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

A Short Equation Explains Why Simplicity Is The Best Policy

Let’s start with a quiz. If you have a machine with 200 parts, each of which operates independently and is 99% reliable, how reliable will the overall machine be?

95% ? 80%? 99%? Nope, nope, and nope. It’s somewhat shocking to learn that it’ll only be around 13% reliable, running just 13 hours out of every hundred it should. Truly terrible.

The math is relatively simple (you multiply the probability that each of the 200 variables will fail by one another), but the lesson here isn’t that you should take a journey to your long-forgotten stats class. It’s that keeping processes simple is nearly always the best policy. Mistakes compound across a process to make an organization overall much less effective than any one of its individual parts. So the fewer parts your processes have, the better.

If you run a factory or a science lab, you likely think about these sorts of problems each day. But for those of us who don’t, this little bit of mathematical insight can pay dividends.

Imagine, for example, that you run a bike rental company. Most of your employees are pretty good, but none are perfect. Most of...

Data Shouldn't Drive All of Your Decisions

When was the last time you heard the story of a great innovation begin with, “I built a killer spreadsheet”?

More often you’ll hear stories like the one behind Airbnb’s early growth strategy. Founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky’s had in their early days been advised by Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham to leave the confines of Silicon Valley and get face time with customers in their most concentrated market, New York City. By doing so, the duo quickly discovered three major problems inhibiting growth: hosts didn’t know how to photograph their apartments attractively, the website’s meticulously designed listing interface was actually a nightmare for hosts, and in-home cash transactions between guests and hosts were inherently awkward. Gebbia and Chesky’s focus on the ground level triggered an inflection at the high-level: top line growth doubled even as they just began implementing the raft of initial changes. And the growth never slowed down.

Or you’ll hear about Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, who—with no money and no market analysis—maxed out their credit cards at Bloomingdale’s to buy 100 dresses. They had a ton of questions: Would women rent...

How Agencies Can Address the Aging Workforce Gap

Let this remarkable fact sink in: Nearly one-third of federal employees are eligible for retirement, yet only 28 percent of the current workforce is under 40 years old.

How can this possibly work out?

One out of every three people sitting at a desk in every government office across the country will be gone when they decide to turn in their federal IDs and head into retirement, and the next wave of retirees won’t be far behind them.

As a prime example, at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, 61 percent of NASA employees are eligible to retire in next 10 years. This means three out of every five seats at NASA will be empty in the next decade without a huge wave of reinforcements.

With the Trump administration working to streamline government, agencies will have to figure out how to do things differently. When changes in agency operations are combined with the impending workforce gap, many organizations are going to be left in a challenging position.

But there are options available to solve this workforce gap that is only going to grow wider. For starters, we need to put more emphasis on integrating the millennial generation into...

The Annual Pay Ritual Has Lost Relevance

Few seem to have noticed, but the Federal Salary Council has not met this year and new members have not been appointed. Last year, the council’s conclusions were reported by the media in October and its report was submitted to the President’s Pay Agent in December. That was somewhat later than usual, but a year later, the Pay Agent—a body composed of the secretary of Labor and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management—has yet to make recommendations to President Trump.  

The president obviously did not need the report in August when he proposed a 1.9 percent raise for white collar employees.  

That raises the question: Does it matter? The council’s recommendations have never been accepted. The ritual with the Pay Agent and council was mandated in the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, but today it has lost relevance.

In 2016, the Federal Salary Council concluded that General Schedule salaries lagged, on average, 34 percent behind non-federal salaries. In the prior year, the Pay Agent reported the remaining gaps, after locality payments, ranged from a high in Washington, D.C., of 51 percent, to a 21...

Motivating Employees Isn't About Making Them Happy

As a leader, you have probably been told that you’re in charge of motivating employees. You’ve been pitched programs and tools that will allegedly build a happy, motivated workforce, and you’ve attended seminars that teach strategies for improving morale.

These programs and tools are well-intentioned, but deliver few results. Leaders can’t motivate others, because people make their own choices about motivation, accountability, commitment, and happiness. So for leaders, it’s an impossible task to create that feeling in someone else. The expectation that leaders should keep employees engaged and happy sets them up for failure.

Instead of trying to change people, leaders should think about directing their energy in the direction that creates positive results. That means coaching teams to understand that their value at work comes from using skills and expertise to succeed in less-than-perfect realities instead of waiting for perfect circumstances. It means directing energy from “why we can’t” into “how we can.”

Here are three approaches that can help shift energy into positive results:

Seek clarity

Over-communicate what you do know and be honest about what you don’t know. Help your teams edit their stories about what is and is not...