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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Active Management

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"Manage" is a verb, so it's odd that many reports, books and speeches about management are devoid of action words. Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James, for example, is quoted on her agency's Web site as saying: "The strategic management of human capital calls for a transformation in the employment, deployment, development and evaluation of the federal workforce with results in mind." There's a verb in there, but you have to look closely. One reason for this noun-heaviness is that many management treatises focus on systems--the top-down rules, regulations and procedures that preside over what federal bosses do. Few government handbooks actually describe, with verbs, what managers can do to improve their agencies' performance.

Harvard lecturer Robert Behn, however, has issued a report chock-full of verbs. In "Performance Leadership: 11 Better Practices That Can Ratchet Up Performance," Behn proposes a series of management exercises that federal bosses can use to get their agencies' performance in shape. Each exercise begins with a verb-a specific action that managers can take.

The first four exercises concentrate on planning efforts: "Proclaim--clearly and frequently--what the organization is trying to accomplish," Behn advises. "Determine what key failure is keeping the organization from achieving its mission. Specify what new level of success the organization needs to achieve next. Define your mental model that explains how meeting the target will help accomplish the mission."

The next four are execution efforts: "Monitor and report progress frequently, personally and publicly. Provide your teams with what they need to achieve their targets. Find lots of reasons to dramatize that you recognize and appreciate what teams have accomplished. Ensure that people can earn a sense of accomplishment and thus gain both self-esteem and the esteem of their peers."

The final three exercises emphasize learning efforts: "Check for distortions and mission accomplishment. Analyze a large number and a wide variety of indicators. Act on this learning, making the modifications necessary to ratchet up performance again."

Look at all the verbs Behn uses--proclaim, determine, specify, define, monitor, provide, dramatize, ensure, check, analyze--and, of course, act. Taken as a whole, they are essentially the definition of "manage." They are simple actions that leaders can take to do a better job.

But Behn urges legislators, budget officers and "other overhead regulators" not to turn these verbs into nouns. "Please do not attempt to impose this approach on all the departments, agencies and bureaus within your jurisdiction by requiring them to jump through 11 more hoops," Behn pleads. "Please do not demand that they file an 11-chapter annual report explaining in detail how they followed each of the 11 practices. If you really want to improve the performance of particular agencies, help the managers become leaders by providing them with opportunities to learn how to use these 11 (and other) leadership practices."

Behn also advises people to think of his management ideas as a treadmill--not as practices to be conducted once but as exercises to perform every day for the rest of their careers. "Once they jump on the treadmill, they cannot get off," he said. "They have to keep running-with the success on one lap requiring even more success on the next."

That may be one reason why management literature so often avoids verbs. Management, employment, deployment and development sound a lot less tiring than proclaim, monitor, dramatize and act.

 
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