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

Good Managers Watch the Actors, Not Just the Action

In 30 years of marriage, my wife and I have disagreed on only a few issues of consequence. One of those is our taste in movies. (Hey, movies are consequential!) I am addicted to character study and she loves action movies. Because marriage is built on compromise, we do just that. I let her pick and I make up for it by getting my fix of character-study in my professional pursuits.

It turns out our workplaces are filled with characters, although sometimes they are hard to see because of all of the action.

In my experience, the best managers are devoted students of the art of character study—not out of some desire to play armchair psychologist, but rather out of the desire to help. These managers are keen observers of how people perform and conduct themselves across a range of situations. They look for clues that point to superpowers and situations that expose or amplify gaps. And they use these insights to provide feedback and offer coaching.

I was surprised as a young professional when my manager offered her views on my ability to work with groups. “Your future will be about guiding groups to achieve big things,” she...

The Question That Should Guide All Government Leaders

What keeps you up at night? If you are a public executive, there must be something—undoubtedly many things. Some of these sleep-depriving problems are minor annoyances, the daily irritations that can make life unpleasant.

Executive insomnia, however, is a more debilitating disease. Its cause can be traced to something that could go wrong. Something that could go terribly wrong. Some disaster that, if the executive’s leadership team had been prescient enough, it might have been able to prevent.

Of course, your leadership team is not omniscient. It can’t be. It doesn’t have the time to be aware of everything that is going on inside your organization—everything that has the potential to produce a big disaster. And, of course, there are lots of things going on outside your organization that could also produce a disaster for which you might be at least partially culpable.

No one can possibly predict everything that can go wrong.

Late at night, however, you do. The possibilities swirl through your head. You might try to get to sleep by counting them. Sheep No. 1 is a terrorist attack on your headquarters. Sheep No. 2 is a client assault on a public...

How to Build a More Productive Life Every Day

This question originally appeared on QuoraWhat daily habits can someone adopt to lead a more productive life? Answer by Charles Duhigg, staff writer at The New York Times, and author of “Smarter Faster Betteron Quora.

People will offer you lots of advice: you should sleep more, or you should meditate, or you should exercise, or read a book, or do headstands, or pray, or eat more vegetables, or spend more hours at your desk. And, for some people, those daily habits will work. And for other people, they’ll be total wastes of time.

Unfortunately, the academic literature shows that there is no single specific habit that is guaranteed to help everyone become more productive. (I, personally, get bored out of my mind meditating.)

There is, however, an approach to building habits that has been shown to significantly improve productivity, and that’s experimenting with different routines until you find one that helps you think, just half an inch more deeply, about the behaviors that we know are related to productivity, such as choosing the right goals, or directing your focus, or making better decisions.

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Researchers Have Isolated a Key to Happiness and Iceland is Helping Them Test It

Reykjavik -- Michael Porter, a Harvard economist who made his name working on ideas around competition, has come to the capital of Iceland to talk about social process and how to measure it. Here at a conference on the topic, he reminds the audience that economic indicators—while we’re very used to measuring them—only tell part of the story.

From initial research, he says, there’s one key area where many societies (and not just poor ones) fall down: providing their citizens with enough opportunities to change and better their lives. This, he says, is a crucial but elusive ingredient to a smoothly functioning society—or what, at the individual level, one might call happiness.

He has come to Iceland, which—like many of its Scandinavian neighbors—consistently tops happiness charts, to launch his “Social Progress Index,” a new scale for measuring how well societies are functioning.

The index is based on three key areas, broken into more granular layers. Basic human needs and “foundations of well-being” are the first two, and indeed, many societies have in recent decades improved access to the basic healthcare, food, and education that form that base layer, Porter said. But if people in...

Five Ways To Be A Clueless Manager

Your job is to get the work done, partially on your own but mostly through leveraging the talent of other people. 

Here's where you may be screwing up (and nobody's going stick their neck out and tell you):

You don't understand your job very well. It's not about keeping the trains moving on time. It's about making sure the trains are safe. If the staff is doing stupid busywork, change the work.

You jump to conclusions. A manager is the hub between staff and leadership. Both sides have a point of view. If you act like Gilligan and simply accept what people tell you, or worse, make up your mind before finding out the facts, whatever you do next will be misguided.

You don't pay attention to the larger political climate. There are ideas, words, groups and people who are in favor, and conversely, there are those who are on the outs. If you try to handle a work team in isolation from these intangible but very real facts, guess how effective your efforts will be? Additionally, you have to deal with the very real fact that the organization itself is likely fractured and...