Archive for the ‘Best of Ken Miller’ Category
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
I was concluding a Better, Faster, Cheaper workshop last month with a wonderful set of government managers. These people were bright; they got the concepts; and their hearts were in the right place. But they felt defeated: Tired of fighting to change a seemingly unchangeable system, these folks were worn out.
They peppered me with questions that were all variations on the same theme: “Why bother? Why try?” The only answer that kept coming to me was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” I didn’t like the answer as it left my mouth each time. It felt like a pat cliché. But as I reflected on it on the flight home I came to be at peace with it. It was the right answer. It is the only answer.
My answer reminded me of one of those viral emails I received a few years ago, a list of something called the Paradoxical Commandments, or “Anyway.” Originally misattributed to Mother Teresa (she had them posted on her wall in a Calcutta children’s home), they were in fact created in 1968 by the author Kent Keith as part of a student leadership curriculum. His 10 Paradoxical Commandments include such masterpieces as:
• The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
• People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway.
• The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
The root of the paradoxical commandments was Keith’s effort to embolden weary change agents. The heart of his message was that change is difficult and that change agents can’t be engaged for purely selfish reasons. Said Keith:
“I saw a lot of idealistic young people go out into the world to do what they thought was right, and good, and true, only to come back a short time later, discouraged or embittered, because they got negative feedback, or nobody appreciated them, or they failed to get the results they had hoped for. I told them that if they were going to change the world, they had to really love people, and if they did, that love would sustain them. I also told them that they couldn’t be in it for fame or glory. I said that if they did what was right and good and true, they would find meaning and satisfaction, and that meaning and satisfaction would be enough. If they had the meaning, they didn’t need the glory.”
(Keith also had another piece of wisdom: “If you don’t care, you’re not going to help anyone. Unless you have a deep feeling for the welfare of the people you are supposed to lead, please, stop leading.”)
The world needs change agents. Your organization needs change agents. You can be that change agent. Not for the glory or for advancement — you probably won’t get either. Not for admiration or even convenience — the path of a change agent can be lonely and often painful as you try to help others see what is possible, prepare for what is inevitable, and let go of what has sustained them thus far. Like great artists, change agents are usually only admired after they are gone. So why bother?
At the heart of his work, Kent Keith was pointing to a bigger motivation, something that today, 40 years later, seems like an old-fashioned notion and certainly not a phrase we use much anymore: brotherly love. As he said, “If you’re in it for other people, then helping them will give you satisfaction that having your name in lights could never compete with!”
It is easier to do nothing when you’re only concerned about your well-being. Customers in government are often hostages with no choice. Who cares if they are happy? The processes are arduous, cumbersome and get in the way of helping people. So what? The workplace policies and performance management initiatives are sucking the passion, meaning and personal satisfaction out of work. What can I do about it? The reality is that these things are all man-made. Humans created them, and humans can change them. Somebody started the ball rolling that got us here. Somebody can start the ball rolling that changes the course.
As the great change agent Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Grab the wheel.
With that in mind, I give you the Paradoxical Commandments of Government. These are the reasons why changing your agency is so hard — and why you should do it anyway. Of course, commandments, like hotdogs, only come in packages of 10 (even though buns come in packages of 12), so I had to whittle down the list. I left out some of the pithier ones, such as, “The councilman’s cousin is going to get the job; try hard anyway,” and “No one will read the report you are working on; write it well anyway.” I have also by no means exhausted all the possibilities. In fact, I’d love to hear more commandments from you, my fellow change agents.
The Paradoxical Commandments of Government
1. The reward for doing good work is more work. Do good work anyway.
2. All the money you save being more efficient will get cut from your budget now and forever. Find efficiencies anyway.
3. All the bold reforms you make will be undone by the next administration. Make bold reforms anyway.
4. There is no time to think about improving what we do. Make time anyway.
5. Employees may fight the change every step of the way. Involve them anyway.
6. The future is unpredictable and largely out of your hands. Plan anyway.
7. The press only cares when something goes wrong. Share your success stories anyway.
8. Legal will never let you do it. Simplify it anyway.
9. If you develop your people they will move on to better jobs. Train them anyway.
10. Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.
Add your own paradoxical commandments of government in the comments at the end of this post.
Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009
Last fall, a friend of mine had on one of those colored rubber bracelets representing different causes. His was purple. I knew what most of the colors stood for, but had never encountered a purple one before. He told me, “It’s a reminder to stop complaining. Every time I complain I move it to the other wrist. The goal is to keep it on the same wrist for 21 straight days. After that, I should be able to live pretty much complaint free.”
Now, I’ve known this guy for over a decade. He has elevated complaining from a pastime to a serious craft. So I laughed it off and said, “Good luck! You’re going to need it.”
Twenty-one days without complaining? I couldn’t go 21 seconds. And why would you want to? What would there be to talk about? I just didn’t get it.
And that’s when I got it. All transformation, whether personal or organizational, goes through the same three phases: First you “get it,” then you “do it,” and then you finally “live it.” In complaining about not complaining, I sounded like many of the people in my workshops who just can’t get accustomed to a new idea or a big change. They don’t get it. And if they don’t get it they certainly won’t do it, much less live it. (more…)
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
If there is a bright side to this economic meltdown, hopefully it’s that people gain a new appreciation of what it’s like to manage government. I couldn’t help but chuckle when one of the failing bank CEO’s was brought before Congress and asked what he did with the multi-billions of taxpayers dollars his company had received. He seemed genuinely outraged that anyone would dare ask how the money was used.
The CEO’s outrage turned to indignation when one of the congressmen had the nerve to ask the dreaded “but-for” question. The congressman simply asked, “Could you please tell us how many more loans you have made since you got this money?” To which the CEO exclaimed that it was impossible to keep track of funds separately and that no one could possibly separate these dollars and show the direct impact those specific dollars achieved.
Really? Because that’s what we do in government every day. I remember a colleague of mine who had to fill out four different time sheets every month because his time was split across four separate programs and grants, each of which demanded full accountability for time, money and results. What the bank CEO said was impossible is actually business as usual in government. So rather than giving you advice on how you can help improve government, I thought we would take some time to gloat and perhaps reflect on what we do really well.
Here’s what government can teach businesses about their operations: (more…)
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
This year’s election season generated a lot of enthusiasm from all sides. The record-breaking voter registrations and the long lines at the polls are positive signs of an active democracy. The pundits are saying this election will drive renewed interest in public service the likes we haven’t seen since the 1960s. I hope that is true. The work of government is noble, necessary and too often thankless. But we can’t renew interest in public service until we reform the perception of public servants.
Government employees have been an easy target for far too long. Imagine how well a company would perform if the employees were continually berated by the investors, the board of directors and the customers. Imagine how inspired you would be if you were told that your life’s work was “the problem” instead of the solution. While you alone can’t change the attitude of taxpayers and elected officials, you can at least assure the employees that the CEO is supportive of them and their important mission.
Over the next four years, people will be approaching you with any number of initiatives to improve government. Many of these initiatives will be directed at improving the performance of the people of government. On the surface, they may sound well-meaning, but I challenge you to search your heart and ask what assumptions these initiatives make about people. Through what lens do they view the work of government? Are they assuming government employees are looking to avoid work and responsibility? Are they assuming that government employees are motivated by money? Do they assume that the customers of government are all out to cheat the system?
As you embark on your new administration, I challenge you to change the lens. To start with a fresh perspective. To see government employees as they truly are — hard working, creative, mission-driven, passionate people who want to make a difference in the world.
With that perspective in mind, what can you do to radically improve the performance of government? (more…)
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
In my closet, I have a change mug. Each night, before I place my pants in the laundry basket, I empty my pockets and deposit the change in an old coffee mug. I noticed the other day, however, that my change mug was actually a “change mug.” That is, it was a mug left over from one of the numerous change initiatives I have experienced in my time in government. This one was a relic from the Total Quality Management days, complete with a picture of a non-smiling W. Edwards Deming.
I remember when I first got this mug, because its presence had been forecasted by one our organizations’ great cynics. I was pretty new to government and had been volunteered to represent my agency on the bigger department’s TQM steering committee. (I was to learn later that this was a clear sign the organization thought I was expendable).
This was my first change initiative, so I enthusiastically embraced it and felt with all my heart that it was going to change the world. With the zeal of the converted, I started proselytizing cubicle by cubicle.
Until I met Gerry, a 30-year veteran of state government. (more…)
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
Last month I wrote an apparently controversial column called “Greed is Good.” (Thanks for all the “fan mail.”) In it, I tried to make the point that government does exist to make a profit; it’s just not measured in dollars. Profit is the outcome or result measure for the private sector. To say in government that we are not here to achieve a profit is akin to saying we are not here to achieve results. Try opening with that one at your next appropriations hearing.
For government, profit is measured in far more important things like quality of life, a clean environment, healthy kids and a vibrant economy. The point of my previous column was that we should be as focused on delivering these results to taxpayers as the private sector is on delivering profits to investors. Once we recognize we are here to achieve a “profit,” we’ll be better able to communicate our value to investors, develop innovative alternatives to achieve more profit — and finally, share our profits with employees.
How could we make profit-sharing work in government?
Let me start with how not to do it. The typical way we have interpreted profit-sharing in government is to give monetary rewards to employees. Borrowing ideas from the private sector, we have tried numerous ways to incentivize employees with money — a merit increase, a pay-for-performance-scheme, a “keep part of the savings” incentive, rewards for offering ideas. These programs have had limited success for a couple of key reasons. First, they are expensive and rarely survive a budget crisis. Second, they are built on some pretty strong assumptions: Namely, that you can motivate people, and that you can motivate them with money. (more…)
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
Last fall I had just completed a workshop about the concepts in my book We Don’t Make Widgets when I was approached by one of the participants. She said, “Look, I get where you are going with this: We do have widgets and processes; we have customers; we should try to improve our operations. But” — and I knew exactly what was coming — “you just can’t run government like a business.”
In my most sympathetic voice I said, “I understand your feelings. When you say we can’t run government like a business, which aspect are you are most concerned about?”
Her body then contorted and convulsed, like someone who’s been told they have a bug on them. “Businesses are so … so … greedy,” she said. “All they care about is profit.”
“Exactly,” I replied. “Now imagine if we were as greedy about profit as the private sector. How great would that be?”
The look on her face said what I’ve heard a thousand times: “We’re not here to make a profit.” Except that we are. It’s just not measured in dollars.
In the private sector, the performance outcome is obvious — money. We in the public sector are here to achieve a profit also, but it’s shown in the form of results. As I contend in my book, the purpose of any organization is to maximize return to its investors by building better widgets for customers in more efficient factories. Investors? ROI? Customers? Have I lost you? Let’s step back.
Friday, May 1st, 2009
If you are a loyal reader of this column, you probably noticed that I missed last month. I had planned on writing it from the comfort of my new home office. My homebuilder, however, had different plans.
Like many masochists in our society, my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to build a house. This decision was made in August 2006 with an expected completion date of June of 2007 — which is when we sold our existing home. Those of you who have lived through this part of the American Dream can probably guess what happened next. June 2007 came and went, as did two apartments and numerous hotel nights. After four months of “just another two weeks,” our house was finally done in November 2007, a mere half-year off schedule.
So I thought I would use this column to vent about my builder — and to highlight some critical things that we can apply to improving government processes.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” (Yeah, guys, I don’t watch it either — my wife does. And it never makes me cry….) The premise of the show is to find families with uniquely dire circumstances who really need and deserve improvements to their homes. When the show first started, the crew would descend upon the home and make improvements and upgrades — maybe even an addition. Now that they have gained popularity, they basically show up, knock down the existing home and rebuild an entire new house on the same spot — IN SEVEN DAYS! (more…)
Friday, May 1st, 2009
Nearly every management theory — and all the accompanying books, consultants and seminars — starts with the same assumption: You need great leadership to pull “this” off, whatever “this” is this time. Whether it’s performance management, strategic planning, process improvement, customer service or some other strategy du jour, they all start by saying you need “buy-in from the top.”
That’s one of the main reasons conference attendees often leave more discouraged than excited. They recognize that while they “get it,” the people leading the organization will never reach enlightenment.
In the workshops I lead, I get three very predictable reactions. Senior managers always say, “This is great, but I don’t think we can get buy-in from the front line.” Front-line workers always say, “This is great, but senior management will never go for it.” And the middle managers just say, “Tell us what you want, and we’ll do it.” Everyone is waiting for Godot.
So how do you create change when you’re not in charge? That’s probably the question I get asked the most after addressing an audience. When top leadership is not supportive of a change initiative, you have only one recourse left — go underground. Here’s how:
1. Find a supportive manager. Guerrilla warfare starts with two people — a brave change agent and an enlightened manager. No matter how backward your organization may be, there is at least one manager who “gets it,” who wants to make her unit the best it can be. Find this person and indoctrinate her. Attend a seminar or conference together. Take her to lunch. Give her an article, a book, a Web site — just do something to pique her interest. Discuss how the proposed change initiative (its concepts and methods) will impact the things she cares about.
Often, this enlightened manager will be you. In that case, you play both roles. Be the change agent you want to see elsewhere. That is, you may not be able to impact the whole (more…)