We see a lot of headlines in the commercial sector about the consequences of technology disruption. Barnes and Noble disrupted the local book store and then Amazon disrupted Barnes and Noble. Apple disrupted music and the personal camera market, which had already been through a disruption as film gave way to digital images. The list goes on with taxis and Uber, hotels and Airbnb, and in countless other arenas.
We often think government is somewhat immune to this form of disruption. It is true that government moves a bit slower given divided powers, rules and regulations, and bureaucratic inertia, but that doesn’t stop disruption from happening. Terrorists and adversaries find asymmetric ways to cause havoc, and criminals have embraced the disruptive technologies of the Internet and the cloud for their own ends. Citizen expectations of what government can and should be able to do, and demands from industry for better and smarter regulation, are also driven by disruptive technological innovation. No one is immune.
In our work with federal programs and agencies, I’ve seen many struggle with aligning their missions and visions in an era of technological disruption. The programs that successfully embrace the change will survive and thrive and those that don’t will find themselves starved for resources or on the chopping block with little support. The successful leaders do at least three things to manage this process:
See the world through the eyes of their customer. Inside a federal organization it is too easy to slip into the trap of seeing the world from your own perspective. You have reporting demands from higher-ups, the daily grind and internal staff issues to deal with. Seeing the world from a different perspective takes a good deal of effort. Spend some time with your customers. Find out their needs and concerns. If you aren’t regularly checking the pulse of these core stakeholders you need to find the mechanism that works for you. Is it networking at key conferences, putting together working groups on core issues, building personal relationships with key stakeholders, or some combination of each?
Know the broader climate. The government leaders who stay on top of the key trends and drivers in their space are far better positioned to respond to technological disruption. The microtrend today could be the disruptive force tomorrow, so you need to stay on top of a broad range of issues. Of course, regularly taking the pulse of your customers helps with this process, but in some cases they aren’t even aware of how innovations in adjacent spaces are poised to affect them. Remain curious about the government and broader commercial climate. Taking some time to think through how your environment is and could be shaped by the prevailing trends can be an energizing and productive process.
Find the internal champions who can help. Getting the right talent and managing that talent well is a constant challenge for government leaders. You can’t do everything yourself. We often find that there are hidden leaders throughout an organization who are willing and able to embrace change and help the organization adapt. Those people might not line up with your organizational chart but you need to find ways to empower them. Those internal champions often make or break your effort.
Whether or not you are able to embrace disruption can determine your success as a government leader. These are just a few of the things you can do to be prepared. What have you seen successful leaders and organizations do?