Transformational Leaders

With budget crunches for the foreseeable future, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson says “Tough budgets should trigger innovation, not fear.” And for many government leaders, innovation means transformation of their work and their agencies. The IBM Center has released a leader’s playbook for guiding transformation.

The IBM Center report, “A Leader’s Guide to Transformation: Developing a Playbook for Successful Change Initiatives,” is by Robert Reisner, the former vice president for strategy at the U.S. Postal Service. Reisner interviews ten current or recent government executives in the midst of transforming their organizations and found five common actions among these leaders. These actions may be useful guides for the recently-announced trade reorganization initiative, as its leaders begin to act on President Obama’s announcement.

What Is Transformation? Reisner says “transformation” is moving from one state to a fundamentally new one that builds upon the DNA of the traditional enterprise. He notes that “a decade of experience with transformation initiatives has revealed the common characteris­tics of significant, transformational change. There are clear differences between the traditional, cautious, bureaucratic, siloed, command and control structures of the prototypical government agency and the agile, innovative, decentralized, technology-savvy character of a transformed government enterprise.

The goal of his guide is to give government managers the benefit of the experience and insights of government executives who have had first-hand experience in leading transformation.

The transformational leaders of the future will be at all levels in organizations, given the nature of the decentralized leadership style that is growing across networked agencies, so the case studies Reisner draws on come from different perspectives in the organizations in his study.

What Are the Five Key Steps to Transform? Reisner distilled five common steps from his intereviews, and found that they were interactive, not sequential:

Develop a compelling game plan. Transformation initiatives possess a sense of urgency. Yet controlling the timing of how they are launched is important. Key elements include:

  • Seize the initiative to lead the change, in order to “own” the message about the vision and the reasons for the change.
  • Choose when to launch deliberately, and use “burning platforms” judiciously.
  • Use the power of an external mandate carefully, so external forces don’t overwhelm your ability to lead.
  • Clear some space on your calendar so you can conduct an objective analysis and not be crisis-driven.

Align the plan with your mission. “Aligning change initiatives with a rigorous definition of mission gives you a tool for prioritizing change that matters,” notes Reisner. He say that to do this:

  • Begin with mission alignment so you can clearly identify value and can measure progress toward your goal.
  • Balance the need for cost reduction with the need for service improvement.
  • Engage stakeholders – including employees — at every step, because they will engage on their own via social media if you don’t involve them from the beginning.
  • Personally lead the transformation dialogue; it’s an opportunity to talk about creating mission value and legitimacy to act.

Focus the plan with an effective innovation process. “Transformation requires fundamental changes and a vision of an alternative future,” notes Reisner. But doing this means:

  • Being realistic about the speed at which the initiatives can be implemented.
  • Democratizing data to encourage stakeholders to co-create innovation.
  • Carefully selecting the moment when radical change is required.
  • Learning from the new Open Collaboration models to engage stakeholders.

Transform strategically. You have to “understand the trade-off between the line managers and innovators” when launching a transformation initiative. You need both on your side. To do this:

  • Assemble joint teams of “young Turks” and line managers, because isolating the innovators may risk marginalizing them.
  • Build joint ownership through regular progress reviews with stakeholders.
  • Find the path to maximize consensus.

Build in sustainability. Developing a plan for action helps, but how do you keep the transformation going, especially if there are leadership changes? One step is to give explicit permission to employees to innovate. Other steps include:

  • Explicitly recognize the inevitable barriers, and find ways to say “yes,” or the actions needed to get to “yes.”
  • Design the change initiative from the start to be sustainable by using regular reviews, anchoring the reviews to mission, building a constituency for innovation, and creating “user groups” to improve on the changes in-progress.

Graphic Credit: Inside Pulse

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David Dejewski

An excellent reference, John. Awesome subject matter – and very important against the backdrop of declining financial stability.
How do you think this translates into the daily lives of the employee working in support of the government?
What examples do we have of legislative or leadership action turning this concept of Transformational leadership into reality?

John Kamensky

Hi David – Leaders from the middle can translate this into their day-to-day work by looking at how what they do fits into the bigger mission of their organization (or maybe even cross agencies or levels of government) and creating clear priorities for action with their own team. The mini-case studies in the Reisner report show how selected leaders — Dan Tangherlini in Treasury, Richard Spires in Homeland, and former Student Aid COO Bill Taggert — did it. Their actions clearly inspired others in their organizations to replicate what they were doing. Outside the federal government, Gov. Martin O’Malley has done it in both Baltimore, when he was mayor, as well as now as governor of Maryland, and his focus on transformation of performance is being picked up within the various agencies.

David Dejewski

You’ve written a good post and there are some great suggestions there. It is pretty awesome to think if the average government employee added a few simple actions to their routine, he or she could have a tremendous effect on the bottom line. This will become more important as time rolls on.

The Defense Department has 10USC2222 – published in 2002, but put into affect when the anti-deficiency violation kicked in in 2005. This law mandated certain actions like investment review and securing of obligation authority for all business IT investments over $1M. The GAO took a big interest in this from the beginning.

This law gave the DoD the ability to set up a streamlined, and potentially effective due diligence process that rivaled the traditional (and cumbersome) 5000 series investment / portfolio review process. I was responsible for setting up and executing the Business Transformation program within the Military Health System.

In a few short years, we reviewed more than $1 Billion of “investments” and sent $200 M back to the Treasury for various good reasons. We should have sent a lot more back, but I lacked the clout & the network to pull it off. By way of example, saying “no” to just one minor program earned me 5 stars (2 two stars and 1 one star) worth of grief. I was “asked” by a DASD (who got the phone call) to give them a second chance. One year later, we put the same group through their mandatory annual review. They delivered 7 capabilities. They promised (and got obligation authority) to deliver 22 capabilities the year before. The 7 they delivered weren’t on the approved list.

At the end of the day, we concluded that business transformation can be greatly enhanced if regular people do a few simple things.

  • Do a business real case on a capability – along with due diligence. I like your plan idea proposed above. I’m not talking about just generating paperwork here. I’m talking about an actual business case with an ROI and an actual plan to follow through once the new capability is rolled out – a plan they can be held accountable for in 12 months.
  • Pick up the phone and call others who might be doing the same or similar things. Find out if there is a way to combine forces. The Army and Navy did this very effectively when it came time to build a veterinary system for tracking health of working dogs. Each had their own, separately-funded program, but two O6-level officers called one another and worked out a deal before they came to see me. The fact that they called one another on their own was considered a great victory in my office.
  • Find and apply standards wherever possible. Standards tend to make efforts interchangeable & compatible down the road. They also cut down on expensive interfaces and RICE objects that tend to give projects a big tail.
  • Follow through. A promise delivered for every promise made.

Resources are (or were) available to help people do this stuff and find out what else is going on out there in the Defense Department. I created an investment review checklist and framework that gave people “the answers to the test before they took it.” These were sold as aids to help PM’s understand how to successfully navigate the investment review process, but they were in fact, behavior modification tools. If they followed the suggestions found in the guide, investment review usually went smoothly. If they didn’t, well…

I’ve read IBM’s work on Transformation several times over the years. It’s pretty good work. I found it useful to read.

Being on the front lines of Transformation, I found that the status quo is a hard rock to push. That said, one person can make a big difference if they know what to do and are brave enough to do it.