Thoughts on the dynamics of successful organizational change

This week a few light bulbs went off over my head. Unfortunately, I was kept too busy to have time to document them until now (hence the dearth of blog entries). What follows are some insights into how large organizations effect large changes.

Organizations of sufficient age will naturally resist change. They are typically optimized to solve known problems. This has the consequence of meaning that they are not well positioned to retrofit to solve new ones. Change is usually painful and the larger the change the more painful it is. Yet change is inevitable. While change is usually painful, change can also bring new rewards and new opportunities. Large government bureaucracies, such as the one I work in, are especially resistant to change. It is one thing for the senior leadership of an organization to make a decision. It is quite another thing to implement effectively their decision, particularly when the organization is distributed, the change is very large, the teams are highly matrixed and multiple managers have competing interests and goals.

Adroitly managing change is perhaps an organization’s toughest challenge. In the private sector, this ability translates into a company’s survivability and profitability. Which is why it is so interesting to observe how major changes happen successfully. I have discovered that inside my organization is a hidden group of change artists who have no name or formal affiliation.

I should point out that the movers and shakers are not necessarily its management. Senior leadership consists of people who are essentially directors. They tell people what to do in visionary terms. To be effective, successful senior leaders need to acquire two critical skills. First, they must develop an instinct of who to hire, since they must trust and delegate most of their work to them. Second, they must be excellent listeners. They need to be able to slip through organizational boundaries and listen to those in the organization’s middle and lower ranks. In particular, since change is inevitable they need to listen closely to those who have a proven record of accomplishment implementing change.

Managers are not necessarily movers and shakers either, although they can be and arguably should be. Managers come in all flavors too, from the dysfunctional pointy-haired boss to the exceptionally competent. Managers generally decide at a high level what things should be done and who should do them. However, their control is limited to those they supervise or direct. They may be brilliant managers of their own domains, but exceptionally poor at working relationships between other managers. If they possess both then they can be movers and shakers. Otherwise, they are just managers.

Organizational change is multidirectional. It flows down through the management chain in the form of decisions. It also should flow up, as expressed in the ideas, passions and implemented practices of those at the lower and middle levels. Change also operates laterally across groups of people engaged in similar missions. The ability of an organization to effect lateral change is critical to making large changes happen. It depends largely on the social networking skills and passions of people generally at and near or just below the management layer. In particular, it depends on the social networking skills of those people who need to work across organizational boundaries. If they have these skills, organizational change is more likely to succeed.

Organizational changes happen most rapidly and efficiently in organizations where every employee is empowered to the maximum extent possible. This is because the more an employee can infuse a job with his own skills and passion the happier he is likely to be in his job. Consequently, it is more likely that he will provide his best effort. When an employee is empowered, he becomes vested in the outcome of the change.

Who are the movers and shakers in your organization? Look for those with a passion for excellence and the internal wherewithal to focus like a laser beam on a successful outcome. Even when they have other problems that must be managed, they will be tenacious and continually work on implementing change even while they do their normal business. They tend to be determined people, skilled in the culture of the organization and relentlessly focused on the success of a particular endeavor.

I like to think of myself as one of the movers and shakers where I work, but I am not sure I am there yet. For one thing, I have been with my current organization only four years, which means I am still an apprentice when it comes to working the institutional kudzu. I do not always have the 24×7 passion of the best movers and shakers. However, I have been successful in promoting some my ideas for major changes. I noticed that the more passionate I felt about an idea, the more likely it was to see be realized. It occurred sometimes to the chagrin of my chain of command. They resist in part because they feel overwhelmed with change and do not want to foster any more of it. Were I more socially adroit, I perhaps could have sold these changes with less friction. Nonetheless, my passion for them kept me motivated and eventually persuaded those who could effect change to agree with me.

These movers and shakers though rarely are rewarded commensurate with the skill and passion they bring to their jobs. Yet they are invaluable. Without them, the organization would either cease to exist or devolve toward inertia.

I feel like I have one foot in their domain and the other foot in the past. As I absorb their lessons, I have a goal for myself to assume the rank of a full-fledged mover and shaker too.

The Fallacy of the Experience Argument

I am probably not the only one shaking their head over the arguments flying around in the 2008 presidential race. Each candidate has a host of reason on why I should prefer him or her to the other Joe. One of the arguments being bandied about by the Clinton campaign in particular is “the experience argument.” It asserts that because Hillary Clinton was First Lady for eight years and also spent four more years in the Senate than her rival Senator Barack Obama that she is more qualified to be president than he is. She repeatedly says that because of her experience she will be ready on day one to assume the complex job of the presidency. Therefore, we should vote for her.

Yeah, as if most of us vote using the left side of our brain. Most of us trust our guts when it comes to something as important as deciding who will be our next president. We may listen to the candidate’s arguments but what we are really tuning into is their body language, tone of voice, inflection and their ability to connect with people. Supposedly, more than eighty percent of communication is nonverbal. Perhaps some of us are studying a candidate’s credentials and position papers and are making our choices based on their stands on the issues. Most of us do not have that kind of time. I would argue this by itself is a lousy way to choose a president.

Granted that in many professions, experience is very valuable. I prefer mechanics with lots of experience to those just out of trade school. On the other hand, education is important too. A recently certified board-practicing physician is probably better equipped to understand the nuances of an advanced medical condition than a sixty-year-old doctor is. For most jobs, the value of experience crests after a couple years. I am an example. For much of my career I was a computer programmer. At some point, I realized I had hit a glass ceiling. I could keep learning new higher-level languages, but that merely kept me employed. It was not a good reason to prefer me as a programmer to someone half my age earning half my salary. I eventually leveraged my experience to become a technical leader. Now I am an IT manager. I have not had to write code to earn any part of my living for at least six years. This is just as well. It is likely that otherwise my lifestyle would be more moderate.

Yes, I do want a president with some relevant political experience, but I also recognize that it is not the deciding factor. If I were to vote solely on a candidate’s experience, I would be voting for Bill Richardson. Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden each have far more political experience than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama combined. Yet they are at the back of the presidential candidate pack.

Clearly, voters are looking for something beyond just experience, which is why Hillary Clinton’s experience argument feels rather weak. While her husband was president, except for leading the health care task force (an activity that turned into a fiasco) she had no official duties. As for her time in the Senate, she is a fast learner as senators go, but she has yet to complete her second term. Her senate job is the only political office she has ever held.

Formal education is also of limited value to a politician. Obviously, it is better not to be an ignoramus. Having a master’s degree in a relevant field like public policy, while helpful, is also not the determining factor. The most crucial skill a president needs is the ability to persuade people. This is developed by having razor sharp people skills, a natural extroversion and sufficient personality so that you will be both heard and respected. Bill Clinton was often referred to by his enemies as Slick Willie. This was actually a complement because an effective president has to be slick. Effective presidents know that utilizing the veto pen is one of the worst ways to be effective. It is far better to have that certain something that turns your enemies, if not into your friends, then into temporarily allies. If a president is not continuously greasing the wheels of government, he is not doing his job.

This ability cannot be learned from a book. It is either something you have or do not have. It is not something you pick up as president; you acquired this is a skill long before you ran for the presidency. This is why presidents of the United States were often first class presidents. An effective president is a master persuader. The best presidents though do not persuade simply to have their own way. They persuade to move the country in a direction that is in the best long-term interests of the American people.

What is this form of persuasion called? It is called leadership. Leadership that demonstrates sound seasoned judgment, not experience, is the most crucial criterion for the presidency. It is why Hillary Clinton’s argument runs weak. Her husband was the lowest paid governor in the United States when he became president. He had zero foreign policy experience. While many disliked him as president, by the time he left office the American people overall felt otherwise. In spite of his impeachment, he left office with near record high approval ratings. This is because Bill Clinton, for all his faults, worked for the American people. It was borne out in our higher standard of living and the progressive government he engendered.

It is particularly curious that Bill Clinton is barnstorming Iowa using the hollow argument of his wife’s experience as a crucial reason to vote for her. He knows better. Perhaps he uses the experience argument because he knows her leadership credentials are too thin. If this is the best hand his wife can play before the caucuses on Thursday, she is likely to be playing a losing hand.

Some Observations on Management

I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of being a manager. I’m figuratively still dipping my toes into the management waters. I’ve made more than a few stumbles, but I think I am at least beginning to understand a few things about what it really means to be a manager.

In many ways it is a very different sort of job. It is true that someone else manages every employee, even me. The president of the United States is still accountable to the people. Even the self-employed have to manage themselves (and their customers) or they starve. What’s really different being in the management role is that as a manager you set direction.

Maybe this is not all that surprising to you. I can just tell you that as a manager it feels surprising. Being a manager is in many ways like being a driver of a car. The car would just sit there inert if the driver did not start the ignition. While it may seem trivial that is the essence of management, but it is also its most crucial aspect: you get to turn the key. The system does not work at all if someone doesn’t turn the key.

But it’s not always a great thing to be someone who has to make decisions. If you are indecisive by nature then management is not for you. But if you are comfortable making decisions and (just as importantly) comfortable dealing with the consequences of your decisions then you may be management material.

I must confess the “turning the key” part of management is something I like. I’ve directed people in their work for many years. But they were always multitasked. They were not directly accountable to me. When push came to shove my projects often got short shrift. Someone else, usually a manager, had more clout than I did. Now at least some of the people who work for me are accountable to me and no one else. I provide direction on what needs to be done. But just as a driver does not tell the engine how to do its work I rarely tell my staff how things should be done. I assume they are competent in their field.

Just as it behooves a driver to check the oil and the tire pressure before taking off on a long drive, it behooves me as a manager to monitor my employees’ work. The key though is to monitor, not micromanage. If you notice your engine kicking up you don’t necessarily take it immediately to the mechanic. Maybe it will smooth itself out, or maybe you need to add a quart of oil. The same is true with management. You learn to respond cautiously to perceived problems. I have to figure out when the situation requires me to initiate some maintenance. And this becomes a judgment call. Often a can of oil solves the problem but if it doesn’t then it’s time to call the mechanic.

It would be pointless to suggest that no work would get done if management were not there. Prior to my hire work continued for a couple of years anyhow. My staff rotated through the management position as temporary details. The engine kept running because a lot of inertia was in place. What was missing though was vision. My team excelled on handling the tactical problems of the day. But they couldn’t implement a long-term strategy. Instead they operated like an airplane in a holding pattern.

I often wonder just what the heck I do all day. How do I add value? I do not modify a line of code. If the system goes down I can’t fix it. On the surface my days look pretty trivial. I read a lot of email, much of which is way too micro for me to read all the way through. I prepare briefings for management. I listen to employees and pass relevant information up the chain of command. I schmooze with customers and suppliers. I listen to employees who come in my door and want to rant. It doesn’t seem like these things should justify my inflated salary.

But I have come to understand that I am not there to punch a clock. My job is not to turn out so many widgets per day. My job is to make sure the team is oriented and moving in the direction that I largely set. So in some sense it really doesn’t matter whether I work four or twenty hours a day. There is not necessarily a correlation between effort and effectiveness. The driver does not always have his attention completely on driving either. Part of his mind is listening to the radio, or thinking about other problems, or wanting to boink the cute chick in the car next to him. It is important that he drives well and is mindful of other cars and obstacles around him. On a more complex level this is what a manager does. He tries to be very aware of the environment around him and move his team through the various obstacle courses called reality so that the work gets done.

And this, alas, is where I need more schooling. Being decisive and confident in my driving doesn’t necessarily mean that I have earned the trust of the drivers around me. In fact I bump into them regularly and they are not happy about it. But slowly I am leaving my trainee status behind and feeling like I have earned my operator’s license. I understand I can’t treat my customers quite the same way I treat other drivers. They are not peers. They are my customers. I spend more and more of my time listening to their concerns and figuring out ways to make them happy. I have to do this while keeping my team happy.

And that’s the biggest challenge of management. It often feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Customers always have more demands than can be fulfilled. They always want something bigger, better and faster and they want it yesterday. Employees want to do a good job and feel valued, but they also want to have a life. And work has to be done efficiently. Processes cannot always stop to satisfy the special request of the day. So a lot of management is learning to say no in ways that sound like you are actually saying yes, and smoothing out feelings among employees so that they system works with the maximum efficiency.

In some ways it sounds like a virtual job and not a real job. At its essence management is a people job. And it is a necessary job because whether we like to admit it or not we need management. (Or more precise, we need effective management.) A team runs for a while without leadership but eventually it peters out and stalls.

The effective driver is usually not just concerned with what is immediately in front of the car, but is also thinking about what is around the bend and miles down the road. To make that sharp curve he must have all the car’s components tuned just right. When he does the car slides around the curve smoothly. When he doesn’t the car runs off the road. It’s not so much the effort required to turn the steering wheel that makes an effective driver, but knowing how much to turn it, when to turn it and how carefully to apply the brakes.

For a manager though it’s like being driving with a hazy bandana in front of your eyes. So if you think about it making that curve is quite a feat. When done smoothly and professionally you have a very effective manager. I hope I will get there someday.

A Lesson in Leadership

Management is a blessing and a curse. I’ve experienced a lot of the downside of management recently. Perhaps that is why it was such a pleasure to experience the upside this week.

To be fair I shouldn’t have much to complain about. My employees, geographically scattered though they may be, are all terrific. Each gives 150% or more of themselves than most employees, and all but one are civil servants. Most of the time I don’t need to direct them. If something needs doing they just take the initiative and do it. This week for example one of my employees volunteered to sift through a user requirement document, pick out the requirements that were meaningful to my team, work them into something we can use and organize them into a meaningful engineering specification. I didn’t even have a chance to ask if anyone wanted to do this grunt work. She just jumped in there with both feet.

I have another employee, a super geek type, who routinely goes way beyond the call of duty. His job is mostly investigating emerging technologies. I frequently find that he has visited the local Barnes & Noble and returned with some dense computer books on things like web services or current practices in software testing that he bought with his own money. But he digs into the not so interesting stuff too. He’s passionate about high technology but is still disciplined enough not to let the high tech stuff interfere with the routine work that has to get done. And all my employees are this way.

But still management often feels like navigating a minefield with a gauzy bandana tied over my eyes. I expect eventually I will step on fewer mines. But it has been a rough first nine months at times. I don’t feel all that great when I learn that I’ve inadvertently stepped on some toes in the organization. Nor do I like discovering I made a mistake by doing work traditionally done by others. And these are just but a few of the mistakes I have made. There were times when I wondered if I should have stayed working for Health and Human Services. I should take some comfort in knowing that many of these issues predate my arrival. Perceptions about my team, good and bad, formed years ago. It doesn’t help that we are geographically separated and rarely meet in person. Consequently inferences get made based on words heard over speakerphones or in snippets of email. There is no body language to read.

For whatever reason there have been long standing bad feelings between my team and another team. I didn’t quite understand the depth of the animosity until recently. I have been groping for a way forward. But this week when the team leader of the other team came to town I had an opportunity to sit down with her and work through some of these thorny communications issues. It was valuable face time. I learned the history of frustrations from her perspective. I went through some of the issues on my team that contributed to the problem. Simply airing the issues in a business-like manner was enormously helpful. We put a plan in place to get the key people together (via teleconference of course) and resolve these issues. It involves first acknowledging the problems of the past then putting them behind them once they have been vented. Then we hope to move rapidly forward because we have issues that need to be settled soon. Neither side can afford any more bad feelings. As a manager I have the duty to get past them so that we can do our work.

This was also the week that my user group came to town. The group had been formed twice before and had failed both times. All this preceded my arrival. In past groups there had been personality issues and presumptions of empowerment on issues that did not exist. For six months we had been working through tedious but necessary issues of creating a new group charter and getting executive sponsorship. Finally we got around to picking members for the group. Most had never met each other before and I only knew about half of them, and all superficially. I delegated most of that work to the chairman of the group. We spent weeks preparing for the meeting. We worked through agendas several times. The list of issues, many of which needed quick action, was very daunting. To hedge my bets I beat the organization looking for a professional facilitator and finally found one. My chairman and I met with her before the meeting and outlined our needs carefully. Would all this preplanning make a difference this time?

8:30 AM on Wednesday found us all meeting each other for the first time in a conference room. I had packets of material on the table prepared for them, and table tent tags with their names on them. But I had no idea if this combination of a dozen people would actually be able to work together. Would it become yet another toxic team experience? Was it the gods, the good preparation or just blind luck? For whatever reason we all quickly bonded with each other. When I suggested we all go out to dinner that night everyone enthusiastically agreed. I realized that I too was getting this management stuff. Social engineering had become an important part of my job. If I couldn’t relate to these people as people then I figured our team was doomed. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant we relaxed, joked, traded our life stories and basically discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. I had no more worries about my new team. We had jelled. One guy even came over and put his arm around my neck. I was both surprised and flattered.

But could we get through our daunting agenda? Fortunately our facilitator Cheryl was with us every step of the way. It turned out she didn’t have to do that much facilitating, but she let us know when we were getting long winded. I had no one to take notes so I tried to take them myself. This was hard to do when I was doing a lot of the speaking. Cheryl took up the slack. She captured ideas on large pieces of paper that were being continually stuck and restuck to the walls of our conference room. In the evenings she assembled formal notes of the day’s events in electronic form. I was free to do what I needed to do: engage in conversation and lead the team where it needed to go.

Having a terrific facilitator was such a blessing. We had focus, we had organization, and we were liberated to do what we did best. I kept a close watch on the clock and made sure we were meeting our expected outcomes for each segment of the meeting. I led many of the discussions. When I made suggestions they were largely listened to seriously. But it is hard or impossible to effectively lead if the elements are not in place. But this time they were. With our excellent facilitator Cheryl, careful preparation, a good bunch of people and everyone’s commitment to excellence we ended our meeting today on time and with our goals accomplished. We formed the sub-teams we needed, set out agendas for future meetings, made some tentative decisions and worked through thorny issues of how we would work together in the future.

I figure this is about as good as it gets in the leadership business. The days were long, but the people were fun to be with. It was terrific to feel so organized, empowered and to lead a team in the direction I wanted them to go. And I know I led the team because they followed me with great enthusiasm and with a genuine sense of commitment.

I felt pumped and energized. From out of nothing we created something very important to our little universe. I don’t think this team will fail like the other teams have. We will move forward with confident strides and with genuine respect for each other.

The Iraq War: A One-Year Postmortem

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.