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Letting go for high performance leadership

In Gov 2.0 circles I often hear that organizational culture needs to change. If you think about that you will realize that people need to change. If you think about that you will realize that you have to change. Last year I heard the story of a public servant leader who discovered that sometimes by letting go, you get better results. I think it is a good example of the transformation many of us need to consider for ourselves.

Two years ago, Angelina Munaretto took leadership of the Applying Leading Edge Technologies (ALET) working group within the Canadian government. This horizontal, mostly voluntary group was established to explore ideas around the use of social media and Web 2.0 tools for the government communications community.

At the outset, the group was structured in a traditional way and using government hierarchy: a Project Manager, two sub-working groups with co-chairs, and an advisory committee. Work began on defining the deliverables, finding members for the working groups and then working towards meeting the needs of this defined structure.

What nobody counted on, but in retrospect is not surprising, is the level of interest, passion and commitment exhibited by the entire government community in response to the global trend towards Web 2.0. All areas — not just communications, but programs, IM, IT and human resources — wanted to participate in some way. Those who were involved in applying the tools on a day-to-day basis started suggesting new projects that would help advance their programs, communications and use of Web 2.0 tools. The community grew into 150 people and 36 departments and agencies represented. Five departments seconded employees to work on deliverables for the community at no cost to the project.

Says Angelina: “We moved from being a community of practice who met to deliver pieces of work, to a group of professionals who wanted to make a difference.”

I know which one of those scenarios I would prefer, what about you?

Resources were needed and community members were stepping up to volunteer to help the ALET group meet the needs of the community. More people and more resources called for more management capacity, but there was simply no additional capacity. The working groups could no longer be managed within the traditional project structure. More management capacity was required but was simply unavailable. Angelina soon found herself in a position where a shift was required.

What this meant for Angelina was that she had to adjust her leadership style. No longer would she define tasks and delegate responsibilities – she could suggest broad areas of work or needs that the community was articulating, but this was highly different. When community leaders stepped up and offered their expertise and leadership, Angelina moved to providing secretariat support and broad guidance on the overall outcomes sought by ALET. Members of the group were given autonomy to shape the products they were producing. It became less about leading the group towards the completion of a deliverable to more about facilitating the collaboration and contributing where help was needed . The deliverables were defined by the needs of those working on them, instead of the project leader. In personal terms, Angelina had to relax her expectation of control. She also had to learn to trust people to do the right thing, sometimes with very little direction – and learned when to offer help or check in to ensure that people had what was needed to complete a deliverable.

What she found was that when a group of people are motivated and given the autonomy to take direct action, the results can be impressive. What had started as a management team…led by Angelina became a relatively self-sufficient group that produced impressive results including an extensive research document which provided essential input into policy development, a social media toolkit and numerous guides to using a wide variety of social media. The most tangible result though was getting Departments to share key development documents for use of social media so that the community could re-use these for their own campaigns. The work that started with ALET planted the seeds for a vibrant communications community that continues to grow, share best practices and build guidelines to help others.

Angelina has now moved to Library and Archives Canada, where she is the Manager, Digital Engagement and Social Media. ALET continues to thrive under new leadership and the resource pages on GCPEDIA continue to be some of the most visited.

When I look at this case, I see a perfect example of intrinsic motivation as described by author Dan Pink, there is a wonderful RSA animate video that captures the essence of his message on You Tube. The project, in spite of being run differently than a traditional government project, was highly successful – mostly due to Angelina’s ability to stop trying to control the project and instead to facilitate the collaboration and articulate the greater purpose. She gave the members of the working group the autonomy to make progress on something that would make a real difference.

In my mind, this shift is an example of what needs to happen with leaders across the public service; from a mentality of command-and-control to one of creating a collaborative culture. Angelina’s example demonstrates that when people are given the autonomy to work on something that motivates them and is in service to something larger, whole communities can benefit. And really, isn’t that what being in the public service is all about?

I would like to thank Avra Gibbs Lamey, a communications professional and contributor to two of the sub-working groups under ALET, for co-authoring this post. Avra can be found on twitter @gibbslamey.

This post originally appeared at http://nusum.wordpress.com

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jennifer hunter

What a great example of grass roots organization development at work! Thanks for telling this story Thom. The power of a group, self motivated, and supported with the right tools is awesome to see unfold.