problem? And what are the public interests at stake?

The day may come when some will argue that there should be a takeover of the money losing Postal Service for example. (See RReisner, “When a Turnaround Stalls”, HBR 2002.) After all, it will be argued, the post office is losing billions each year.

But in fact, analysis will show that the Postal Service would have broken even so far this year if it had not had to “pre pay” the health care costs of its retirees, a special multibillion dollar provision added to postal reform in 2006.

So is the Postal Service a dinosaur of the information age that could meltdown? Should there be a public takeover? You have to first analyze what’s the problem?

In the short term the postal service is losing billions so that Congress can sustain its pay/go rules. This is an accounting problem having to do with federal cash cow status.

But the long term? Is there a need to move paper and packages? Through a public infrastructure? For how long? What’s the 2030 forecast? How can revenue exceed costs? What should the Postal Service be permitted to do to make money? What should it be free to do to cut costs?

Before the rhetoric that the Postal Service is “not too big to fail” starts and someone decides that creating a postal meltdown is a good idea, its useful to analyze the causes of crisis and decide whether there is a public interest at stake.

The public sector does some things very well, but not everything. Public takeovers are like invading Libya. We want to be very careful to understand where the problem is coming from, what can be done about it, and to continuously improve the performance of interventions before we try them.

We have vast social and economic systems like the Postal Service and Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security that will have to be realigned in coming years. There may have to be a threatened meltdown before the political consensus will support action. But public takeover? Even by a competent designated management team, we should be clear on causes and remedies, very clear, before we move there.

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Strategic Planning in the Public Sector

February 4th

Senator Mark Warner (D, VA) calls a new law for which he can claim some responsibility, the “biggest little bill that nobody has ever of.” With relatively little fanfare the GPRA (Government Performance and Results Act) Modernization Act of 2010 was signed into law in early January. Senator Warner (who was there to vote for health reform and financial services reform) believes that GPRA Modernization may be the most significant act of the 111th Congress.

The first GPRA (the law that’s being modernized) has a unique history. A Republican Administration (George H. W. Bush) worked with a Democratic Congress to pass a law that would require every federal agency to develop a strategic plan and annual performance plans. But there are laws and then there are laws. It was when Democrats took the White House (Bill Clinton) and launched a National Performance Review to create, as Al Gore used to say, “a government that works better and costs less,” that the performance reporting began to pick up steam. But in one of Washington’s ironies, it was when a Republican Congress seized upon the law to drive change in the (now Democratic) Executive Branch that the law took on meaning.

But that was then. Time has eroded the first enthusiasms, given the second Bush Administration (George W. Bush) the chance to create a performance scorecard and program evaluation system, and introduced new technology. The new technology in particular and the social media offer the government new opportunities to manage performance and drive innovation. So there is value in modernizing the planning and management process.

Sen. Warner believes that what will be most critical to making the new law work will be to improve the government’s collaboration skills. The new law needs to be implemented in a manner that will encourage government managers to adopt the best practices of others who have found ways to improve performance

The modernized law makes a number of changes that have long been needed (or at least codifies the directive to make the chances). Duplicative reports are to be eliminated for example. And the law directs agencies to do some things that most people would think were so logical that they would have expected that the government be already required to do them already. Strategic Plans, for example, must be aligned with the Annual Performance Plans and plans must be aligned with the Administration in charge.

What is perhaps even more significant, the modernized GPRA will create a number of mechanisms that are likely to dramatically encourage the practice of performance management. Each Agency will (1) have a Chief Performance Officer, (2) reports will explain why performance goals haven’t been met if there are shortfalls and there will have to be a performance improvement plan. In cases where goals are not met two years in a row, there must be a report to Congress. (3) There will be public web sites that are likely to dramatically expand the scope of the review and (4) a government-wide performance report will designate a small number of high level goals. Creating accountability, a governance process, public access and focus may still not be enough to dramatically change the practice of strategic planning and execution. But there’s no disputing the fact that these are all moves in the right direction, or as they might say in Washington “they’re directionally correct.”

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The Voice of the People

January 12th

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other 19 people was so horrific on so many levels that it became absolutely absorbing. The Safeway parking lot in Tucson where the shooting took place looked so familiar. This was a place that could be found in almost any suburb in America. This was an assassination attempt of the people’s representative on the town common.

Beginning with the media savvy local Police Chief through Sarah Palin’s 8 minute video posted at midnight Alaska time, the reporting has debated whether Arizona was somehow worse than other places. Assorted details of the shooting showed that it was in fact somewhat easier for the shooter to buy the weapon and the ammunition in Arizona than it would have been to have been in a comparable suburb in Montgomery County Maryland. But disturbed people can get guns everywhere.

On Thursday Rep. Giffords read the First Amendment on the House Floor. The post Tea Party election of 2010 encouraged the new Republican Congress to begin the new 112th Congress by reading the Constitution. Ironically, the event would likely have been a non-event were it not for a 3rd term moderate Democratic Congresswoman who read the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.

Of all of the members to have been given the privilege of reading that particular sentence in light of Saturday’s events, the video of her on the House floor talking about freedom of speech was startling.

That someone would seek to assassinate a Member of Congress standing in a shopping center talking to her constituents was an assault on the core of democratic society. American should be deeply offended by that alone. The question of whether partisan rhetoric may have contributed to the event seems secondary to the deep wound that the shooting may have inflicted.

Not unlike the way in which the necessary presence of the TSA at every airport has now changed the whole concept freedom in mobility, in the future. even an nine year old who goes to a shopping center to meet her Congresswoman will have the event moderated by an armed government representative.

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