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

Six Rules

Efforts at federal improvement generally involve a downside for someone. In the case of performance measurement and accountability, that downside requires federal managers to coordinate and complete a lot of paperwork.

John Kamensky of the IBM Center for the Business of Government recently highlighted a Harvard Business Review article by Yves Morieux titled "Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You." While the article focuses on private sector companies, many of the challenges that managers in those organizations face will sound familiar to federal leaders. For example, companies on average set for themselves six times as many performance requirements as they did in 1955.

The Boston Consulting Group, Morieux's employer, surveyed more than 100 large American and European companies and found that during the past 15 years, procedures, the vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies and decision approvals those firms required increased anywhere from 50 percent to 350 percent. As measured by the survey's index of complicatedness, during the past 50 years, these firms became 6.7 percent more complicated each year, on average. Sound familiar?

According to Morieux, in the most complicated organizations, managers spend 40 percent of their time writing reports and 30 percent to 60 percent of it in coordination meetings. "This complicatedness exacts a heavy price . . . [it] doesn't leave much time for them to work with their teams." Employees in these companies were three times as likely to be disengaged as employees in the other firms surveyed.

Morieux has identified the six rules that successful organizations follow and, as Kamensky points out, some may sound familiar to those who were around during the days of the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government campaign.

  • Improve understanding of what co-workers do. According to Morieux, a manager's job is to make sure that people understand each other's work and can learn from it through observing and interacting. When employees don't understand something, they tend to blame problems on lack of intelligence or skills, rather than on the actual sources and constraints the organization faces.
  • Reinforce the people who are the integrators. There is a certain inherent tension between front offices and back offices in organizations: Back offices are tasked with standardizing processes and work while front offices respond to the needs of individual customers. Morieux says managers should empower the employees and groups that integrate those two conflicting offices, rather than create yet another layer of coordination processes.
  • Expand the amount of power available. Morieux concludes that people with the least power in an organization tend to shoulder the burden of cooperation and get the least credit. Managers should address this by giving them new responsibilities that matter to their co-workers and to the organization's performance.
  • Increase the need for reciprocity. While it may seem counterintuitive, removing resources can actually streamline organizations, Morieux has found. Doing so "spur[s] productive cooperation . . . [and] is a good way to make people more dependent on, and more cooperative with, one another because without such buffers, their actions have a greater impact on one another's effectiveness."
  • Make employees feel the shadow of the future. Managers can "bring the future closer" by reducing lead times on projects, or by making people with front-end responsibilities partially responsible for selling or managing the product on the back end.
  • Put the blame on the uncooperative. Morieux highlights one company's strategy, which created a reward system under which one unit would disclose a problem, and units that failed to cooperate in solving the problem would be held responsible for any resulting delays.

These rules, Morieux says, allow managers to deal with complexity by creating a context where optimal behaviors occur naturally, rather than having to prescribe the specific behaviors.

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