5 Ways Government Must Change To Be More Agile

By John Kamensky

January 22, 2013

Harvard Business Review sage John Kotter writes “we can’t keep up with the pace of change, let alone get ahead of it.” In part, he says, this is due to the hierarchical systems we use—systems that “can’t handle the challenges of mounting complexity and rapid change.”

These top-down systems are a staple of large companies (and governments). These structures, and their accompanying processes, work well in stable, predictable environments. Their historical success has contributed greatly to society in the past hundred years.

But, in a recent article, Kotter notes that the current hierarchical operating system needs something more to cope with the pace of change. He says the solution is a second operating system, “devoted to the design and implementation of strategy, that uses an agile, network-like structure and a very different set of processes.” This new way of doing things should complement the existing hierarchical system – allowing the hierarchical system “to do what it is optimized to do.”

Kotter says there are five principles at the heart of a dual operating system:

Kotter say that this kind of network would permit individualism, creativity, and innovation. Since the network would be populated with “employees from all across the organization and up and down its ranks, the network liberates information from silos and hierarchical layers and enables it to flow with far greater freedom and accelerated speed.”

Ideally, “the strategy network meshes with the hierarchy as an equal. It is not a super task force that reports to some level in the hierarchy. . . The network cannot be viewed as a rogue operation. It must be treated as a legitimate part of the organization, or the hierarchy will crush it.”

I saw many elements of Kotter’s vision in the reinventing government initiative in the 1990s, but it was seen as a rogue operation and was largely crushed, as Kotter predicted. But that was 20 years ago and the demands for agility are even more urgent today.

Where in government is Kotter’s model being used?  Are there agencies or large programs with leaders who see the use of a dual operating system as a solution to their challenges?

Image via Violetkaipa/Shutterstock.com

By John Kamensky

January 22, 2013