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A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Brain Connections Predict How Well You Can Pay Attention

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On the Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed in a marathon of nonstop typing.

Like the Kerouac of legend, some people possess the incredible ability to focus for long periods of time. Others constantly struggle to keep their minds on task. Individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, are often restless and easily distracted. Even people without ADHD may find their minds wandering while trying to concentrate at school or work.

Although the ability to sustain attention varies widely from person to person, characterizing these individual differences has been difficult. Unlike intelligence, which has traditionally been measured (though not without controversy) with pencil-and-paper IQ tests, attentional abilities are not captured by performance on a single test.

In a study recently published in Nature Neuroscience, my colleagues and I set out to identify a new way to measure attention. Like IQ, this measure would serve as a general summary of a complex cognitive ability. But unlike IQ, it would be based on a person’s unique pattern of brain...

How to Get More Dads to Take Paternity Leave: Pay Them

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced last week (on Facebook, of course) that he is planning to take two months of paternity leave when his daughter is born. In his post, Zuckerberg noted that studies have found better outcomes when parents take time off from work to be with their newborns. He also pointed out that his company offers U.S. employees four months of paid maternity or paternity leave.

Zuckerberg is right: There are many research-backed reasons for parents to take leave. Still, while paternity leave has been expanding at American companies, such as Netflix and Microsoft, it is far from being a mainstream benefit.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, live in Palo Alto’s Crescent Parkneighborhood. California, along with Rhode Island and New Jersey, are the only three states in the U.S. that offer paid family leave to workers of any gender. The existence of such laws is evidence of a drift toward gender equality at work and at home, but the problem is that even men who are offered paid leave often don’t take it, for fear of social and professional repercussions in the office hierarchy.

So how do these laws impact...

Jane’s World: The Daunting Role of a Middle Manager

  • By John R. Malgeri and Jeffrey E. Press
  • November 25, 2015
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Jane is a middle manager in the federal government. Jane is responsible for translating broad objectives established by her leadership into manageable activities for her and her employees. Jane also performs technical work because her office is significantly understaffed. She also develops her employees and is committed to increasing their capacity to do their jobs more effectively.

Amid her daily managerial duties, Jane maintains a passion for trying to be creative within her agency, but often confronts both limited time and limited senior management support to engage in innovative activities. Nevertheless, Jane strives to:

  • Create new ways for improving performance in her office.
  • Listen to and act upon input from her employees and customers.
  • Collect better data to support more informed decision-making, well-considered risk-taking, and the implementation of efficient work processes.

Welcome to Jane’s world and the world of many other middle managers in the federal government.

Middle managers have a tough job, according to Ethan Mollick, a Wharton School professor of management, because they are managing a finite set of resources, they don’t have control over everyone’s actions, they can frustrate people around them who are not interested in changing direction, and they must go in...

Why Poor FITARA Grades Are a Good Start

You wouldn’t think a report card full of Ds and Fs would make anybody happy. And you wouldn’t think it would provide an opportunity for repairing an ailing institution.

But the awful grades federal agencies earned in the first round of rankings under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act may have actually done both.

Those grades, handed out by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, were really bad. But Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, chairman of the oversight panel’s Information Technology Subcommittee, promised those grades wouldn’t be used as a club, but as a benchmark. And one chief information officer – one with a batch of Ds and Fs – says so far, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are keeping that promise.

“All in all, I thought [the members of the committee] signaled a willingness to partner up,” Richard McKinney, the Transportation Department’s CIO, told the audience at a Tuesday discussion on FITARA implementation hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. McKinney was one of the CIO who testified at a Nov. 4 hearing about the grades, and the executive branch’s way forward. “I think we [CIOs] should take...

Want Innovation? 10 Tips for Senior Leaders

  1. You rely on your staff to do the work for you. Let them. Don't micromanage their work. Don't act like you know their job better than they do. Make a decision. Make a phone call on their behalf. Make things work in their favor, make the system work for them. Give them ground cover with the higher-ups. Make it possible for staff to wildly succeed, just because of you.
  2. Do not take credit for staff work. Ever. When someone says to you, "That XYZ initiative sure took off like a shot," respond back to them, "It was Jane Doe's idea, isn't she marvelous?"
  3. Speaking of ideas: When someone comes to you and says, "I have an idea," immediately say, "Go for it!" Even if you have to do it as a modified pilot with no funds, undertaken on 10 percent training time. 
  4. Here is what you should not say when someone has an idea: "That's a great idea, but it will never work. Thanks so very much for trying." Please do not ever use the word "impossible."
  5. If you asked for advanced education and experience in the job announcement, draw on it. Why are you...