Rethinking the Execution of Government Strategy

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I was looking through my OneNote research notebooks when I came across this clipping, Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Nearly five years old, and the conclusions in the article are even more valid today. The article reminded me of my findings in my dissertation research on the merger of the city archives and the county archives. I was mystified about why the archives merger succeeded despite the change process going against the conventional wisdom of change management theory.

According to the research by the authors (Donald Sull, Rebbeca Homkes, and Charles Sull), the success of strategy execution depends on agility. Agility is defined as how well different parts of the organization coordinate while seizing opportunities aligned with the organization’s strategy. They explain why this is so by dispelling five commonly-held beliefs about strategy execution:

Myth 1 – Execution mean alignment

Myth 2 – Execution means sticking to the plan

Myth 3 – Communication equals understanding

Myth 4 – A performance culture drives execution

Myth 5 – Execution should be driven from the top

People viewing a flip chart.

What most interested me about the article was the importance of organizational agility in executing the strategy. That is why organizational units must have excellent cross-collaboration abilities with each other. Exceptional cross-collaboration skills are how the units can work together in spotting emerging opportunities and work together to take advantage of the possibilities. Organizational agility reminds me of Colonel Boyd’s OODA Loop and his thinking on strategy.

Going back to my dissertation research, I found that the real change in the archives merger was driven by the employees and not the top management. The communicated change vision from the top was general and not enough to develop a detailed plan for the merger. A general change vision from the top corresponds to Sull, Homkes, and Sull’s research finding that strategic execution should not be solely driven from the top.

I also feel confident in reading the HBR article that my decision to combine organizational health with organizational agility is the right way to approach building a new theory of public administration.

Evaluating Capabilities

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If you haven’t read about Josh Bersin’s Capability Academy, take some time to check out his ideas. I was especially persuaded by this passage:

As I mentioned earlier, an Academy is not “a bunch of courses, it’s a place to go.” A place to learn. A place to share. A place for experts to contribute. And a place to advance the state of knowledge. (And it may be a virtual and physical space.)

In other words, it’s not an L&D program, it’s a corporate investment – and it needs ownership and governance by business leaders.

Unlike a university, which is focused on advancing the state of knowledge, an Academy is focused on building real business capabilities, yet doing it in a scalable, open, and ever-improving way. Just like the police academy always comes up new ways to protect and serve, so your corporate academies must focus on finding new solutions, technologies, and practices for your company.

The Capability Academy: Where Corporate Training Is Going
BY JOSH BERSIN · OCTOBER 5, 2019

I fully believe that capability academies are the future of learning and development. What is missing is a way to evaluate the training activities of the capability academies. I don’t believe traditional learning evaluation methods will work with capability academies.

What is needed are new ways to measure the advancement of knowledge while ensuring a good return on investment of the capability academy. Additionally, measuring capabilities calls for evaluating how well employees are using their new capabilities.

I see a new revolution in learning and development as more organizations adopt capability academies.

Sternberg’s Theory of Organizational Change —What Minerals Are Government Agencies?

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Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and inventor of the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. I became familiar with his work on successful intelligence in the mid-1980s and have used successful intelligence as the basis for my training and development work.

It’s his research program on organizational modifiability that I find relevant in my work. As we enter the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, there are many ideas from the candidates on how to reform the federal government. Add to these plans the current administration’s President Management Agenda which promises sweeping reforms to the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget recently announced award winners for their Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. As in the past administrations, there are several reinventing-government programs underway.

Even with all the change efforts, success has been mixed. What makes an organizational change effort successful? How should governments approach the change process? There are many theories of change management so, what insights does Dr. Sternberg offer?

Organizational Modifiability

Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:

Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

Universities and government agencies have much in common. They have various sizes, serve different constituencies and are similar in the way their bureaucratic processes work. And like universities, government agencies also need to learn. Three prerequisites need to be present to build the agency’s learning capacity.

The first prerequisite is the ability to change. There are two reasons an organization cannot change: a lack of resources or culture of stagnation. The second prerequisite is that the organization must believe that it can change. Closely related to the organization’s belief is the third prerequisite, which is the courage to change.

Using these three prerequisites, Dr. Sternberg created a cultural framework for institutional learning and change. The framework assesses three factors:

  1. “How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
  2. “How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
  3. “What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?”

Using the values of, “Low,” or, “High,” for each question, Dr. Sternberg describes eight types of organizational cultures in terms of learning and willingness to change. For each of the eight types, he assigned a different mineral as a metaphor.

Crystals

Organizational Cultures of Learning and Change as Minerals (These descriptions adopted from Organizational Modifiability).

“The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.

The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality.

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.”

Five Factors in Why Change is Hard

Even though Dr. Sternberg was describing universities, the above descriptions just apply to government agencies both in the federal, state and local governments. I have been on several change projects which purported to be diamonds in the rough but turned out to be opals or amber institutions.

According to Dr. Sternberg’s research, five factors determine how likely organizational change will happen. The first two factors are the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the change agent. If the change agent comes from outside the organization and does not appear to have the expertise for change management, the organizational stakeholders will resist change. I have seen this happen to numerous political appointees.

The third factor is who owns the change. If change is forced on the organization from the top without having the stakeholder groups buy-in to the change, the change effort will most likely fail.

The fourth and fifth factors concern the rate of change and the cultural compatibility of change. The organization and culture can only absorb so much change in terms of speed and the changing of existing cultural habits. As governments start a new round of change efforts, change agents would do well to consider the agency’s ability to learn and absorb the new change.

The Three Gifts of Bad Leadership

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“All I want for Christmas is a new job!” my friend exclaimed as I sat down next to her at the coffee shop. She had called me 30 minutes ago, asking to see me before she had a complete mental breakdown.

“What has your boss done this time?” I asked.

“She yelled at me again in a staff meeting! I asked about her priorities for the next fiscal year, and she bit my head off! I just wanted to know what we are doing in the next few months. For the last year, we just seem to be drifting around. It’s so frustrating!”

“How did the rest of the team react?” I asked before taking a drink of coffee. I knew the answer before she began to talk.

“They just sat there trying not to look at me. Just blank expressions on their faces.” She slumped in her seat. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s giving you the three gifts of bad leadership,” I said. “Just in time for the holiday season.”

“What does that mean?”

“All bad leaders give out the same three gifts. When you receive all three gifts, you know it’s time to leave. Or, unless the leader takes the gifts back.”

I took another drink and continued. “The first gift is distrust. Distrust is a gift bag full of glass shards. If trust is the lifeblood of an organization, the distrust gift gives you a thousand cuts that slowly bleeds the trust out of teams and organizations.”

“No one trusts anyone in my office! My boss and teammates throw me under the bus so much, they’ve installed a bus stop in my office!” She laughed at her own joke. “What’s the next gift?” asked my friend.

“Psychological danger. You’ve heard about psychological safety, which is closely related to trust. If you have a psychologically safe office, people are willing to try new things and develop while knowing that your team and your boss have your back.”

“That’s not my office,” my friend sighed. “My boss even has a coffee cup that says, ‘Failure is not an option.’ Oh, she says she loves innovation. But, at the first mistake, she will shut you down!”

I shook my head. “Hence the second gift of psychological danger. Psychological danger is a closed gift bag that shakes and growls at you as you come closer to it. People are in constant fear of attack from that gift.”

I then pulled out an envelope from my backpack and wrote on the front before sealing it and handing it to my friend.

“It says Vision.’ What’s this about?” she asked.

“Open it.”

“There’s nothing in here.”

“Exactly! A lack of vision is the third gift. Despite all of the training and advice given to new leaders, bad leaders consistently ignore the necessity of having a vision. Or their vision is just a bunch of clichés that sound profound.”

“Like, ‘failure is not an option,’” offered my friend.

“Right! A good vision is inspirational and paints a picture of the future of the organization. People know where they are going and how to get there. When your boss reacted so violently to your question about her vision, she was giving you the third gift because she has no vision to give you. You said the emperor has no clothes. And, in a climate of distrust and psychological danger, she didn’t want to appear naked in front of her team.”

My friend sat up straight in her chair. “What should I do?”

“Usually, I suggest seeing what you can do to send the gifts back. Maybe have a frank talk with your boss if you think she can grow. But, given that this has been a while and it appears that your boss isn’t going to improve, I suggest getting out before the three gifts damage you.”

“OK! I will start my job search today. But, how do I avoid winding up with another boss who gives out the same three gifts?’

The Google has numerous articles on spotting bad bosses during interviews,” I said. “When they ask you if you have any questions during the interview, ask what their vision is for the organization. If they don’t have a clear vision that can be easily communicated, I would have serious concerns about taking a job there. That’s my first sign that the other gifts of bad leadership may soon follow.”

“Thank you! This has been great!” She smiled. “How did you discover these three gifts?”

“Observing bad leaders in action. Bad leaders act in a variety of ways. Still, they always seem to have the same effects on their people and organizations. Just remember that if you move into a leadership position, don’t re-gift these three gifts to your people.”

A Proposal for a New Organizational Model

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I developed a new organizational model after several years of reflection and study, starting with my MBA work in 2001. My Ph.D. work especially inspired me in developing a new model of public leadership and, later, on my study of the lean startup movement.

The new organization is designed to be agile in every aspect of the work products, leadership, and workforce. The organization is also transparent and designed for maximum information flow. Finally, the mission, vision, and strategy are baked into all that the organization does and drives the organization forward. Here is a diagram of the new organizational model.

Look at the upper box with the five chief officers. A common theme in organizational studies is the danger of silos and fiefdoms. There are also problems with forming a senior leadership team that works together for the good of the entire organization. Therefore, in the new organization, only five chief officers form the senior leadership team.

  • The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – chairs the senior leadership team and keeps the organization aligned with the mission and vision by keeping the strategy engine working effectively.
  • The Chief Alliance Officer (CAO) – combines the traditional functions of the chief human resources officer and chief information officer. Responsible for managing the organizational talent and the organizational APIs platform.
  • The Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) – responsible for managing the knowledge and learning the workflow of the organization. It also oversees the training and development of the organization’s talent.
  • The Chief Brand Officer (CBO) – responsible for overseeing the organization’s brand: internally and externally. It helps the CEO manage the public-facing side of the organization’s mission and vision.
  • The Chief P4 Officer (CPO) – Oversees the portfolios, programs, projects, and processes of the organization’s Business Engine.

In the middle of the model is the “Business Engine.” The Business Engine is where the organization does the work. Instead of a factory floor with fixed production lines, the Business Engine is a maker space with both a physical presence and a virtual presence. Work is performed by a network of project teams loosely organized into portfolios and programs. There are few fixed processes, and these processes will be heavily automated using artificial technology systems using blockchain technologies and deep-learning algorithms. The teams will use agile project management, human-centered design, and adaptive case management to manage the work.

Surrounding the Business Engine are four critical components. The most crucial component is the “Talent” box with the four types of employees. These types are based on the Alliance model of employer-employee agreements. At the bottom is the Organizational APIs Platform, in which the core APIs that run the business infrastructure is available for the talent and teams to build their personalized tools and apps. Surrounding the Business Engine on both sides are open data streams that provide the performance metrics of the organization and allows for easy knowledge-sharing and collaboration in the organization. Embedded in the Business Engine are strategy information radiators (Ambient Strategy). The strategy information radiators provide regularly updated information on how well the organization is fulfilling the mission, vision, and strategic goals.

Pulling the organization forward is the “Strategy Engine.” On top of the Strategy Engine is the “Mission and Vision” alignment compass, which helps align all the organization’s activities toward the mission, vision, and strategic goals. What powers the planning process for the Strategy Engine are the twin concepts of organizational agility and organizational health.

There is a lot of this model borrowed and a lot that is new. I don’t believe there is an organization that follows this model, but many organizations could benefit from adopting parts of the model. I look forward to expanding upon the parts of the new organizational model. I welcome your comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

Project Management, Strategic Communication, and Training Author and Consultant

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