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Blockbuster Goals – Why “We’re Going to the Moon” Motivates – Part 2 with Martha Johnson

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. – John F. Kennedy.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous, “We Go to the Moon,” speech at Rice University. At the time a rocket to the moon seemed inconceivable. But the common goal, the collective support, showcased what we can accomplish when we all get on the same page.

In part two of our series is former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson talks about why having big – Blockbuster – goals is a good idea for agencies. Johnson told Chris Dorobek her “Going to the Moon” moment was announcing the Zero Environmental Footprint goal.

“Leaders need to have some large ideas of ways organizations can make big shifts. Blockbuster ideas are often just new ways of reframing ideas that you have. They can galvanize an organization. A blockbuster ideas is a lot about how the organization perceives it and a lot about how clear you can make its objectives. Many times we do strategies, directions and visions, they are big huge books with lots of writing, lots of discussions and no one can remember what it actually is. Blockbuster ideas are in some ways boiled down to an essence so people can see, “Oh that’s how we are switching doing things.” The example I give in the book is the Zero Environmental Footprint mandate where we are switching everyone to this no waste, innovative norm,” said Johnson.

A different perspective?

“Blockbuster ideas are taking something to a different degree on the axis so that everyone can come at it from a new angle. Blockbuster ideas are kinda like jiu jitsu ideas, you flip them, you find a new way to see something and everything changes,” said Johnson.

Not every idea can be a blockbuster, some must be more easily attainable, right?

“I also have a real theory about how one should interrupt and not disrupt. There are ways to change that just introduce small ways in which our normal daily circumstances are shifted a little bit. Change in language, approach or how you have your meetings. Just simple things that offer a little bit more transparency,” said Johnson. “If you are changing the behavior of an organization through small changes, 3% every year, there is a lot less risk in those interruptions. You can toss them out if they don’t work. They can be built on. You have to have some big ideas but you also need to act differently everyday that takes people into a new frame of mind.

What are slams? Why do they work?

“Slams are just large group meetings where one agenda item was taken and worked through. If you put everyone together and all work through an idea under the pressure of a clock, a lot of things can happen.”

  • Bob Peck had done it in the Building Service in the 90s. It was a pretty simple concept that grew out of a consulting firms and notions that I had been aware of one technique around problem solving.
  • Get all the players in the room and give them a clear mandate. Give them a clear timeframe and design it carefully and then close the door and leave them to it. You need to make sure that the problem statement is clear, that the person who is sponsoring it is clear, that the group all knows why they are there, pretty basic things.
  • So, you put everyone in a room for a day and say solve this problem. Back in the 90s we were using them for our leasing portfolios. The ever present problem of how many federal workers work in federal buildings or work in private buildings that the federal government has leased, which is the expensive part. We needed to reduce that. So we put everyone in the room in a hotel in Chicago. Some of the people had never met before, they found problems they hadn’t even known they needed to solve, and from that I learned it is a very powerful thing when you do this. You don’t do this everyday. And you make it a big deal when you do do it.
  • We called them slams by mistake. I meant to call them scrums like in rugby, but as usual, I was talking faster than I was thinking, but the name stuck. We did a couple internal to GSA which really get everyone energized and solved some of the problems around our IT systems. Then we held at least one that I participated in that was across government. Which I thought was another problem that we had these huge cross-governmental committees and inter-department task forces and they meet and meet and meet. So I wanted to see if we could just meet for one day and knock it all out. We did knock it out of the ballpark it was about the federal acquisition register.
  • Sometimes you get things done and everyone is so shocked you got things done that it takes awhile to adjust to it. Change is not just that people are fearful about it, it’s run that tape again, did that really just agree to that? I never thought they would agree to it. But when you put people in a room they are a community.
  • Coming to agreements and shaking hands, face to face, sign your name on the contract. But what is nice about it, is it is just a process. It was one of those processes that we marketed well, so everyone got with the problem. In the cases we used it, it was very effective.

Let’s focus on your departure. You said, “My resignation experience offers a case study on the cultural challenges faced by government leaders. It is a clash between rights and performance culture in an election year which culminated in political decisions not strategic organizational decisions.” When you first say the IG report did you think this would happen?

“You look at something and it takes you a moment to calibrate something against all of it. It came out in an election year and we soon began to appreciate that it was going to raise a lot of dust in the air, because it wasn’t simply a couple of contracting missteps it was Las Vegas and there were videos of skits that people had put on at the conference. It goes to show how technology turbo-charges things. So even though you were looking at the relative size of the contracting misstep and assessing them, it was watching the storm of media that would come after it in the political election year. The pictures of the hot tub wasn’t even in the IG report, so some of that came after in the media storm,” said Johnson.

When did you know?

“It does take a moment when you are running at lickety split speed across all these business lines to have one of the many IG reports that came my direction about issues, the IG is quite a busy office and they have a lot of things to watch, there are many contracts, and to have one come in and see that it was going to have a big red flag on it was one of those daily routine issues,” said Johnson.

At what point did you say this is trouble?

“I was beginning to talk to myself about how to take our organization through this because this is going to be a moment in which GSA’s names are going to be out there as people violated the contracts that they are presumably stewards of. It was a concrete issue that everyone can glob onto,” said Johnson.

A week can change everything?

“I was beginning to do some research about how do you take an organization through that kind of crisis of confidence and I was beginning to think about how I would talk to the organization about it. But in just the course of that one week before I resigned it was really clear as we began to see what else was underneath it. I had been meeting with the White House and senior staff and we had people investigating the room of boxes that the IG had trying to get through that to see what else was there. There was a bit of the sheer volume of process in amassing all of that material. But it was about a week of chop, chop, chop,” said Johnson.

One of the strange things about this whole thing was that the initial recommendation to the IG came from one of the deputy administrators.

“I really care about transparency, President Obama cares about it, he asked his government to try to work on it in systematic ways and we were particularly in the line of fire about helping government do that. Transparency was very important, so I felt very strongly that if people had issues they should raise them or deal with them as such. The Deputy Administrator did refer this particular conference to the IG, just to say, “I heard something, I want to learn more.” So it was an exploratory request, not an investigation request initially. Then the IG came back and it wasn’t so much what she pointed to but what they started to learn about some of the contracts that began to raise their eyebrows and she said go ahead and investigate. You don’t say, “No, stop.” That wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. So we needed to know,” said Johnson. “I needed to know. In the book I talk about leading in the dark, when you see things and you know things, you need to run them down. So, it was a bit of an irony that we asked for it.”

Click here for part one of our interview with Martha Johnson. Or here for part three. Or here for part four.

You can hear the entire hour long interview with Johnson here.

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