Posts Tagged ‘Government Management’

Collaboration, Performance and Agility

September 22nd

Strategy is frequently divided into a discussion of strategy formulation and strategy implementation. The same issues that make the formulation of strategy complex in settings where transformation is necessary also confound effective implementation but not necessarily in ways that are immediately obvious.

In discussions of implementation, one of the most common themes in the networked age is the recognition of the growing need for collaboration and the importance of building skills and capabilities to support it. In part this stems from the recognition that initiatives and change programs cross boundaries far more easily in an Internet age than might ever have been the case before. What’s more, providing service to customers and addressing today’s customer needs are functions more likely to demand access to data that is housed in what might have traditionally been completely different silos (e.g. Finance and Customer Service). The need for collaborative methods to address and improve customer experience is also a common conversation and the need to become more skillful in building  effective teams is a phrase that is often repeated.

A second theme that is equally common in discussions with leading edge management thinkers is the quest for ever higher performance one of the most popular business books of the past decade has focused on execution and on the techniques that famous leaders of high-performing companies and agencies have evolved in order to manage performance effectively.

Finally, the third theme that is also common is the discussion of the need for agility in implementing strategy.  The Monitor group talks about the need for dynamic implementation of strategies in changing markets. Here where the focus is on transformation and where changing markets and conditions are a gift, this concept of dynamic implementation is likely to be particularly important.

These three concepts of collaboration, performance improvement and agility are all important to effective implementation and they are also so common that they can be a cliché.  So what is important about noting often discussed best practices like these?

What’s interesting is that the virtues of those who are best at collaboration and performance improvement are often not the same as the virtues that interfuse an agile organization.

In a recent white paper  the Monitor group discussed his views for tactical solutions that address the issues that organizations encounter when they need to sustain their effectiveness in implementing strategy even as conditions change.

Collaboration, effective team building and performance improvement each require consistency. Establishing a framework and sustaining it overtime is a critical aspect of aligning the organization’s focus on clear goals and measuring progress toward achieving them.  Building trust that goals will be established fairly and that performance will be assessed in a consistent manner and measured consistently and results will be used in a responsible manner all take time and trust building.

But in a time of changing conditions, where adaptation needs to take place to allow for the formulation of new strategies and where new measures may need to be used, consistency is often the first thing that is sacrificed. Dynamic implementation is, by its nature, a process of change. Skilled practitioners are likely to emphasize the importance of effective communications because they have experience with the problems of coordination and apparent inconsistencies that arise in trying to adapt to changing circumstances in a pressured high-performance environment.

What’s important to recognize is that collaboration, performance management, and agility are often working against one another. To be able to adapt to changing market conditions and modified plans will require a vigorous program of updating the expectations and the accounting for performance. To modify the tools without disrupting their effectiveness is likely to be deceptively challenging. Often the statistics that are used to measure performance depend upon longitudinal analysis of historical trends. Or, to take a different example, the ability to conduct effective analysis depends upon the capacity of the organization to select measures that can be cascaded into the organization. But today performance is going to be measured across organizational boundaries and sometimes across national boundaries.   When the numbers are changed, they must be adjusted at each level. The risk is that this process of updating the accounting and modifying the statistics in a responsible manner is one that is easily subject to misunderstanding.  What its likely to mean in the end is that there will be a need for a new concept in strategy for high performing organizations – agile data integrity.  In a very practical sense there will be a need for data infrastructures that can balance many things that often create tensions –  security, consistency, integrity and market agility.

The tension that underlies this observation – that the collaborative, high performing enterprise and the agile enterprise may be pulling in different directions – becomes highly meaningful in the presence of increasing stakeholder activism.  Ultimately its a process that will force attention to be given to the issues of the rights of constituencies to define the future.




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Leadership Override

September 1st

As the election inevitably encourages all of us to think about our democracy, at the same time, organizations throughout the economy are becoming more democratic.  Technology has made it possible for unprecedented participation in even the most sensitive decisions.  But what this is going to do is to open a new set of questions about the times when leaders must override democratic process and how far they should go.

The problem is not that democracy has flaws and is limited in it’s ability to curb factional excess.  This has been well known and debated since the Federalist Papers.  My concern has not been with the limitations of democracy as much as with the things that executives do to correct for them.  Our democracy has been built on the notion that leadership in time of crisis can make up for democracy’s inefficiencies.  There are many examples of great men and women who have stepped forward to lead in spite of the challenges that were put in their way by democratic process and even the Constitution.  Few would debate that Lincoln and FDR should be ranked in among our greatest leaders.  Yet in each case there have been major questions about whether they had violated Constitutional principle.

In our time, the energy crises of the seventies offered examples of massive economic disruptions that had to be answered.  In the energy crisis I saw both the best and the worst sides of executive action.   I had seen Frank Zarb and Bill Simon and the White Houses of Nixon, Ford and Carter acting to save important economic interests by moving far outside of the box.

Before I ever reached the challenges of the energy crisis, I had seen the difficulties that democratic process, our administrative laws and our modern political culture impose on leaders as they try to step up to address national priorities.  I also had been able to take some measure of individuals who I thought were great leaders and therefore I had a sense for the ability of individuals to prevail in spite of the constraints.  I had seen the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and I knew that the capacity of leaders was severely limited by our customary political process. I believed in Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus and in the integrity of their personal leadership. I had seen Watergate.  But it was in the energy crisis that I began to appreciate leadership and its limitations.

In 1973 I had been working at the Office of Management and Budget on energy and environmental policy when the price of oil jumped overnight from $4.75 ($22.89 inflation adjusted) a barrel to $9.35 a barrel ($40.84 today).  Even more shocking to Americans was the way that the energy crisis began.  When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, the oil producing nations who had formed OPEC only a few years earlier acted to use an oil embargo to seek to influence the outcome of the war.  The fact that a cartel of oil producing nations could successfully withhold supplies and virtually cripple parts of the U.S., Japanese and European economies, was a surprise of epic proportions.

The ferocity of the impact of the first oil embargo is still surprising years later.  The government was thrown into wild activity trying to respond to its many effects.  I was there when it happened.  In January of 1994, on a few hours warning, I flew to New York City with my boss, Frank Zarb, to go to yet another crisis meeting.  In the car I asked where we were going and I learned that we were headed for City Hall to meet the new Mayor, Abraham Beam.  The diminutive Mayor had been in office for 11 days when Frank and I reached New York to find a City Hall in transition. The drapes on the high windows in the Mayor’s office had left with the previous Administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay.

We were puzzled at first by the Mayor’s urgent request for a meeting.  The conversation took a rambling course through the landscape of energy policy – converting power plants to coal, changing daylight savings to make it permanent.  And then, the Mayor blurted out that he had no gasoline and did we think we could help?

My clearest memory of that moment is of looking up at the high bare windows of the Mayor’s office. To my horror, I saw the first flakes of snow beginning to fall.  I understood why we had been asked to come to New York.

Frank Zarb jumped up and went to a phone on the side of the Mayor’s office and set about making calls, redirecting supplies on their way to New York Harbor.  Our intervention no doubt caused disruptive ripples in the oil supply chain that were litigated for years.  But New York got the gasoline to plow their streets.  I had stood there in the Mayor’s office and watched a classic case of executive leadership in crisis.  I’m not sure it could be done today.

Today, more than 3 decades later, there are again signs of a major energy storm.  The U.S. continues to depend on oil supplies that come from Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and many other places where our relationships are troubled.   But today there is vastly more demand for supplies as China and other developing economies enter world energy markets.  And there may be less supply.  Indeed, there are many respected analysts of energy policy who argue today that we have reached the point of peak oil supply.

Frank Zarb’s decisive action remains imprinted on my mind as the image of executive action of the old school.  Today the image of the decisive CEO pulling levers is a rare exception to a more common pattern of activist constituencies and negotiated compromises.  Political partisanship and division are far more typical than leaders who believe in the principle of the common – in self interest rightly understood – are rare.

The central problem for me, is not only to be able to create a democratic process that can resolve the tensions between the proclivities of the marketplace with a concern for equity but also to create mechanisms that will guide leaders even when they feel they must lead rather than react.


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Sit At The Table

January 4th

One of the things about the daily Internet conversation that is among it’s greatest contributions is the way that it can increase the number of “ahaa” hits per day.  (Before I am accused of indulgence there should be a spoiler alert: it gets worse.  I admit here that I take time off to read the Just Means news on Corporate Social Responsibility Trends, an admission that may someday cause Sarah Palin to revoke my John Lindsay for Mayor Republican credentials.  There’s absolutely no one chanting, “drill baby drill” at Just Means.)

So it is in the context of an honest diversion to read Just Means on Climate Change that I was introduced to Sheryl Sandberg.  I know, I confess that I am one of the last people on the planet to know that Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook.  That some people (like Fortune) think she’s one of the most powerful women in the world and that she was the head of on-line sales for Google when Facebook hired her (in her 30’s) to be the adult.  So, now that I have the embarrassing admissions out of the way.  Her TED lecture linked above on the dearth of women leaders is one of the most compelling videos that I have seen.

As I write this, I see that the video is only now being blogged by the Wall Street Journal this afternoon so perhaps I am just watching something that is about to go viral.  But it should.  My personal favorite comment is her statement that if you want to be a leader you need to take as seat at the table.

Yet it’s not as though I haven’t had my own opportunity to learn this lesson.  In 1994, when I was recruited to start e-businesses for the USPS, I found to my surprise that I could be the Post Office’s representative to Al Gore’s National Performance Review just by saying I would go to the White House.

(I should have recognized that this was a clue that, in the end, the USPS was not going to back the play to start electronic businesses even if the culture would help Marvin Runyon hire me.)

No one went to the White House because it was far easier to run an effective network if you stayed out of politics.  Going to the White House only meant becoming a cash cow to the Administration in power and the savvy leaders at the Post Office knew that there was a lot of that already.

Without competition for the invitation I went over to the White House to hear Al Gore talk about the meaning of telecom reform to representatives from places spread across the government.   When I arrived at the Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building I made the mistake of asking the young aide standing in the doorway whether there was assigned seating.  She asked, “Where are you from?” and when told her, she asked that I sit in the seats along the wall because “the table is for the important agencies.”  I thought of myself as representing the largest civilian employer in the world and I was so offended that I walked around to the other side of the room and sat down at the table.

I was feeling pretty feisty until I introduced myself to the person on my right and found that the Librarian of Congress was already there with a seat at the table.

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“Small Government Big Society”

October 18th

The headline that China is testing a new political model in Shenzhen is an attention grabber when it appears in the same newspaper as an article that finds that its reassuring that China is continuing to be the largest purchaser (ahead of Japan) of U.S. Treasuries. In the same month that China was demonstrating that it was only rebalancing its portfolio and not actually reducing its $868 billion in net holdings. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was giving a speech in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong.)

SHENZHEN, China—An experiment with political reform in Shenzhen, the city where China pioneered its economic opening, sheds light on an ideological debate playing out within the Communist Party as it holds an annual meeting in Beijing that will help to chart China’s political future.

Jeremy Page reports for the Wall Street Journal that

After more than six decades of stifling dissent—sometimes by force—the party is also using Shenzhen to test ways of strengthening public oversight of local government to root out corruption that the party itself admits has become the greatest threat to its grip on power.

It is a far cry from Western-style multiparty democracy, but this experiment—branded “small government, big society”—is seen by some leaders as a way to forge a new political model that maintains authoritarian rule while responding to the needs of an increasingly complex society.

The experiment involves free market reforms and government contracting with non-governmental entities to provide social services.  In an era in which China’s emerging economy is also reaffirming its role as our largest creditor new experiments in democracy are worthy topics for following closely.

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Testimony on Capitol HIll

November 5th

Today I testified on revenue generating opportunities and the future of the U.S. Postal Service before the Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is concerned with the Postal Service.  See Testimony PDF

Overall, my argument was that the Postal Service and the mailing community can become a source of innovation that is an engine for creating new postal revenue through the creation of  public private partnerships.

To make the Postal Service viable will require making mail relevant to future customers.  This will mean connecting hard copy mail with the Internet so that it can play a key role in a multichannel marketplace.

But the new revenue for the public postal service is not going to come from making the USPS into an Internet services provider.  If that was ever an option, its time to say “that was then, this is now.”  Fortunately there are a number key opportunities for the USPS to create new revenue and new mail by creating partnerships with private firms. I describe three broad concepts – Enabling the Last Mile, Extending Democracy’s Reach and Promoting Green Routes.

Some highlights include:

By enabling the last mile I refer to the many opportunities that exist for putting technology in the hands of the Letter Carrier, in other words, on the doorstep of the mailing consumer.  One of the areas of greatest interest to mailers has been wanting to know where their mail is while its on route to its destination.  The USPS has been seen as a black hole compared with FedEx and UPS who have invested billions of dollars to enable their higher end services to “track and trace” and much more.

In addition, I argue that

A second broad theme that Chairman Ruth Goldway in particular has championed has been Vote by Mail.  The Postal Service can do this and provide many other government services as well.

Third, there are opportunities for the Postal Service to again serve the nation by carrying parcels that today cause three and four trucks to travel the same route.  We can reduce carbon emissions by creating Green Postal Routes.

What is needed is to create a pathway that connects the challenged Postal Service of today with a viable business model of the future.  The broad framework should be a public policy framework that encourages public private partnerships as the postal reform law of (’06) and the President’s Commission on the Postal Service (’03) proposed.

The details of new services to customers will depend on the trials and tests and an innovation platform that has yet to be invented.

The coming years could be an exciting time of transformation or they could be a train wreck.  The difference will be whether there is clear public policy guidance that can define the creative balance between what should be public and postal and what should be a public private partnership.

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Calling the Turn

August 20th

The financial crisis of 2008 raised the question of whether we are facing a turn, resetting to a new normal or pausing before the resumption of growth. Knowing where you are is critical. Those who bet on future growth that doesn’t materialize will lose the race and even bankrupt themselves. But those who bet on decline when they are only seeing a pause will stagnate and they too will lose.

What’s hard to see from the outside is the way that the stakeholders will work overtime to assert that the curves are heading up. Vested interest is so powerful that they will honestly believe that the Sun is the Moon.

Great leaders will have the courage to call the turn.

Listening to Jim Collins talk about his new book How the Mighty Fall, in which he traces the five stages of ascendancy and decline, you can see that this is is going to be one of the enduring questions of our time.

The experience of living through the worst financial decline in 80 years and not being sure of what you saw will be an framing memory that will structure our perceptions.  The fear of imminent decline will cast a long shadow into the future.s

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