Getting Things Done


Let’s get down to it: we are doers. We all feel better looking back on accomplishments we can measure, see and touch. When we work for the government, this can feel like a challenge. To meet this challenge, we need to foster and maintain a sense of empowerment.

Looking back

There is an excellent book by Elers Koch from the early 1940s after he retired from the Forest Service called, “Forty Years a Forester.” He was one of “Pinchot’s Boys” – one of the first to graduate from the Yale School of Forestry, founded by the family of Gifford Pinchot, who was the first Chief of the Forest Service. An early career job Elers held was to ride around on horseback one summer and identify potential “forest reserves” in California. He then got to come back to Washington DC and put them on maps for discussion.

He also was one of the principle chroniclers of the 1910 fires, and many of the interviews and news clips from that pivotal event were collected under his watch.

In his book, he shares how things had changed from the scrappy organization where people provided their own horses – and built what became our ranger stations – to the larger bureaucracy we are used to working with today. He frames it as before, during and after the New Deal. That post New Deal-era is the one we still work in today.

All of our intensive – and sometimes overwhelming systems – can make it feel like you can’t make a difference where you are. While the days of our scrappy organizations may be behind us, the innovation and attitudes are very much present. Look around your meeting table and work groups and you can feel it.

What does it take? 

How about:

  • Knowing it can be better
  • Relationships
  • Managing Expectations
  • A spark!

Knowing it can be better: First take stock of where you are at. Have you found yourself frustrated with the way things are? Have you found yourself venting to colleagues or friends about workplace issues? Or have you been the kind listener for someone else? We all need that kind of validation and release, and then we need to roll up our sleeves and come up with solutions to improve things for everyone.

The most lasting results come from the ground up. If you have multiple ideas, listen to folks in your environment. You might not have the energy or support to make many changes at once. Many folks have a hard time with change – but it doesn’t mean you can’t bring it about. You might have to revisit your ideal timeline often. You might have to put some ideas on hold so you can ensure a key change gets implemented. Be nimble and open – it is easier to help things change when you share the ownership of this effort with others.

Relationships: You know this: nothing gets done without an investment in the people on your team. And who is your team? More than you probably realize at the outset. In traditional settings, we look to folks around within our organizations as the first string. In more and more government landscapes, we are looking outside our agencies towards engaging our neighbors and stakeholders.

You will want to recognize and honor the energy your team is putting into these efforts. Sometimes listening is all that it takes – so many people just want to feel that they have been heard. To do that isn’t always easy. Set ground rules for respectful dialogue. Model the behavior you want to see. Remember you are asking them to give you something – their energy. Be grateful for the gift of their time.

Building relationships outside of work is also key if you have stakeholders who may not trust each other. If this is your situation, be prepared to be patient. Find the things that you agree on – even if they are only small at first. It gives you a zone of agreement and you can work from there.

One other way to build these relationships can be to move your discussion from an abstract setting, like an office. If you are talking about a project that will take place outside somewhere – go there. Too difficult for a site visit? Go somewhere informal. Being on neutral ground can be a very effective way to soften a room and invite conversation.

Managing expectations: This is as true for you as it is for your team. When it comes to our dreams, most of us dream big. That’s a great thing.  When you begin working on making that dream a reality, be prepared to adjust what success looks like. There are so many quotes and stories about success being the journey, not the destination. That’s all very true. It’s also nice to feel like you are getting somewhere.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture goals, but be ready to negotiate how you will get there and how long that might take. Be ready to postpone some ideas to manage your energy for the ones you have identified as your cornerstone. As changes happen, be careful to include your team in the process. People deal with changes on a spectrum of comfort and discomfort, and it will vary by person and topic. Learn the personalities of the people you have engaged. Rise up and become an elegant facilitator.

A Spark! The spark – is it you? Of course it is. We all have the potential to lead up, lead sideways and lead from above. Let your team help you find inspiration on the days you can’t see it.

We don’t need to build as many new trails as they did when Elers started on the Lolo National Forest. The innovation we need to see today is different, often more subtle. Progress is exciting and that is contagious. See you out there.

Dana Skelly is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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William L. Prusak

There were many key points in your post, however building relationships really resonated with me. It is critical to build bridges and establish commonalties with the people you work with 8+ hours a day.
Managing expectations is also critical, especially in project management. Dreaming big is great, but executing big equates to success.

Dana Skelly

Well said, William. Thank you. I like the way you phrase the last sentence here too. I’ve been thinking about exploring how we define success and when all signs point to revisiting your metrics…maybe it’s a topic to collaborate on.