Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

Change Anyway: The 10 Paradoxical Commandments of Government

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

TheTenCommandmentsI 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.

Change The Lens: An Open Letter to Barack Obama (And All Government Leaders) On The Best Way To Improve Government

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

obama

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…)

A Mug Full of Change: Employees Don’t Need Another Mug With A Catchy Slogan. They Need Context.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

mugIn 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…)

Competing Interests: What Toothpaste and Tax Forms Can Teach Us About Simplifying Government For Citizens

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 

toothpasteI thought April would be a good time to write a column about taxes and a topic people in government love just about as much as taxes — customers. As many of you may know, one of my previous jobs in government was as deputy director of a large state agency responsible for taxes and DMVs. Much like the “I learned in Kindergarten” book series, everything I ever needed to know about customer satisfaction in government, I learned there.

 

I learned that people don’t like the word “customer.” I learned that telling auditors “the customer is always right” doesn’t win friends. I learned that customer-service training washes off the first time there is a two-hour line and the computer stops working. But most importantly, I learned about competing customer interests — a reality we all face in government at every level in every agency.

One of the push-backs I get in my workshops about customer satisfaction in government is, “Ken, this would all be so easy in the private sector. They just have to worry about one customer. But we have multiple customers with competing interests.”

I sympathize with that sentiment. In many ways, the concept of customer in the private sector is much easier, but the reality is that the private sector struggles with the same issue we do.

Let’s use a very simple example: toothpaste. Our common notion of customers is of someone who walks into a store, buys something and walks out happy. So when it comes to that tube of Crest, determining who the customer is seems like an easy exercise. If I walk into Target and buy a tube of toothpaste, I am the customer. There, that was easy. (more…)

Focus: Getting Things Done Often Means Knowing What Not to Do

Friday, May 1st, 2009

focusIn my last column I talked about guerrilla warfare — how to create change when you are not in charge. This month I want to flip it around. What do you do when you are in charge? You have a vision — there is so much you want to get done. How can you get everyone on board? How do you get all these people to move from here to there? How do you get it all done? It’s simple — you don’t. So much is possible when you realize you can’t do it all.

 

One of my favorite quotes, usually attributed to the Archbishop Oscar Romero, is: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

Put another way, it’s not important that we do everything well but that we do the really important things really well. What are those vital few things that, if done extremely well, will fundamentally transform your culture?

Buckminster Fuller, the late inventor/futurist/leadership sage, introduced the trimtab as a metaphor for creating change (so much so that “Call me Trimtab” is on his tombstone).

“A trimtab is a nautical device that acts as a small rudder used to turn the larger rudder of giant ships, offering tremendous leverage in terms of steering and changing the direction of the ship. Fuller, drawing upon his naval experience, saw the trimtab as a powerful metaphor for effective individual leadership: small and strategically placed interventions can cause large-scale and profound change.” (Leadership By Design: How One Individual Can Change the World. The Leadership Principles of Buckminster Fuller. Medard Gabel and Jim Walker, 2006).

The metaphor works as follows. Imagine your organization/department/bureau/section is a ship. You are the captain. As the captain, you realize that the ship is going the wrong direction. How do you get a large ship with a lot of momentum to stop, turn on a dime and (more…)