Unusually Competent People

The Thinker by Rodin

If I am a bit slow blogging this week it’s because I have been very busy at work. It’s has not been the sort of stuff worth more than annotating: two days in a conference room with executives watching Powerpoint slides and trying not to fall asleep, and three days in a training session on creating effective virtual teams. In the middle of it though everyone paused for a retirement luncheon for our friend and colleague Colleen.

Colleen is retiring after 36 years of government service. She started at age 19. She retires something of a legend in our organization: a woman whose extreme competence, organizational skills, intimate knowledge of her domain and enormous people skills put her in the top .1% of effective people that I have ever known. And I know this even though I have only known her only ten months.

Not only will she be dearly missed but she leaves behind a far flung trail of employees, friends and admirers who were deeply touched by her during their lives. Colleen’s work has been amazing. She was recently awarded the Meritorious Achievement Award by our bureau’s director. But even that award damns her with faint praise. This is a woman with amazing organizational skills. She managed a large geographically distributed team and glued them together to finish tight deadline projects with incredibly tight budgets.

She was omnipresent but not usually actually there. But you knew she was watching you intimately. She was on every email list and most remarkably she actually read everything. She connected all the dots. She got people who needed to talk to each other together who didn’t know they needed to talk to each other. As a result she saved huge sums of taxpayer money. Part of the price she paid is that she seemed always in motion, flitting from one work site to the next. She seemed to spend more time on business travel than at home. She had perfect management skills. Most of the time she was a people person and worked through influence. But when necessary she could come out in attack dog mode, but oddly she could never be mean while attacking. She was just incredibly assertive. I know because she zinged me a few times. But she was always so sincere, so believable, so caring, so dedicated and so single minded it was impossible to dislike her. Most of the time she wore a radiant and natural smile. People who worked for her did not just like and respect her. They were in awe of her. It’s a shame she never decided to run for office. She could have had quite a number of followers. She would be excellent presidential timber.

But she would have none of that. Colleen put her own limits of her domain. Instead of remaking the world she made her portion of it exceptionally good. Perhaps she paid a price. Perhaps her husband felt slighted by all her time away from home. Perhaps her evenings and weekends were more often spent in unpaid overtime than channel surfing. But unquestionably she led people. And they followed. They marched. And new people like me who spent months doing things the old way found that there was no escaping Colleen’s personal gravity. Through smiles, through doggedness, and through her calm voice she pulled you in and made you see things her way. For example the reason I was in the communications training class this week is because she wanted me there. I thought my skills were at least okay but they did not meet her standards. She required excellence from me too, even though we are peers. Pulled by the high esteem and the respect she commanded I meekly agreed to the training. How could I not? She smiled at me so wonderfully. She cared so much. She was so concerned about the organization. To show her the respect due her senior status this was the least I could do. It was my own modest retirement present to her.

And now, except for a couple more conference calls before she officially clocks out, she is gone. If there is one thing she may have done wrong it is that her team seems a bit shell shocked at the very notion of not having her around. But that was part of the reason I sat in the training room this week with so many others. She knew not having her around as the glue that brought everyone together was a deficiency that must be overcome. She would have none of it. She would not retire quietly to let the organization slowly slide into chaos. She would retire when things were lined up so that the organization could keep charging forward without her. She would measure the success of her career by how stable things remained after her retirement.

I often wonder why she wasn’t more ambitious. Granted a GS-14 is pretty high up there in the federal government civil service ranks. I have no doubt she could have been just as effective at an enterprise level. Yet she chose to stop. It appears that status did not mean much to her. Only doing things very, very competently mattered. She fought entropy with every fiber in her body. She will leave our organization a markedly more orderly and efficient place than before her arrival.

Colleen is not the first woman I have known like this. In my last job in a different agency I had the pleasure with working with a lady named Diana who had many of the same characteristics. She took on the biggest, hairiest enterprise project in the agency. She was the project manager for a new enterprise grants management system that replaced a couple dozen stove piped systems. Diana also got everyone to sing and dance together. And she delivered this system on time and nurtured it through many growing pains.

On the macro level these unusually competent people are often unnoticed or unappreciated. But they deeply affect the lives of the people they touch. They serve as wonderful role models for those they work with. With Colleen’s retirement I feel the heat on me a bit. I’m wondering if the expectation is whether I can be the next Colleen. On one level I would like to be so respected and admired. But on another level I also want to have a life apart from work, and I’m pretty sure that part of her life suffered.

But I salute amazing people like Colleen and Diana. Human beings are so much like cats: hard to orchestrate to do anything more complicated than stand together for a picture. But people like these women manage to do it incredibly well. They orchestrate people and turn their organizations into the New York Philharmonic. I strongly suspect if Lorin Maazel knew these women he would be envious. If these women could do to orchestras what they did in the domain of the office the New York Philharmonic would be a third rate orchestra.

I’m really glad I have had these two women in my life to respect and admire. My biggest regret with Colleen is that I did not know her long enough to be fully mentored by her. But even though she is gone I will be channeling her. I probably cannot do what she did but she encourages me to always give my very best.

It’s Not the Scorecard, It’s the Mission

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been at my new employer (the U.S. Geological Survey) about a month now. Last week I was surprised to get in the mail a survey from my old federal agency asking for a candid assessment of why I left.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. The primary reason I left remains the same: the new job is 3 miles from my house, old job was 25 miles from my house. But the timesavings weren’t the only reason I left. I also left in part because the guy who sent me the survey really pissed me off. But it wasn’t until I filled out the exit survey and sent it back to him that I was able to fully articulate my feelings.

It was pissed because this “brilliant” guy in the Senior Executive Service had confused a scorecard with actual success.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were watching the former White House terrorism czar, Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He was upset because he tried diligently to get the attention of the latest Bush Administration to the threat of al Qaeda and was largely ignored. There were bigger fish for the Bush Administration to fry in those sweet pre 9/11 days, like missile defense spending for a bogus threat from rogue nations and tax cuts for the rich.

But no matter. Bush must have remembered one lesson at Yale when he was working on that MBA. It must have been the lecture on metrics. Measure progress by keeping metrics. We saw it after we invaded Iraq. Bush has this obsession to get the whole top Iraqi leadership, the “Deck of Cards”. According to Clarke, Bush would check them off one by one. By golly, as soon as he got all of them problem over! Cross Iraq off the list of national security problems! (It was never one to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Events in Iraq proved that this approach was painfully naive. But it’s not surprising, because Bush came into office and put in place the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In principle the goals seem sound: get results and don’t make empty promises. But the PMA’s modus operandi is interesting. They include such dubious approaches as “competitive sourcing” (i.e. replace federal employees with contractors) and “faith-based and community initiatives”. I guess it does take a lot of faith to buy into both of these dubious notions.

Naturally federal agencies are bending themselves over backwards to show they are becoming leaner, efficient and results oriented. Their scorecard is the PMA. My last agency was no different. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration was hired because he had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, results oriented guy.

And I have to report our scorecard looked great. Throughout the government agencies are competing hard to show they are making a “clean sweep”, changing old practices and putting in these great new practices (like competitive sourcing) that Republicans believe will make the government more responsive. Outside the wall of his office my SESer had hung a broom spray painted green with the words “Clean Sweep” embossed on the stick in gold letters. Next to it was an enlarged chart showing the key points in the President’s Management Agenda and how ACF was doing. Our metrics were great! We were getting all greens! We were doing so well our SESer was favorably written up in Government Executive magazine.

Yup, I expect he will get an outstanding performance rating this year, and even a bonus.

Too bad it is all spinning wheels.

It’s all bullshit.

He wouldn’t agree of course. The Bush Administration wouldn’t agree either. But it’s bullshit. The reason it’s BS is because it is all window dressing. It hasn’t made my old agency any more effective or efficient. Far from it. The outsourcing, for example, has left the staff shell-shocked and demoralized. Cutting so many managers from the hierarchy may have looked good on paper, but it disconnected employees from their managers. In effect managers didn’t have the time to proactively manage. Instead they were spending their time heeding instructions from those above them and making motions like they were getting things done, but having little idea what their own people were doing. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t always that way. But in buying into this management philosophy no one bothered to figure out if the philosophy could really work in a government culture.

Management today is like sending a novice to a computer certification boot camp. Put someone with half a brain in a room for 12 hours a day, make them cram for a test every night, teach them exactly what they need to know to pass the test and watch them ace it. Then watch them take their certificate to an employer and try to solve a real problem. Then watch them fail. Knowing how to follow the business ideology of the moment doesn’t qualify you to solve real world problems. Intimately understanding the problem domain and effectively working in that domain solves the problems.

As I said in my critique, it’s not how well you score on the President’s Management Agenda that counts, Mr. SES. It’s how effectively you and your staff do the agency’s mission that matters. If you cut expenses by 20% but productivity is down 50% you are not effectively managing. If you take the domain knowledge of a highly talented and dedicated staff of federal employees and give the task to some contractors who are out the door in a year or two, you are not effectively managing. If your agency gives more money to faith based organizations and they cannot show good or better results with the money than a nonsectarian organization, you are not effectively managing.

At USGS we live in a bit of a time warp. Not that we aren’t also subjected to the PMA and similar nonsense. But we are a scientist-heavy organization where federal employees are plentiful and contractors are still largely on the sidelines. With the exception of one person every member of my team is a federal employee.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with my new team. These people are engaged. They are on the ball. Work is not a chore to them. Work is fun and more importantly work is meaningful. Go look at our NWISWeb system. Get real time information on stream flow, water quality and ground water information for your site, county, state or the whole darn country.

Contractors from SRA with impressive credentials and $200 an hour billing rates didn’t put this together. Ordinary federal scientists and engineers who were trusted and empowered by their managers put this together. These employees had a vision back in 1995: to put the vast National Water Information System data onto the web for the world to see and use. Management said “Go for it. We trust you.” Guess what? They did it. The system was an instant success. Today our hit rates are phenomenal. School districts open or close based on the quality and accuracy of the real time information we provide.

I got an email today from our office in Puerto Rico saying that Caribbean countries depend on the timeliness and accuracy of our data so they can make accurate predictions of their own. Our information not only tells fisherman when might be a good day to catch some trout, but it saves lives.

This administration doesn’t get it but maybe the next one will. But here’s an idea: try truly empowering your federal workforce. Instead of nickel and dime-ing them to death and constantly frightening them with the grim reaper of outsourcing tell them you trust them and have confidence in their ability. You will have in place a workforce that will not only do the people’s business but also do it brilliantly.

Maybe results oriented government isn’t so hard after all.

The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

So how are we doing on the War on Terrorism? Has our preemptive war against Iraq helped or hindered the situation? As my friend Frank Pierce pointed out the final answer will be left to history. But a year should be enough time to make at least a preliminary assessment. I know it is hard to appraise this last year with true Machiavellian detachment. In my case I was opposed to the war and still wish it hadn’t happened. But nonetheless I shall try my best to give an evenhanded assessment.

Let’s start with what went right. Our conventional military war against Saddam and his armies went very well. There were hiccups as there always will be some in any war. For example, we didn’t expect our army to be stuck enroot to Baghdad for a couple days while sandstorms howled. But though I knew Saddam’s army was more bluster than reality even I was surprised by how quickly we won the military war. For the most part the opposition was scattershot. The soldiers in the Iraqi army were no fools: they knew we had them outgunned in every conceivable way and our victory was inevitable. Their question was how long it would take for their command and control structure to collapse so they could safely desert.

Another thing that went pretty well has been our casualty count. About 3200 of our soldiers have been wounded, and 575 have been killed. While every casualty is a personal tragedy for the victim, friends and family by historical standards these numbers are quite low. While our troops don’t have quite all the vehicles and body armor they need, they have a lot of it. Under the circumstances they are fairly well protected. More recently many of our troops simply have withdrawn to their garrisons and refused to engage in routine patrols. That’s one way to keep the casualty numbers down. On the Iraqi side it’s hard to know the casualty count. But credible reports that I’ve read suggest at least 10,000 Iraqi deaths can be attributed to the war and its aftermath.

We are also fortunate to have such a well-trained and professional military working in and near Iraq. In retrospect it would have been better had they received more training in urban warfare, military policing and Arabic. Perhaps they needed less training in winning conventional wars. One lesson from this war should be that we need to shift military priorities. I strongly suspect that conventional war is something the United States will never engage in again. The United States can win pretty much any conventional war, as long as they don’t come too close together. Our armed forces are without peer although China’s forces pose a potential future threat. It is hard to imagine us fighting a land war with China though.

We also did a good job in capturing Saddam’s henchmen. Saddam himself took much longer but we eventually got the man. The “deck of cards” is nearly complete. It is strange that with the top leadership in custody we aren’t in better control of Iraq. Apparently there is more to removing evil than removing the leaders from power.

Perhaps my Machiavellian detachment is leaving me but I can’t think of too many things (at least at the macro level) that worked well. I know we are building roads, schools, libraries and the trying to restore Iraq’s basic infrastructure. Their infrastructure is in many ways worse than it was before the war. There may be marginally more electricity overall in Baghdad. But the blackouts are longer than they were before the war, as Riverbend frequently notes in her blog. Numerous checkpoints throughout Baghdad and indeed much of Iraq slow down commerce and make life much more frustrating for the average Iraqi than it was during Saddam’s reign.

Our postwar planning was a fiasco. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there was plenty of postwar planning, but the top leadership embraced none of it. The leadership’s planning, such as it was, assumed the rosiest possible scenario: our soldiers would be greeted as liberators and any counterinsurgency would be minimal. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, our leadership gave no thought to the likelihood that our troops would be a police force in the country for many months. We have put in place a new Iraqi police force but it is working poorly at best. Its officers are frequent targets for those who would prefer to target our soldiers, but find the police much more accessible.

We have found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush called an urgent threat to our national security. Even Administration spokesmen have stopped parroting the line that they will be found eventually. The whole pretext for our war with Iraq proved to be bogus. In trying to assess where the failure lies, it is reasonably clear that it was not so much an intelligence failure (our intelligence agencies’ reports were full of disclaimers) as it was a failure of our leadership to look at the situation impartially. An early warning should have been Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans, set up for the specific purpose of finding the “evidence” that Rumsfeld believed our own intelligence agencies were neither finding nor forwarding.

Clearly the Iraqi people have more freedom now than they did under Saddam Hussein. Clearly his torture and death factories have been abolished. If Saddam were still in power likely these same sort of abuses would be continuing to this present day and perhaps would have been passed on to his sons after he died. We can all be glad that those days are gone.

But what is Iraq’s future? I would like to be hopeful but I personally suspect the odds of civil war hover at about 40%. Iraq has had civil war before. Arguably the war never completely ended, it just moved from a military war to a war waged through counterinsurgency. Terrorists, absent before the war, appear to number in the hundreds now. An effort to put in place a constitutional government is clearly underway; I have to credit Bush with a good effort here. But whether it will be more than words remains to be seen. I can’t imagine it happening at all without sustained United States support lasting a decade or more. And yet for our forces to remain there not only endangers them but inflames anti-American sentiments shared by likely a majority of Iraqis. I for one firmly believe our involvement spawned more terrorists to hate and kill us than prevented future acts of terrorism.

So the central question is whether the United States’ national security is safer as a result of this war. The war was justified on the basis that Iraq was an urgent threat to the national security of the United States. That we must leave to history too. But weapons of mass destruction in Iraq apparently existed only in the minds of our leadership. Meanwhile, we have 100,000 troops stationed indefinitely in Iraq, effectively unable to be used elsewhere in the war on terrorism. While it is good to have Saddam gone and for the Iraqi people to be freed from his tyranny, if he posed no threat how can 100,000 of our troops effectively taken out of the War on Terror improve our national security?

A year from now I hope to revisit this entry again. But here is what I see for the year ahead in Iraq: I see a lot more of the same. I see an earnest attempt at constitutional government and elections, but I see voting accompanied by massive intimidation and violence. I see civil war a distinct likelihood. A year from now there may be a government in place but it will be largely impotent, hobbled by start up costs, terrorism, counterinsurgency and sectarian violence. The United States will be the real power in charge, if we can call what we are doing now truly controlling the country. Really, it is more like anarchy. Sadly, I predict something resembling real peace in Iraq is at least five years away.