Working Across Boundaries

Using a common blueprint, the Navy learns lessons in the art of IT strategy.

Using a common blueprint, the Navy learns lessons in the art of IT strategy.

Getting all parts of a large organization to face in the same direction when it comes to policy and procedures can be a challenge. For one thing, the policy developer and the implementer often are not in the same department. Also, the implementer and developer might work in different directions, maintaining their own silos. So, how do you get different departments to cooperate? When a policy-making group finds a solution, it is worth paying attention to.

The Navy, for example, has learned how to work across many boundaries in its Information Management and Information Technology (IM/IT) Performance Measurement Program. Its objective was to get everyone to follow the strategic plan, using a common set of metrics to measure progress. The approach promotes interoperability, security and more. But the challenge was the execution, given that each part of the organization has its own priorities, pressures, constraints and history.

Big steps were taken in seemingly simple ways, with impressive results: Diverse personalities and groups now share information and action, across boundaries, for the common good. Here are four lessons learned:

Lesson 1: Practice what you preach. Before asking anyone else to align their metrics to strategy, members of the CIO's team did it themselves. "Modeling what works" is a simple and effective method to encourage people to adopt new behavior. The office articulated its piece of strategy as a set of measurable results and then cascaded them down to the individual level. The team also followed the dictum, "Do good and avoid evil." This is a reference to the Whole Goal concept taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Each outcome is encapsulated as a measurable desired effect to achieve or measurable negative side effect to avoid. Navy leaders now gauge progress through Whole Goals and periodic effects-based assessments. At those meetings, teams tweak strategy, target issues to resolve and reinforce goal achievement.

Lesson 2: Be focused, but flexible.

Program officials collect metrics from across the Navy and Marine Corps that are relevant to the IM/IT strategic plan and provide an easily accessible one-stop-shopping dashboard in a language that everyone understands. Using the dashboard, the Navy's commands and organizations can compare themselves and one another against agreed-upon goals and measure progress.

That's the blueprint, but there is a temptation to cobble together any and all available metrics. The CIO office could have collected a vast quantity of metrics whose resemblance to the strategic plan, if any, was purely coincidental. But that is not what happened. Performance leadership and management team leader Michelle Schmith and her group requested and received only relevant metrics. No one started from scratch; instead, the team selectively employed measurement tools already in place.

The team also invested heavily in the time it takes to build trust. The attitude that says, "we are open to new ideas and methods, and we are all in this together" invited partnership. It is a key to inspiring good ideas and cooperation.

Lesson 3: Promote a common language. Any program dashboard is meaningless unless apples are being compared to apples. Different organizations use different words for the same things and the same words for different things. For example, what one considers to be a single legacy system (i.e., old and difficult to support) might be considered by another to be three legacy systems, and yet another organization might not consider it a legacy system at all.

Sorting out common terms and meanings involves effort, even disagreements and drawn-out discussions. But it is crucial in any cross-functional effort, especially those entailing measurement. The Navy team tackled this problem with "consensus, consensus, consensus," Schmith says. "Getting everyone to use the same language and same definitions took an incremental and iterative approach that was worth every minute we invested, especially in gaining ideas, input and buy-in." The discussions evolved into a straightforward format for defining metrics, data owners and collection methods.

Another key to common language is education. Through briefings and one-on-one communication, CIO staff members became well-versed in the IM/IT plan, the characteristics of good metrics and the goals of the performance measurement initiative. When people begin with a common understanding of direction and principles, consensus comes more easily.

Lesson 4: Don't get fancy.

Despite their ongoing immersion in technology, the Navy team didn't let fancy tools bog them down. They're using tried-and-true Web tools and Excel spreadsheets, making their dashboard hard to break and easy to fund. It's simple; it works. Getting hung up on expensive technology is widespread and limiting. If funding becomes available later, basic tools can be upgraded to more powerful processes. Meanwhile, the team is not beholden to vendors, funding agents or technological grandiosity. Likewise the project plan is simple. With realistic goals and time frames, repetition and consensus-building, the effort has been an exercise in the art of the possible.

It Ain't Over

It has been six months since the Navy program launched, so there is still plenty to do. The strategic plan is not yet fully reflected in the metrics. And the plan is a moving target, to be updated and released every two years. It will continue to depend on collaborative relationships across organizations. Success will engender more success, however. The question is whether these metrics become goals and the goals become accountabilities. After all, that's the way to advance a strategic plan.

Meanwhile, the program has created a common language, a common dashboard and a common standard-all rooted in the strategic plan.

The Army and Air Force already have expressed interest in a similar common vision. The approach is a standard for any large organization. It is an efficient use of limited resources and those which organizations have in unlimited amounts-imagination, ingenuity, and the capacity to see big goals and make sure they are met.

William Casey, Ph.D., is president of Executive Leadership Group Inc. in Lakewood, Colo., and teaches strategic planning to civilian and military leaders at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.