reframing organizational impact

Passing Time 5, by Allison Long Hardy

Passing Time 5, by Allison Long Hardy

This short read provides practical advice on putting our experiences into context for readers for greater impact.  Laszlo Bock (exec in charge of people operations at Google-- and coolest sounding HR guy EVER!) is focused on resumes in this interview but his advice could be easily extended to include organizational qualifications and annual progress reports. 

Twist the formula slightly and you get...

division/program strengths = we accomplished x, relative to y, by doing z

So for a CIO's office let's say, accomplishments might go from:

  • Integrated email service
  • Continued cost avoidance activities by consolidating network circuits and data centers
  • Implemented records management system

To the way snazzier...

  • Integrated 5 divisions under a single email system by purchasing a scalable, off-the-shelf solution and offering each participant a share of the savings.
  • Avoided $12 million in annual licensing, hardware renewal, and space costs by consolidating 17 of 40 network circuits and 23 of 87 data centers.
  • Implemented a records management system where no enterprise solution existed previously.  Brought the department into compliance with federal mandates and reduced our collective liability by purchasing a single, common platform to collect, categorize, and archive documents.

the ultimate reorganization recipes

There are as many blog posts out there on how to reorganize as there are chili recipes on Pinterest.  Probably more, actually.  Each has a twist that includes tasty-sounding variations and toppings.  It's that hot.

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes for wrecking havoc on productivity in the name of getting more done better.

  • Straight-forward and wasting no time with an intro for context, this action list from Berkeley challenges the would-be reorganizer to first define the problem.  Bo-ring.
  • Here's a survival guide from Forbes. The fact that there are more than 300,000 similarly titled posts suggests merely mentioning the word "reorganization" triggers a fight or flight response for many.
  • The big guys don't have the luxury of reorganizing in relatively safe obscurity. There are entire blog posts like one from Chitra Nawbatt dedicated to deciphering what's really going on behind the scenes at Microsoft by analyzing their reorg objectives.

The gazillion posts, articles, and reports largely make the same main point.  If you're the reorg-er, begin-- and stick to-- a couple of core objectives.  Move as quickly as possible and communicate with abandon. For the reorg-ee, the advice given to my toddlers during earthquake drills seems appropriate.  Take cover and hold on until the shaking stops. Resilience and flexibility will get you through... until the next one.

save some room

It's that time of year.  The air is crisp, crock pots reappear on the counter, and we spend hours at work toggling between obsessively checking fantasy team scores and obsessively checking budget balances. Spend it or risk losing it next year.

In all organizations-- but let's talk federal since that's our focus here-- the budget game demands that you plan work to fully meet or exceed available funds.  The goal is to accomplish what you said you'd do and not leave any money on the table. (We can save the debate on misaligned incentives to save money for another day.)

So while a lot of fiscally responsible folks hate the game, you can't not play. The rules are simple.  Plan to spend all of your budget, plus a little.  Only talk about additional needs. Never let the words extra, underrun, left-over, etc. cross your lips-- especially in front of those vultures from other divisions. In the event that there is a remaining balance, immediately (and as quietly as legally possible) obligate the funding towards smaller "nice to do" projects that didn't make the cut at the beginning of the year. This annual dramatic miniseries starts around August 15th and lasts through the end of the government fiscal year. Of course, we're all too familiar with the ulcers this causes for federal program managers, contracting officers, consultants, and baristas.

The problem with the annual fiscal year close drama is that it creates a climate resistant to collaboration throughout the rest of the year.

A better approach is to get more practiced at balancing conversations to simultaneously protect your budget while demonstrating an openness to taking on new work. What makes programs dynamic and organizations strong is welcoming new ideas and showing a willingness to try a fresh approach.

Bridging the capacity gap

Bridging the capacity gap

So, more nuanced conversation is needed to bridge the gap between these lines. Protecting your program and staff by playing the budget game is real-- and not changing any time soon.  It takes a confident leader to say, "We've have solid plans in place to use all of our funding. We've maxed out our budget capacity.  However, we still have more intellectual and professional capacity available to be a part of or lead a new approach to our shared problem."

grow the core

"WTF! (spelled out in full color). Isn't there anything we can tell these people to get them on board?" This was last week. A normally very chill client kicked-off our (typically bland) catch-up meeting with a couple four-letter words and a plea to no one in particular to go straight to happy hour.  I put my pen down.  This was about to get interesting in a way that a polite consultant won't take notes-- at least, to your face. 

Where was this extreme frustration coming from?

I'll spare the details but the trigger on this particular day has sadly become more commonplace.  Someone asked (again), "so...why are we doing this?" And after years of slides, conference calls, analytical tables, texts, beer summits, and impassioned monologues, he faces more resistance today from his counterparts across the agency than he did on Day 1. He's understandably fed up, tired, and cranky.  What happened?

Unfortunately, this program has become a victim of it's own success.  Interestingly, the program's early launch--and subsequent growth and visibility-- created a different problem than the one they were originally trying to solve.  People who were onboard initially are now fighting progress because they feel out in the cold. The program has grown so significantly that there isn't room at the table for everyone to be in on every decision.  The client has segmented, organized, and differentiated themselves into a much larger, scalable operation. Lots of small businesses deal with growing pains but federal programs are less accustomed to recognizing the signs and coping with the symptoms. What to do?

When building (or in this case rebuilding) support, the approach has to be personal AND provide a sense of a very short connection between the individual at the top dog. The closer people feel to someone calling the shots, the more receptive they are.

The problem with a lot of commonly used communication strategies is that they depend too heavily on official, polished messages to come out from the leadership to help garner support.  Unfortunately, the bigger and flashier the broadcast, the more disconnected people feel.  Everyone wants to feel that they have the inside scoop. This means that much of the communication has to be right but raw and person-to-person. Unscheduled and unconstrained conversations help which sort of flies in the face of many of our more traditional communication "best practices." 

Obviously, this approach isn't scalable to any sizable program so that's why allies are critical to helping grow that solid, supportive core. The first step is reaffirming allies.  Whether you call them individually or call a meeting, ensure those closest to the decision-driving epicenter are solid.  The second step is then working in concentric circles from the inside out.  Each person at the core is on point to reach out to a colleague with concerns. Listen to their issues, document them, and pull them into a solution group at the supportive core. 

watch your attitude

What's hot for fall? Roll-based communications strategies are back for another season... and it's not pretty.  Everywhere you look on the streets of DC, federal program managers are sporting messages directed explicitly to a particular audience (field directors, claims processors, regional coordinators, etc.) Sadly, this trend fails to address staffs’ unique challenges and concerns. What can you do? Consider freshening up your communications strategies by accessorizing with an attitude-based approach.

The key question is: how can the your program target its communications to more effectively pinpoint individual concerns?

One important objective of communications over the last several years has been on achieving consistency and speaking with “one voice.”  The positive impact of consistency is that the program is perceived to be organized around common goals. One of the downsides is that common messages typically appeal to one perspective and miss the opportunity to reach people with different concerns or complaints. As federal programs mature, resistance takes on many forms and perspectives.

It is hard to define one common complaint. Employees can have dozens of different viewpoints that are driven by their current work environment, degree of comfort with technology, available resources, senior support as well as other factors. For this reason, a one-size-fits-all engagement approach will not be effective in addressing the range of concerns.

To more precisely target outreach efforts, federal program teams should segment the stakeholder community by creating “attitude categories”. The matrix below shows two dimensions: 1) perceived program value --high or low and 2) implementation pace-- early adopter, passive supporter and resistant. (These can and should be changed to meet your precise needs.) 


Ok.  So...  what to do next?

The combination of these dimensions reflect six distinct attitudes that require tailored outreach efforts. How might you use these categories to inform more precise outreach?

Attitude-based Outreach Approach

  1. Refine the categories to mirror (to the degree possible) the general categories of concerns and complaints raised.

  2. Estimate the percentage of staff within the broad community that fall into each group. Rely on stakeholder representatives to help inform this effort.

  3. Develop messages and outreach opportunities that match the needs of each attitude category.

  4. Roll out the approach, recognizing there will be multiple messages released in parallel.

In sum, augmenting existing communications with more attitude-based outreach approach will more effectively address stakeholder concerns and promote buy-in. The current role-based strategy is directed at particular audiences and does not account for the varying opinions and perspectives. This decreases impact because these broad messages fail to address specific concerns and questions. At this point in the program’s maturity, federal programs should expand the approach to include attitude-based messages that cross multiple roles. The ability to more precisely address unique concerns will improve engagement and sense of understanding about the program’s purpose and the future.





mission mosaic

Mission statements are like ballroom dance-- a bunch of words dressed up in sequins and fancy (sometimes garish) make-up. The best have flow and are beautiful in the moment but they're all short and rarely memorable. The impact is fleeting.

Where watching Dancing with the Stars is fantastically entertaining, crafting mission statements is an waste of time. The exercise we put ourselves through takes way too long, involves only a select few, and is focused on the wrong things (word-smithing vs. motivating.) In the end, we emerge with a polished, important-sounding statement that is often forgotten as soon as we click "save as, final."

There is an alternative that takes less time, involves everyone, and drives consensus around the action instead of the words. The bottoms-up exercise is distributed and simple. Traditional approaches have made mission and vision something that must be defined for staff instead of by staff.  But, what is much more motivating is for people to define mission for themselves then ask them to be accountable to what naturally drives them.  It's OK-- actually better-- if each person takes a different angle.

First, ask someone who's really busy with other work to write down the organization's purpose. Why?  Busy people get more done and won't overthink it. The purpose statement should reflect why the group created to begin with.  Writing out the words within the office's acronym might get you 99% there!

Next, invite everyone to put some thought into what really excites them about the work they do, what they most look forward to, what they spend extra time reading about and researching, etc. In what aspect of the organization's purpose do they see their personal mission? Ask everyone to post these publicly.

Once the unique mission statements are completed and posted, step back and marvel at the mosaic-- a deeply personal and high-impact image of the true organizational mission.

the how

How we work is as important as what we do.  Looking back on the last couple of days, there were a number of meetings (some great, some not great), a bunch of informal conversations (part project related, part witty team banter), one very brief perusal of a management memo, and some sweet time for independent analysis and writing. All in all a good week made up mostly of activities I like or, at least, don't make have to muffle my screams in my cup of half-caff.

I believe the frustration (or exasperation some weeks) we all have from time to time is less about what we're working on and more about feeling not in control of how we spend our days.

I made this super simple model to think about percentage-wise how I've been spending my time at work.  The categories are intentionally broad and the percentages are rough guesses.  Precision wasn't the goal here.

the how.png

I propose a quick exercise for next week.  On Sunday night or Monday early, take a look at your calendar and assign rough percentages of anticipated time to the major categories-- meetings, informal communications, formal communications, and independent work. Proactively, make any adjustments you can to get the week more in line with your ideal "how." 

Then, at the end of the week, do the same thing retrospectively. Where did obligations pop up, when did meetings take less or more time, were there more extra off-the-record chats with colleagues, etc. Any observations stand out? This first step in building personal awareness.  The second is taking back some control of how we spend our time and better navigate the inevitable waves.

So, we all know this happens to us on a personal level but the same dynamic happens on our project teams-- with the impact magnified. Once we have a chance to observe the "how" for a little while, the alternations needed become more obvious and might look like a commitment to have fewer meetings, spend less time fooling with executive memos, more time tapping into informal communication challenges, and fencing off quiet, uninterrupted time for independent thinking.

can you really manage change?

Creating a service offering called change management has to be one of the most brilliant consulting moves ever.  It's like selling fresh air.  Clients everywhere perk up when it's mentioned.  For a moment, they can imagine a time and place where the team expertly pulls levers and pushes buttons at just the right points during implementation.  Everyone gets in line and is delighted with the new policy, technology, seating arrangement, whatever.

There are some interesting dynamics at play.  One is the belief that everyone else (other agencies in this case) have an easier time because they have more money, more leadership support, more homogeneity, more control. 

Other organizations projects generally look rosier from afar-- the farther the better.  (Shhh, they're not.  They're actually just as messy if not more.) Another is a belief that communications can fix just about anything.  If we just tell the "stakeholders" again, they'll get it and stop acting like toddlers. Yet another is that implementation was never supposed to be this hard-- everything looked so straightforward during the demo!

The desire to manage the chaos and move forward is, of course, a great goal.  And, much of the change management stuff won't hurt but we can overestimate the degree to which it can help either.  

Instead, finding an easier path should be about two things-- 1) going with the grain-- using your organization's strengths and 2) sticking to it. 

compatible beats consistent

Every time.

Consistent communication is often tossed out as "should" for executive leaders, program directors, division chiefs, parents, and other bossy-types. Whether we're talking to our staff, our teams, or our clients, part of the idea is that we hit the same points over and over again-- so, consistent messaging. The other part of the idea is that we build expectations around when and how-- so, consistent delivery.

The rationale is that repetition (especially when the message is coming from a variety of sources) increases both understanding and the perception that the team has it's act together. Maybe but...

I met a prospective client recently who was looking for some advice on how to revamp their communications strategy. From their own admission, they have been recycling the same PowerPoint slides for years. Over time, their message has been refined and edited and polished to perfection.  Except, at almost every turn, they get pushback from "the field".  So the response to date has been-- tell 'em again.  They have achieved consistency! Unfortunately, consistency does little to increase resonance-- especially with a broad, diverse audience like many of our federal clients address through their programs. 

By picking only one message and one delivery mechanism, we certainly check the box on consistency but we're likely to reach a portion of the audience at the exclusion of others.  We miss the opportunity to shape the message to meet multiple perspectives and use all available channels. 

Instead, message compatibility has a far better chance of moving an audience to action or changing beliefs.  The goal is to create messages that share a common platform but are free to take whatever shape needed to be most compelling.  So, instead of striving for consistency, an alternative approach would be to:

  1. Take a quick but honest look at communication efforts to date.  Where have there been missed opportunities to reach someone because we were afraid to veer off message and lose consistency?
  2. Next, create a handful of personas that represent the various viewpoints within our target audience. 
  3. Consider each one and craft messages around our key points that best address their issues. In some cases, the message might be similar but require greater variety in delivery.  In other cases, the messages might be wildly different. 
  4. Get immediately comfortable with running multiple related but unique messages simultaneously through every available channel. (Pssst, this is happening anyway!)
  5. Periodically test capability by reaching out to a couple of recipients.  Nothing fancy, just call and ask.

Message compatibility has a much greater chance to change minds or compel action-- especially for a diverse audience-- because we're proactively addressing the viewpoints they care most about.

standing meeting

Every week for me starts with a mix of excitement and dread. When it comes down to it, the stir comes from reviewing at my calendar*. It's perpetually populated with a mix of standing meetings (most) and a handful of one-offs such as project kick-offs, coffee catch-ups, performance check-ins, and interventions from our editor on my addiction to hyphens (fewer).

Studies report we spend about 50% of our time in meetings.  In a 60 hour work week, that's 30 hours. (I didn't even need Excel for that math.)  Many of us feel that's about 30 hours (or more if you count the time spent bitching about the meeting with colleagues) wasted.

In my experience, one-off meetings are typically less bad.  It's the standing meetings that kill me.  Standardized agendas lack sparkle and most people (if they show up) are only paying attention when it's their turn to report. Little is accomplished. Time slips away. Stevie Nicks is singing Landslide in your head.  Not good.

Standing meetings are deeply rooted in how we work that canceling them all at once might cause some disruption in the universe.  Instead, one by one you could convert these standing meetings to standing meetings- literally. 

A tip I found all over the web to increase office productivity is to host meetings in common areas with sufficient space for people to gather-- standing up.  The idea is that people are more fully engaged, the meeting is shorter, and no one risks overturning a chair if they have the urge to flee. Just ignore the eye-rolling and sarcastic comments and give it a shot.

*Warning:  Looking at the week ahead too early on a Sunday has the potential to ruin your weekend... and I actually love my job!