I absolutely love infographics. How about you? Good ones suck you in and share content in a way that is easy to absorb and make connections. That's why I loved this one from Rintu Biswas from MyTasker. Let me know what you think.
You need an ignition spark to get you going at the start of the day (or whenever you're just feeling low on energy or focus). You don't need to curse your goals or doubt yourself. Direct your energy to a single daily practice that makes everything else possible. A small ritual or habit that gets you moving on everything else. This practice works for us as individuals and can also be a powerful tool to organizing and motivating your team. Here's more on how you can create a daily ritual that improves your productivity.
Too often we spend time coming up with corporate and organizational values that sound nice but are never really used. I recently had the chance to interview Alex Bard, the CEO from Campaign Monitor. Under his leadership, the company actively uses their values to drive both day-to-day and strategic decision-making. Read more about how here.
Every office I've ever worked in or worked for has some degree of tension. Tension isn't necessarily bad. In fact, a lot of business and organizations skillfully use tension to spark new ideas and innovation.
However, there is lots of unproductive, interpersonal tension out there. This kind of tension happens when there are misunderstandings and unresolved issues between employees. It typically starts small and builds over time. Each person involved is keeping score. They count up slights, criticisms, and decisions that didn't go their way.
And whether you're involved or not, you feel it. It comes out in snarky, sarcastic comments during meetings or in the "meeting after the meeting" when subsets gather for a debrief on what they really think.
Avoiding tension and not dealing with the problems head on erode productivity and trust. The ramifications are worse if you're in a leadership position. Issue avoidance is a signal of weakness that will undermine your ability to motivate and get big goals accomplished.
With that in mind, I wrote this recent article for my Inc.com column on how to deal with tension in the office before it gets out of control.
It turns out the selling yourself is neither about you or what you're selling. It's about the benefit someone else will get after engaging with you. Whether you're in business or in government, we're all in the position of having to share our ideas or ways of doing something and get another person or group to buy-in. It's the nature of how we work.
Maximize your effectiveness by focusing not on yourself but on the results to be gained. Check out this recent article for more on the topic of selling yourself.
Performance metrics matter. We know this and yet we continue to track things that have little to do with our goals. The better alternative is to make sure that you're measuring progress against the things that matter most to you and your future. Here are four steps to think through that process.
I'm trying to move away from outputs-- such as number of contracts-- and focus more on outcomes. Did I create a connection with a client? Did a client come back after the project to ask more questions or start another task? Would we both want to work together again?
What do you track on a regular basis?
INCREASING BUY-IN BY SHIFTING FROM ROLE-BASED TO ATTITUDE-BASED EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
Gaining buy-in is something we often treat like a "check the box" exercise when, in fact, it's much more complex and costly.
Whether you think in terms of effort or dollars or both, what makes some projects so hard is the anticipation of resistance you will meet along the way. But take a breath, get some coffee and consider how you might apply these three things to improve communication and buy-in today.
What’s the end objective? Shift from role-based (project manager, engineer, HR Director, etc) to attitude-based messages to increase buy-in by more precisely addressing each group’s unique concerns and challenges.
How might this shift from role-based to attitude-based outreach work?
Role-based communications is critical when communicating job requirements but is not precise enough to address an individual’s unique perspective of concerns.
To more precisely target outreach efforts, program managers should segment their stakeholder community by creating attitude categories. The matrix above includes two dimensions including 1) perceived program value (high or low) and 2) implementation pace (early adopter, passive supporter, and resistant).
- Refine the categories to mirror the categories of concerns
- Estimate the percentage of staff within the broad stakeholder community that fall into each bucket. This will provide some focus and sense of areas of importance
- Develop messages and outreach opportunities that match the needs of each attitude category
- Roll-out approach, recognizing there will be multiple messages released in parallel
EXAMPLES OF ATTITUDE-BASED CATEGORIES AND SAMPLE MESSAGES
As shown above, there are two broad dimensions of perceived program value and pace of adoption that help define attitude categories. Using the combinations, attitude groups emerge that can help inform targeted outreach efforts.
To implement this approach, program managers have to morph the traditional thinking on outreach. Specifically, key assumptions include:
- The believers or people who rate high on the perceived value of the program and are early adopters are critically important. These people are continually looking for ways to improve and advance program within their part of the organization. They might be frustrated with the negative feedback because “it’s working just fine for them.” Confident program managers should encourage this key group to run with their ideas to push the program forward.
- Reaching out and trying to convince the most stubborn, resistant staff (depending on their role) should be a lesser priority or not done at all.
- Outreach efforts should be focused on the top and middle tiers with the belief that they’ll create the momentum and have the most influence.
- Every opportunity to highlight accomplishments should be seized upon. Amplifying the positive leaves less time and attention for the more negative, counter-productive attitudes.
In sum, an attitude-based approach will help target messages—regardless of role within organization—and more precisely address their issues and needs for better buy-in.
Too often we think about the long list of things we need to do to to advance within our organizations. What we don't reflect on as often are the small things we can do each day to increase our power and influence- positively.
Here are three simple ideas of things you can do tomorrow. You will end the day with more say and sway then you started with. Promise.
- Be a connector. Internally or externally it doesn't matter. Opportunities come up all the time to make a warm introduction that will benefit someone in their professional pursuits. This isn't just about new jobs or new business but more about helping people within your circles broaden their horizons and hear another perspective or lesson learned from someone else who's been in their snow boots.
- Curate your own commentary. We all have a running internal dialog filled with reactions and ideas. Some are more practiced than others at filtering what comes out. Curating your own commentary means only jumping in with input that moves the conversation forward. When time is limited (and it always is) negativity, unnecessary examples, and meaningless amplification irritate and waste time.
- End office drama. Nothing crushes productivity and morale like office drama-- and most office drama is manufactured. Opt out. Even the most inane issues can become super distracting if allowed to grow or continuously flow. Ending the drama means avoiding talking about anyone not present, firing or reassigning staff quickly when needed (if you're in charge), and helping colleagues balance two beliefs-- our work is important and it's all going to be okay.
My teammate and I presented our strategic planning approach to a client the other day. After the hour-long presentation and a couple of questions she said, “This looks great. I just don’t know if we’re making a mountain out of molehill.” Her concern was acknowledged and we assured her that the pace and depth of the process could be adjusted according to their needs. And so, we began.
As we said our goodbyes and planned to meet again, it struck me though that every strategic plan is a choice between a molehill and a mountain. The difference isn’t defined externally. It’s internal to the organization. It is the leaders’ vision and ambition.
Every mission in every organization- no matter what stage or how constrained- can do things bigger, better, faster, more flexibly, more inclusively, with more heart, or with less friction.
Anything is possible.
Across the government, agencies are getting ready for the new politicals to show up. Fresh from their not-so-easy confirmation hearings, they'll be anxious to get to work. Transition teams have helped get the big picture. However, the briefings don't stop there. Thousands of PowerPoint presentations will be created to tell the individual agency, bureau, and program story to someone new to their job.
The risk isn't getting picked on and put in the defensive- it's getting missed or ignored and having to fight for attention and resources for the next four years.
Traditional briefing decks are dry and loaded down with dated images and graphics and even dustier explanations of exactly what you do on behalf of the American people.
There's a better way and some great lessons to be learned from the pitch decks used by innovators seeking to sell new products and services. Using these characteristics of a great sales deck as a jumping off point.
Here is a done-for-you template to shake things up in a positive and interesting way.
Change is coming. Disruptive forces are at work changing expectations, competition and our own attitudes about the purpose and possibilities within federal consulting.
Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, federal management consulting was a booming business. It wasn’t new per se but it sure was growing. The economy was strong, unemployment low, and we shared a common belief that our biggest enemies were beyond our borders.
Those of us working in federal management consulting at the time look back with memories on these growth years when clients could still travel, everyone was armed with a copy of MS Project, and we had frequent afterhours planning meetings catered with “the big shrimp.” Most of us worked in small, energetic teams headed by a lead with a voice and a vision. There was a sense of excitement about the possibilities and a generally positive outlook for future business and professional growth.
The problem is that we’re the same but the business isn’t.
The change began with budget cuts. According to a Bloomberg article, federal spending on management support services dropped 28 percent from 2010 to 2012 alone. And it continued with an Obama administration push to not only cut budgets and deficits but to streamline organizations and improve government efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.
At the same time, the private consulting industry was facing changes. In 2013, HBR published an article on Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption. According to the authors, “disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.” Knowing that the federal government lags behind industry, we’re right on the cusp now, ourselves.
The authors go on to say: “The pattern of industry disruption is familiar: New competitors with new business models arrive; incumbents choose to ignore the new players or to flee to higher-margin activities; a disrupter whose product was once barely good enough achieves a level of quality acceptable to the broad middle of the market, undermining the position of longtime leaders and often causing the ‘flip’ to a new basis of competition.”
Everyone knows it but what’s one to do? No highly competitive gaggle of Type A’s could sit idle while the business morphs in front of them. Of course, not. Alas, we must study it, then manage it!
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that federal management consultants hear the warning bells going off on the future of their business. In response, they are busy gathering data, trying to figure what it all means, then making sudden and awkward decisions. Some have dramatically slimmed senior ranks. Some have cut benefits. Some have sold off business units that don’t seem to fit anymore. Some have bought other business units to diversify their services. Some have developed new lower priced staffing options. And some have done all of these things and more.
If early response efforts like these are any indication — we’re looking at it the wrong way, worried about the wrong risks, and busy treating the symptoms rather than the cause.
Federal management consulting is less than three years away from being upended and we’re not ready.
Superficial talk among federal program managers and their management consultants centers on the headlines. What big issues are you facing? On cue, they’ll sigh in unison and start in on decreased budgets, leadership uncertainty, retirements, and the evergreen challenge of making change happen—getting people onboard to actually accomplish something. Anything.
What do these climate conditions have to do with disruption? A lot.
- Dollars spent with little change. While federal government spending on management consulting has seen budget cuts, there are still billions of dollars being spent. (The top federal contract in fiscal year 2015 alone was $30 billion, according to Bloomberg Government.) And yet, despite the dollars spent, federal staff and program managers have been banging their heads against some intractable problems for a long time. They’ve spent a ton of time and a lot of money trying to fix them, often with little result. In the words of one senior federal executive, “Consultants may add value by asking probing, open ended questions at certain times but in my experience progress, and sustainment over time only works when the plans of action are created from within an organization.” To be fair, the slow progress and dim results happen for a lot of reasons and a contracted consultant can’t be expected to affect change within an organization to which they can only recommend action—not actually direct work.
- A sea of sameness. There are more than 5000 federal management consulting firms operating today, all competing for a piece of shrinking pie. Aside from size standards, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between them. The competition has fueled a boom in creative marketing campaigns to help those firms gain attention, according to a 2014 Washington Post story.
- New competition coming from unusual places. The Obama administration was been on a roll recruiting Silicon Valley talent from Google, LinkedIn and Twitter for what Fast Company is calling his stealth startup, with a purpose of changing how government works. And, according to a Washington Post article, finding Silicon Valley partners is a priority for Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. The moves took many by surprise. And, it’s amazing that not one of the big consulting firms beat him to the punch. Not one. It's too early to tell how the Trump administration's meetings with technology leaders will be woven into new policy directives.
- Promotion and advancement model unable to keep up. If all of the consulting employees gathered in a big field and each level stood on the shoulders of the ones immediately below, you’d have a massive pyramid (and pretty wobbly one at that because consultants aren’t generally built for acrobatics). Before they toppled into a huge heap, you’d want to notice that the bottom 2/3s or so weren’t very happy. Most feel like they should already be at least one level higher in the stack. The career advancement model is one that attracts ambitious, entrepreneurial people and yet in a stagnant or declining business, there is nowhere for these people to go. So, they’re feeling stuck, frustrated, disillusioned and increasing skeptical of the value delivered by their own management. Firms have yet to adapt the promotion model to reflect the work and accomplishments of staff, get them the advancement they want in a way that all can agree. They’re stuck being evaluated largely by a group of senior leaders who grew their own businesses in a very different market climate. This disconnect creates a rub and a lot of pent up frustration.
So, here we are… a shrinking (although still large) pile of money to spend, an overwhelming number of choices that are virtually impossible to differentiate between, and little insights into how to really get things done. But even with all of that, there is a bigger reason why we’re on the cusp of disruption. The federal consulting business model is fragile. More on that in our next post…
I'm working with a client at a major crossroads with their program and the supporting system. We've been soliciting a ton of feedback, working through various communication approaches, and refreshing guidance to reflect a more user-center approach. They'll pull through but the broader questions raised on the return on investment-- particularly for the supporting IT system-- has me thinking about other federal programs in a similar position.
"It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge."
Montgomery Schuyler expressed this sentiment the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic in May 1883. That milestone moment marked the end of more than a decade of planning and construction and the beginning of a new era for commerce and economic growth for the region. Flash forward to 2014. Our infrastructure has been revolutionized several times over and we now count our reliance on information technology systems among our critical infrastructure. In the case of physical infrastructure, a lasting concrete and steel monument is a testament to the tremendous effort expended. For our core information technology systems, the results can be equally transformative.
As it was then, careers and lives are defined and shaped around these massive, multi-year structural efforts. Years are invested in planning, design, and implementation and, ultimately, success is made possible by the complex choreography that mobilizes the right skills at the right time. After all of the blood, sweat, and occasional tears, we do not often take the opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished.
Many agencies are nearing the end of a massive investment and undertaking in the implementation of enterprise-wide systems (many of them financial systems). As the final milestones are reached, leadership has a unique opportunity to proactively answer the following questions.
- Does the new (insert cryptic but sometimes clever acronym here) live up to the promise for a more comprehensive, efficient, effective system?
- Have we actually consolidated more our legacy systems?
- Have we closed any data centers?
- Have we united staff around the core mission and armed them with tools and information that needed to carry out mission work?
Answering these questions takes leadership and guts—a willingness to take a hard look at the investment and outcomes to celebrate what worked and acknowledge what did not.
Govloop shared this stat in a post last and it got my attention. If someone had asked me for the percent of data analyzed vs. what's collected, I would have guessed less than 100 percent but wouldn't have gone that low.
The other thing that struck me was that-- for as much time as my client and team spends thinking about data-- we'd never examined their issues with field-level buy-in, demonstrating progress, or general forecasting from that perspective. So, I think it's a great, highly quote-able stat.
WHY I LOVE IT
It has shock value. Also, it came from a Forrester Research survey so it has credibility. I did a little digging and found this reference on their site for more information. It's unclear if this report on hadoop contains the survey data but if you're interested in the exact citation, that would be a place to start.
Here's an excerpt... "In a recent Forrester survey, technology execs and decision-makers ranked data-related projects at the top of their list for importance and investment. Why? Companies seek deeper insights from the massive amount of data at their disposal but estimate that they are analyzing only 12% of the data that they already have, leaving 88% of it on the cutting-room floor."
HOW YOU MIGHT USE IT
If you work with data-- and, really, who doesn't-- you can use this reference in two ways.
- From an analytics perspective: Use this single little stat to launch a review of the body of data you/your client collects. Consider the data fields you collect as an entity and asset unto itself. Pull the list of fields into a spreadsheet, then make tabs for all of your common report queries with the lists of fields they're pulling. Calculate the stat for your organization. From the stuff that isn't utilized, figure out quickly if you can stop collecting it or find a way in the next 3 months to use it. I suspect that a lot of these fields aren't used because some people are populating them and others aren't. So there is no confidence that the data is sufficiently complete to be relied upon for any analysis. To overcome this, just keep what you can use in the near-term and let folks off the hook for collecting everything else.
- From a communications perspective: Take this stat and the one you calculated for your organization and share this in your next leadership meeting. Outline your plan for increasing the use select fields and plan to sunset everything else. Both scenarios represent a win in data use and time savings for data elimination.
In this post, I shared one of my favorite examples of small multiples. Save the Children's report on the state of moms around the world focused in a couple of key numbers and repeated the pattern for each country included.
Here's a totally different example from Simon Rogers Guardian and another very effective use of circles.
In contrast to the small multiples, this graph highlights a subset of countries, organizes them by continent, then focuses on a single metric-- emission levels.
WHY I LOVE IT
These circles are so effective because they enable the reader to quickly understand the difference in magnitude on a single data point. I like that it's grouped by continent because it helps orient you to where the lesser known countries are located. I also love the colors but it might leave some people craving Skittles rather than evoking concern for the environment. Lastly, it's further supported by a couple of line graphs and tables at the bottom for some addition detail. Big stuff on the top, little on the bottom.
HOW YOU MIGHT USE IT
If you like the circles*, consider using them to compare a single important data element across a number of units within your organization. Program budgets might be one example. Or people served by a specific program benefiting the public across a number of locations might be another. The key is to pick one important outcome and track it against multiple contributors so that you can see the key players.
To be sure, this took lots and lots of time to assemble. I don't know specifically but I'm guessing it was more than a single afternoon. If you're thinking of replicating a series of charts like these, consider doing it as a poster that will be printed and displayed, as well as, posted electronically. This format isn't appropriate for a PowerPoint presentation. It should be treated as a stand-alone communications product. Actually, it's a good reason to forget the presentation all together and just do this.
*I had a client years ago who didn't like circles. I'm not kidding. They were banned from all deliverables after we brought him a draft that he glanced at then retitled "the birth control chart" during a big staff meeting. Awesome. I'd never met someone with such an aversion to a basic shape. Primary colors? Sure. A lot of people hate yellow. But a circle? It makes me sad just thinking about it. I hope this never happens to you.
The first step in seeking out a better relationship with our leaders is to separate what’s about you and what’s about them—and sadly, a lot of what we see our leaders do is about them.
How can you tell?
• Public temper tantrums, negative rants, biting or sarcastic asides, and exasperated speeches—are about them. This is the show poor leaders put on. Leaders who let their contempt show publicly figure it’s more efficient to get their message of power and control to a larger number of people. In contrast, good leaders initiate calm, private conversations and provide the opportunity for back-and-forth dialogue. These conversations are worth listening to, even if your boss is awkward in initiating the conversation or stumbles to find the right words.
• Advice that boils down to “just be more like me” is about them and should be filtered before taking it to heart. Great leaders seek to bring out the individual strengths of each person and don’t attempt to replicate their own perceived strengths (which can be grossly distorted) in others.
• Veiled negativity coming from the top is about them. Seeing these patterns can be tricky, but they are often found in the space between the company policy (or the law) and how employees are subtly encouraged by their managers to get work done. Leaders at the top are saying the right words in meetings, but they are getting the message out in other ways that compliance with the rules or laws is bad for business. This more generalized negativity is relayed down through the hierarchy of managers and should be recognized as a big red flag.
• Feedback on how your approach isn’t producing results is about you.Even when the talk is tough to hear because the delivery is awkward or unpolished (or even has a tinge of frustration), feedback about your performance is about you. This is especially true when it’s provided in a timely manner in private and is specific to the issues. As difficult as these conversations can be, feedback is absolutely critical to career survival and, ultimately, to your raging success. I know firsthand how hard it is in the moment to see “fix this” directives as the gift that they are. Dismiss or diminish these conversations at your own risk.
The second step is to recognize just how toxic leadership contempt can be to leader–follower relationships—and to organizations as a whole. Such contempt, and the attitude that it’s “us against them,” can spread quickly within organizations. Attitudes are passed around in every conversation and shape how people think about the issues and what options are on the table to solve problems.
Can contemptuous leaders change? Of course, but they have to want to. They have to want to see the damage to morale and the real, bottomline business costs caused by turn-over and opportunities missed because the staff was too discouraged, distracted or defensive to pursue new work.
Once a leader has decided to change, a world of options opens from leadership training on improving emotional intelligence to effective time management and delegation to crafting inspiring speeches.
However, undoing past damage and preventing future staff loss comes down to the leader growing a sense of empathy that eventually crowds out their negative tendencies. Specifically, get well plans include:
1. Read more. Starting with biographies of past leaders, getting a more in-depth understanding of how respected leaders think can start to sink in.
2. Forget the golden rule. Many of us “grew up” professionally in very different times. Because something was common practice years ago doesn’t make it the right or best way. Further, just because a leader doesn’t believe they’d mind having a specific negative behavior inflected on themselves, doesn’t make it ok to turn around to do it to someone else. Great leaders hold themselves to a higher standard.
3. Turn the tables. It can be helpful in the moment to imagine the person across the table is one’s own child or parent or a dear friend. Trying to see each person’s humanity and inherent value is critical.
Great leaders continually examine their attitudes about staff, competitors, and the business and fix the unproductive ones before they infect the business. One of the greatest opportunities afforded to leaders is the chance to decide in advance what they want their legacy to be. Each of us has the chance each day to lead with contempt or lead with consideration and appreciation.
For some, one of the perceived “perks” of promotion is the earned right to look down on others from a higher leadership perch. You’re not imagining it. Leadership contempt, to quote from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 classic, can be a little bit “ironic, don’t you think?”
It’s still all too common in the work place to have leaders that are downright ruthless, mean and unapologetically self-interested. Of course, there are notable exceptions, but history teaches us that that kings and queens of our shared past got high on their own tyranny. Having contempt for your subjects was the norm—not something to be ashamed of or hidden. And it was expected. Leaders had power, and those with power used fear to get what they wanted—often at any cost.
Over time, our beliefs about effective leadership have evolved (thankfully). Today, the leadership qualities we most value share some similarities with the past (such as vision and decisiveness), but also more contemporary thinking on inclusiveness and the ability to use positivity to motivate.
This leadership evolution has made our world and our organizations better, but it hasn’t erased some of the antiquated habits and attitudes that our organizations’ leaders carry around today. The gulf between the leaders we idealize and imagine and the ones we work with down the hall is very real but hard to reconcile.
Because leaders are products of their past and their present and still struggle with dichotomous forces as they lead. On the one side, leaders, giving in to natural human tendencies, may decide to wield power to get what they want (and now!). On the other side, they may foster their more intellectually driven desires to nurture their staff and work collaboratively with teams. Regardless of the inner struggle, present-day leaders who show signs of being on a primitive power drive are far from revered. Such leadership is largely seen as unacceptable.
So how do leaders make sense of these two sometimes conflicting personas? Especially those who lean toward the power drive and opt to use less than revered forms of leadership? Some leaders put on a different face for the world—a kinder, more polished, more measured version of their leadership selves. But for followers, this may mean that we talk about leadership in one way, but experience it as something quite different.
This dichotomy, in part, fuels the business industry’s insatiable appetite for inspiring quotes, insightful blog posts, researched articles and “how to” books on the topic of leadership. There are hundreds published every day. Yet at the core of that appetite is a desire—on the part of both leaders and followers—to smooth out the inner conflict and seek better leadership balance.
Recognizing leadership contempt for what it is can be sanity-saving at work. Many people who see or experience firsthand these behaviors in their boss take it personally. And who wouldn’t? Those of us who have experienced it can’t help but pay attention to someone with a significant influence in their lives—especially when that individual plays the role of performance assessor and career guidance counselor.
Federal agencies face a massive undertaking in strengthening and consolidating their IT processes and workforce to counter the threats in a rapidly evolving sector. After all, that’s the concern driving implementation of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. FITARA was crafted on the premise that the current operating model isn’t resilient enough to deflect a large-scale attack or efficient enough to withstand growing budget scrutiny.
After it became law in December 2014, FITARA sparked numerous planning and consolidation efforts for agency information officers, chiefs of contracting, and budget staff. FITARA gives agency CIOs the approval power and oversight responsibility for technology acquisitions. The purpose is to adapt the federal IT acquisition process to major industry trends while ensuring greater transparency and accountability. Key changes resulting from FITARA include enhancing CIO authority, improving risk management, increasing IT portfolio review visibility, establishing a stronger role for acquisitions staff and maximizing strategic sourcing through greater governmentwide software purchasing.
Because federal IT staff are on the hook for making all of these requirements a reality, agencies are now dusting off (or beginning to develop) strategic IT workforce plans to address the “people piece” of this complex equation. To me, the strategic IT workforce component—how these major changes are done with the current federal staff and what skill sets are needed for the future—is especially compelling, but surely won’t be easy.
It’s not surprising that IT is a prime target for improving efficiency and transparency. Capital planning, budget execution, acquisition, and the workforce supporting all of this are all critical to operations and are equally expensive.
FITARA requires upfront action and has a long tail, meaning that implementation efforts will be ongoing for years to come. Agencies must work with their component bureaus, offices, divisions, and units to undergo a common planning effort and move together towards a more unified future.
Despite the FITARA’s common goals, a one size fits all approach won’t work. This is true not only because of the varying levels of IT program maturity and internal controls, but also because of the unique missions and cultures of each agency and sub-organization. Further, developing IT workforce plans will spark resistance if the primary focus is on consolidation instead of developing a menu of solutions (consolidation, strengthened communications, and increased oversight, for example) that can be mixed and matched to more precisely meet the sub-organization’s needs.
Of the federal IT executives I’ve talked to, each would like to take lessons from past IT workforce planning efforts that may have stalled or stopped. But beware the hazards of such an approach.
Why IT Workforce Plans Fail
There are three main reasons why your agency’s FITARA IT workforce plan could fail.
Incomplete data. There is a widespread belief that unless your agency has perfect or complete data, it’s not worth conducting any analysis. The alternative to this “all or nothing” approach is to get what staffing data you can (relatively easily) and document the context when presenting the results. You can build on the data and expand the analysis later. Generate interest by showing people preliminary findings on the existing staff because it gets them thinking about what’s missing or what specific question about the workforce they’d like answered. The data will be incomplete but don’t let that hold you back from doing something.
Overly-complicated analysis. Leaders and staff alike start to get excited and let the “wouldn’t it be nice to knows” run away with the analysis. Before you know it, you’re collecting an amazing but untenable amount of detail. Capturing these shades of gray would take an enormous amount of time and effort for what is, in the end, a limited return on investment. Simple is better—even if it doesn’t reflect all of the specific nuances of hiring, training, staffing, and personnel advancement trends. Especially when analyzing IT staff, each individual is unique and so is their situation.
Inexact modeling. Output from the staffing models seems too high or too low. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to develop a model with the level of precision that everyone will be satisfied with. However, if everyone uses the same model, this inequity should be less of a concern. The output isn’t that you’re saying you need 1,000 new IT positions, but it does give each sub-organization a sense of where they should focus recruiting/hiring for vacant or new positions in the future. A simpler model developed with in-house experience is a better, faster alternative to coming up with projections based on the IT footprint.
Federal IT executives and other agency leaders can assist in developing good, implementable plans by helping manage the expectations that the output will be perfect.
IT Workforce Plan Outcomes
The outcomes of a good, strategic IT workforce plans include the following:
- A document to demonstrate compliance with FITARA’s requirement to develop and implement a strategic IT workforce plan.
- Increased confidence among agency leadership that the current IT workforce is identified, the gaps are known, and that there is a plan in place to fill critically needed positions.
- A standardized approach to evaluating the current workforce (staff count, grade, cost, skills, etc.) and a common model for estimating the needed workforce.
- An implementable strategy to strengthen communications and oversight.
- A strengthened working relationship among sub-organizations as a result of undertaking a collaborative, inclusive planning process.
Strategic IT workforce planning will never be simple but it can be more effective if your agency focuses on avoiding the potential pitfalls. Implementing the plan will result in a strong, more unified and efficient workforce.
Data is everywhere and, for many, is everything. It’s put on a pedestal where it is both loved and admired. It’s protected and cared for by smart, devoted people. And, it’s both the question and the answer when we cross paths with the OMB or Congress.
I started to write that federal programs “these days” have become synonymous with massive data collection, analysis and reporting exercises, but we all know that’s not 100 percent true. For as long as we have been a nation, we (the public) have demanded from our government (and our contractors) a thorough accounting for the money spent and the accomplishments achieved. In today’s government, that means data and that’s all good.
The issue? A little taste for good data leads to cravings for more. Without realizing it, we’ve become zombies with insatiable appetites for fleshy spreadsheets. That’s not so good.
Why? Data is expensive—in fact, far more expensive than we like to acknowledge. In government and in contracting, data is the fancy, bubbly, bottled water that we treat like tap.
We rarely talk about the cost of data because we believe data makes us smarter and better organizations. Federal executives want insights and answers—so they ask for more analysis. Program managers with their staffs and consultants want to be responsive and to show their program’s value—so they collect data to power such analysis and start crunching. They might wince a little in the process of getting there, but ultimately they move heaven and earth to produce polished, data-rich reports.
Yet for the dozens of well-purposed, well-intentioned federal programs, such as the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP), the Employer Information Report, the Energy Review, and federal information technology (IT) investments, data requests like these are not making them smarter or better. They are merely creating a data collection burden on both federal employees and their contractors.
Each of these programs (and the many others like them) has a purpose. And all the data they produce has potential value. But how much did it cost to obtain it? Where is that data now? And who is using it?
The FRPP exemplifies a good idea gone wrong. If you’re not familiar with this program, the FRPP is a skim of a federal agency’s real property data and metrics. Agency staff collect the data and send it to the GSA. Using that submitted data, the GSA then produces an annual summary report of the federal government’s footprint.
And then not much else happens.
Now many important things are happening in real property at each of the agencies that reports data—but the FRPP data at the GSA is not reflective of that activity. In fact, the rules around FRPP data make it too hard to easily snag data from other systems and too superficial to do much interesting, useful analysis with it on its own. Yet agencies still bear the cost of gathering the required data, checking it, and submitting it for no return on their data collection investment—except for a check in the compliance box.
In their book, the “Agile Culture,” Pollyanna Pixton, Paul Gibson, and Niel Nickolaisen advise, “Always ensure that the cost of collecting the metric is significantly less than the value that it can deliver. And we do mean significantly less.” Recognize that the cost of collecting data is not zero and can sometimes be very high, especially if it involves continuous action by the delivery team members. This cost is often ignored and can have a huge negative impact on team productivity.
Even good programs can grow increasingly expensive because we need—and want—to understand broad, complex problems. There is no doubt that our pursuit of data and answers has yielded some insights, avoided some crises and enabled some right choices being made the first time. Yet is it right, or even sustainable, to pursue data without periodically asking ourselves how much it is going to cost to obtain the data?
How do we think the data we seek is going to answer an unanswered question? Is the tradeoff between the expense to collect the data and insight gained worth it? If the answer to this quick “gut check” is yes, then by all means, pursue that data with purpose and seriousness. However, if the answer is less than a resounding “yes” or we’re struggling year after year to ensure collection compliance, maybe it’s time to admit that the data isn’t needed or as valuable as once thought. Seeking data at all costs isn’t a wise (or sustainable from a political or budgetary perspective) approach.
The alternative is to treat data like other investments and to measure its return on investment. Keep collection and refinement efforts in check by continuously weighing the costs and benefits.
Blinded by our love of metrics, we pursue data. Yet, as we recently explored, the cost of that pursuit is often high. Staff time is assigned, support contracts are signed, information technology systems are built and secure storage facilities are negotiated.
We are also blinded by an assumption: that data is critical to anticipating the future and investing public funds responsibly. We’re intrigued, entranced, obsessed. We worry about the gaps and suspected errors so we dismiss any extrapolated insights as flawed. And, then we come right back because—like all codependent relationships—we believe we need it (data) to exist.
In spite of this conundrum, we get sucked into the data game like we’re at a carnival. We go back time after time trying to get enough tickets to buy the big prize—but suspecting somewhere in the back of our minds that the stuffed animal is worth a fraction of what we spent to “win” it. And despite working in a time of notable budget shortfalls, the cost to collect data is rarely being scrutinized or the efforts to collect data cut back once they’re started.
Our data appetite is insatiable. Why? Because we’re desperate for answers. When we’re not exactly sure what the questions are, we believe data is the first step on the right path to getting there. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a federal program manager (or their consultant behind the scenes egging them on) who didn’t think having more data was a good thing. Perspectives like that of Kevin Cincotta in Government Executive make so much sense on the surface that data collection efforts often go unchallenged.
Our data appetite convinces us that we’ll use it if we have it. In reality, nothing seems further from the truth. Forrester reported last year that a meager 12 percent of the data collected is ever analyzed. Yikes! This number might be startling at first glance, but it won’t really surprise many federal employees who live this reality. Within our federal programs, there is a limited awareness of the data available, concerns about data quality, a lack of analytical skill available to analyze it, and a just plain old lack of time. The time factor, to me, is the single biggest downfall with collected data. It’s expensive to collect and sadly, much of it goes unused. Plain and simple, it’s a waste.
So, we’re stuck, right? Maybe not. Responsible and assertive leaders must chart another path—up and around the hurdle created by the need for data. This path consists of three steps:
1. Build awareness
To start, agency leaders need a clear understanding of the data collection efforts underway within their organizations. This understanding doesn’t require an exhaustive inventory, but it does require a broad understanding of the top five or so programs requiring data collection and maintenance. Understanding what directives staffs are working under and what the response looks like—the number of staff assigned, the rough value of support contracts, and related systems. This exercise is necessarily conducted at the leadership level—it’s not a program by program problem.
Next, look at the internal and external reports being produced. Stretch beyond what information is being conveyed on the surface and dig deep to determine what (if any) insights are being gained. Which data elements do staffs depend on regularly to make decisions about the direction of the organization?
Based on the understanding gained by agency leaders in step 1, plot the big data collection efforts on a simple 2×2 matrix. Label one axis “federal mandate” (yes, no, or sort of) and the other “high mission utility” (yes, no, or sort of). Obviously, two combined “yeses” earns a green light, while two combined “noes” means an effort is phased out. The “sort of” rating equates to the work of program managers and leadership to either move certain data collection efforts solidly into one box or the other.
2. Vigorously push back:
For any data collection efforts falling into the “yes it’s a federal mandate, but has no mission utility” quadrant, agency leadership should vigorously push back, request an exception, or work to change the requirement so that it better fits the agency’s purpose. Agencies (and the government as a whole) simply don’t have the discretionary budget it takes to apply blanket rules to a deeply nuanced environment.
3. Reenergize analytics:
The biggest thing leaders can do to get more value out of the time invested in data collection is to ask for the reports. Ask program managers to share with you what they think is important. Be careful not to ask too loudly about what else would be nice to know—remember that anything you ask for has a trickle-down effect that costs more money.
Responsible leaders know the costs of data collection and continuously weigh the benefits. They also ask the right questions in the pursuit of data: Are we getting the insights we need? Are we getting the return on insights for the investment in collection? Would the public agree?
This article originally appeared in Bloomberg Government.
Whether it is retrieving astronauts from space or clarifying a tactless comment that created a firestorm for someone in the communications office, all organizations face challenges that force employees to think and act differently in response.
At a time when many agencies just want to fly under the radar and focus on mission work in anticipation of the next administration, there are a few that can’t seem to avoid critical attention for their handling (or mishandling) of organizational issues. The VA continues to struggle with ridding the agency of underperformers. Homeland Security faces questions about executives’ use of private email. And the National Park Service faces accusations of employing “scum” by one especially vocal Congressman.
As the public gets a glimpse into the leadership’s handling of public crises, one has to wonder what’s going on beneath the surface with the career staff. How does a pounding in the press affect morale and engagement?
We intuitively know that an engaged workforce—one that shows dedication and effort in their work—is crucial to high-performing organizations. In fact, one study in the Harvard Business Reviewshows that employee engagement is key to reaching organizational goals, reducing turnover, improving work quality, and improving overall individual employee health.
We also know that high-performing organizations are better able to handle moments of crisis. But what about those organizations at the other end of the spectrum? What are they missing?
The very nature of some organizational challenges makes employee engagement especially important. For example, problems stemming from unethical conduct or incompetence among one or a handful of senior staff can be hugely damaging for organizations already on uncertain ground with their employees. Conversely, those with strong workforce engagement are more likely to view those events as one-offs and not as systemic problems. In moments of crisis, an engaged workforce can be the key to a quick recovery that minimizes the distraction and disruption when big problems arise.
According to one study, 73 percent of full-time workers surveyed encountered ethical lapses in management. Of those, 36 percent say they were distracted by the incident. For some, distraction means an entire day or more of productivity lost. Because of their size, large organizations have more to lose in terms of productivity and engagement when a crisis occurs.
The solution is preventative: Engage employees now to improve performance when times are good and minimize disruption when problems occur.
How? Most traditional approaches focus on leadership action and attempt to isolate employee engagement from other issues. Often, well-meaning organizations start by conducting an employee survey to collect insights into engagement drivers and barriers. Then, senior management convenes to discuss the results and develop an action plan to address the findings. More experienced executives then review progress against the plan at regular intervals and hold leaders accountable for results.
While this approach may incrementally improve results, there is a better, simpler way: Engage employees on actual problems. Invite them into a participative process to share what they and their teams need to fully unlock discretionary effort. Employees who believe their opinions are valued will have the best ideas to create a better workplace experience that benefits them, their teams, and the overall performance of the business.
This post originally appeared in GovExec.