Agency chief operating officers are required to conduct quarterly progress reviews on priority goals. Sometimes called “PerformanceStat” meetings, they can be effective problem-solving sessions or terrifying blame games.
So, how do you make PerformancStat meetings effective? OMB says that these review meetings should be constructive and focus on learning. Astute observers, such as Harry Hatry at the Urban Institute, say that leaders of these meetings need to be “hands on” and actively engaged in order to convey the importance of the sessions.
But just how does a leader do this? Interestingly, the answer may come from Pixar – the movie animation company with 14 box office hit cartoons in a row. If they can create success from toys, cars, rats, bugs, and monsters . . . then maybe their leadership secrets can help federal agencies succeed with more mundane issues, such as reducing poverty and climate change!
The president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, writes in Fast Company magazine that the secret is “candor.” He says: “A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively.”
He says that the leader’s job is to put mechanisms in place that “explicitly say it [candor] is valuable.” At Pixar, this mechanism is the Braintrust. He says: “It is our primary delivery system for straight talk.” He sees his role as making sure that the commitment to candor in these meetings is protected. He also notes that “This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor.”
His description of the Braintrust reflects many of the organizational and process elements of agency PerformanceStat meetings. Catmull’s Braintrust meets every few months. It puts smart, passionate people in a room together and charges them with identifying and solving problems. It is comprised of 15-20 people from different backgrounds in the organization. After the meeting, someone distills the key observations down to a digestible takeaway.
Why does Catmull hold these meetings when he is consistently so successful? Bluntly, he says” “Because early on, all of our movies suck.” He says that “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process.” And that the Braintrust helps him and his leadership team create perspective.
He says the Pixar Braintrust differs in two ways from other feedback mechanisms – and these seem to reflect the ways most agency PerformanceStat session are organized, as well.
First, the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling (after all, they are making movies). The corollary in a government setting would be having respected peers in the room.
Second, the Braintrust has no authority. After a Braintrust meeting, Catmull or whomever is the movie director is left to figure out how to address the feedback given. He notes: “Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways that I believe are essential.” He says the role of the group is to help surface the root causes of problems, not demand a specific remedy. Again, this reflects how most agency PerformanceStat meetings are conducted. The agency head or the chief operating officer makes the final decision, not the meeting participants.
But Catmull says that candor at Braintrust meetings is not the answer. He says: “candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and will, if necessary, to let go of things that don’t work.”
Catmull’s closing observation: “Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.”
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