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
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.
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?
Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:
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:
“How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
“How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
“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.
“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.
It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining
open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all
levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent.
Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their
datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness,
transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does.
Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to
wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of
the agency ensures that they are.
Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop
culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we
develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at
work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes
interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?
There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes,
I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come
together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined
boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We
develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions
(“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events,
etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we
collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.
Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving
is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at
problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to
solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms,
email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so
that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to
think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better
solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of
displacing the current solution.
Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups
change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason
why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the
paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we
blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that
make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand
The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many
cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you
also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins
fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these
subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how
these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT
folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would
rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years
because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.
We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground
in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to
wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the
children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out
in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the
safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals
Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many
ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a
personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous
monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural
groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture
and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent
when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.
One free introductory course to project management, a paid course in advanced agile project management, and a paid course in marketing training courses in your organization.
After a successful training at the 2019 Drupal GovCon, I had several emails asking if I could send the training slides and materials to the people who missed the session. It was then that it hit me. And I am surprised why I didn’t think of this before.
Especially after teaching online for four different universities and training other instructors in online teaching for over 15 years. I suppose what led to my hesitation was not finding the appropriate teaching platform.
However, I have recently found a good online teaching platform and am ready to release three courses based on my books, articles, and presentations. Look for the course launches in late August/early September.
Small Project Management – My gentle introduction to project management. This free course is great for those who want to get into project management but don’t know where to start. This course is based on a free guide that I authored in 2012. Since then, I have given this course to government offices and nonprofits.
Lean Scope Project Management – I created this project management method by combining design thinking with agile project management. This is an extreme project management to create novel products or services quickly and with heavy customer input.
I first designed this method in 2014 and continually update it as I continue to learn from managing projects. Participants will this course useful in helping execute on their world-changing ideas.
New Ways to Market Training – This training is based on my experiences in marketing training courses in organizations. It was surprising to me that there is very little guidance on how to market training courses to internal audiences. What is unique about my training course it deals with using the latest social media and workplace digital collaboration tools for marketing.
More details as we come closer to the course launch dates.
In my latest column for PA Times
Online, I wrote about why
innovation in the public sector is challenging. Public sector innovation (and
innovation in general) is an emergent process in that new ideas build on previous
innovations. However, as research has found, there is not a direct path to change.
The indirect and surprising ways invention occurs was the basis for James Burke’s Connectionsseries.
I highly recommend watching the episodes available on YouTube.
The typical way that innovation occurs
is that a vision of the new product, service, or method is created. Then, a
program is launched to achieve an innovative goal. It’s a proven formula that
works. Think of the major U.S. government projects like creating the atomic
bomb, building the interstate highway system, and landing people on the Moon. There
is a mix of moving directly toward the goal while taking advantage of
unexpected side routes.
So, how to harness the power of emergence
with its sudden leaps in the service of steady progress toward a goal?
Pursuing goals may lead to unethical behavior (p. 50).
The warning signs of goalodicy are the
acceptance of a narrowly-defined goal, high public visibility, pressure for
face-saving behavior, an idealized future with few or no problems, pursuing the
goal is the goal itself, and that achieving the goal is destiny (p. 76). The
best way to overcome goalodicy is for leadership to encourage learning and
questioning. Leadership also needs to encourage taking advantage of the
unexpected to find new ways to achieve the goal or even modify the goal.
Stanley and Lehman (authors of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned) wrote
that “[b]eing open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than
knowing what you’re trying to do.” The goal is essential but allow for
feedback and recalibrating the goal when necessary.