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

Pentagon Misses the Target When It Comes to Its Workforce

The Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not been able to pass an audit since Congress required federal agencies to be audited nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s not surprising, as I don’t think any senior leader inside the Defense Department even knows how many people are on the payroll of the military, civilian, and contractor workforces. Also, none of them can tell us about workforce costs and how personnel reforms could save billions of dollars.

Recently, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to gather ideas on achieving greater efficiency inside the Pentagon. One subject that was raised—which deserves a lot more attention—is something called rightsizing the DoD workforce. In plain English, that means figuring out how many employees DoD needs and how much it should spend on personnel.

Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy testified that a human capital strategy is important for the agency. She said:

This [strategy] should include an assessment of the optimal mix of military, civilian, and contractor personnel across the department and by function.

Of note, a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that shifting 80,000 positions from...

Why Most Government Reform Plans Die

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” That quote is credited to the father of modern management, Peter Drucker. He was saying that leaders need to understand and address their organization’s culture in their planning. If Drucker’s focus was government, he might have said “culture eats strategy and reform plans for breakfast.”

The history of reform initiatives, at least as far back as the 1978 Civil Service Act, suggests culture has been a recurring impediment to change. Reform is badly needed but the initial guidance has been silent on strategies to gain employee cooperation.

Organizational culture has been discussed in publications for roughly 40 years. A search on Amazon for books on “management and culture management” found 5,400 titles. When the words “in government” are added, the number falls to 78 but only one is helpful in dealing with culture in public agencies. It was published 15 years ago by Virginia Tech’s Anne Khademian, Working With Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs.

It’s an idea that is broadly understood and accepted as important but never addressed in government reports. In all my years of reading reports, congressional testimony and articles on federal agency...

To Understand the Genius of Elon Musk, Thomas Edison, and Mark Zuckerberg, Look at Their Desks

Desks have long been the home of the mind: an intimate space where you figure out what you think. Desk spaces have changed through the years to accommodate different styles and types of work, and the recent trend toward co-working also represents a change in the nature of the workplace. You can now rent workspaces around the world with funky furniture, pool tables, rock-climbing walls, and free wine. In London, people even rent chairs at their dining-room table by the hour—an attractive alternative to those living in small apartments who are tired of working in coffeehouses.

While these modern office configurations may seem novel, there are plenty of examples of important pioneers and thought leaders who embraced unusual workspace arrangements.

Elon Musk’s desk

Elon Musk's desk

Elon Musk’s squeaky-clean desk. (Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia CC)

When the Tesla Model X was in production, Elon Musk chose to move his desk to the end of the production line—right next to his sleeping bag—where he spent hundreds of hours a week. Interestingly enough, Musk’s desk at SpaceX is fairly normal looking, albeit a bit sparse. Instead of cluttering his desk with memorabilia of the past, his mind is focused on...

The Many Practical Hurdles to Transforming Government

This is not was the first nor is it likely to be the last column prompted by the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize government. There appears to be broad based agreement that it’s needed, especially when it comes to upgrading technology. To repeat the title from a recent column, “Performance Specialists Like Trump’s Management Agenda.”

This is not the first time a president has tried to reinvent government. President Clinton’s 1993 Government Performance and Results Act had similar goals. Clinton issued Executive Order 12871 in October 1993 to call for civil service reforms and workforce cuts. In the end government, was not reinvented; GPRA was not implemented until 1999 and the people management changes were forgotten.

Coincidentally the question, “Can Government Be Run Like a Business?” was recently discussed on the Sirius radio show, Knowledge@Wharton, by the University of Maryland’s Philip Joyce and Wharton’s Peter Conti-Brown. Their conclusion, albeit simplified, is that success in one sector does not transfer easily to the other.

The Office of Personnel Management clearly anticipates one of the hurdles. Its new 119-page “Workforce Reshaping Operations Handbook” aims to “provide assistance to agencies that are considering and/or undergoing...

The Big Mistake Most People Make When They Receive Negative Feedback

  • By Kenneth Savitsky, Jeremy Cone, Jeffrey Rubel and Richard P. Eibach
  • March 29, 2017
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Nobody enjoys getting negative feedback. When we receive an unflattering performance review from our boss or get turned down by a date, it’s human nature to try to feel better by dismissing the judgment as unreasonable or biased. And so, last month, when a federal judge blocked US president Donald Trump’s executive action banning travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority nations, it was no surprise that the president took to Twitter to criticize the “so-called” judge and dismiss the ruling as “ridiculous.”

But what if the negative feedback comes from a unanimous group rather than from one individual? In that case, it’s trickier to dismiss. One would have to argue that all members of the group are unreasonable or biased in the same way. Because a group often brings diverse perspectives, a unanimous group opinion would seem to sit on a broader, more stable foundation, making it harder to topple. And yet Trump was equally quick to disparage the unanimous ruling of a politically diverse three-judge panel that subsequently concurred with the original judge’s ruling. He buckled down by reintroducing a substantially similar version of his proposed ban, which was in turn subjected to a...