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Forget About Transformation and Get Stuff Done

It’s easy to be glib about transformation. It’s easy to trot out the truisms that make transformation sound so doable that it’s hard to believe it remains so elusive.

So, let’s try a different approach. Rather than talking about Transformation with a capital T, let’s explore some concrete tools and tactics that you can use to make a meaningful difference in how you and your team get stuff done.

Here are some go-to ideas shared by government thought-leaders at GovLoop’s recent virtual summit, “Next-Level Transformation: 11 Steps for How Your Agency Can Get There.”

Redefine Failure and the Impact

The thought of failure can keep well-intentioned employees from testing transformational ideas.

“Folks in government at all levels all have a story of seeing a leader they work for getting raked over the coals,” Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer for the Energy Department, said of projects going awry. But, avoiding measured risks breeds riskier behaviors.  

Using Agile as an example, she equated this method of incremental software development to a series of experiments. An agile culture says:

  • We’re going to test things
  • We’re going to experiment
  • We’re going to solve our riskiest problems first

“You’ve ultimately set the stage for the idea that sometimes you’re going to fail, and that’s OK because that helps you move to a better product in the end,” Dunkin said. 

Not sure how to pitch new ideas at work? Dunkin shared these tips:

  • Be short and to the point
  • Be clear about the value-add
  • Understand your organization’s tolerance for risk and frame new ideas as smart risks
  • Understand your culture and how successful proposals are pitched and considered

Understand the Needs of Your Team

People often say that it is important to help employees feel empowered, but it’s not often said how to do that.

One approach, said Thomas Peng, CIO at the U.S. Peace Corps, is to look at how the organization is meeting the basic human needs of its employees. Peng uses a framework known as BICEPS, which was developed by Paloma Medina, a management trainer and coach.

How do you think the members of your team would answer the following questions?

  • Belonging:  Do you feel a connection with your coworkers?  Do you feel like you’re a part of a community that cares about one another? 
  • Improvement: Are you making progress in your own career or life?  Are you improving the lives of others? 
  • Choice: Do you have the flexibility and opportunity to control key parts of your working world? 
  • Equality/fairness: Do you and your team members support each other equally?  Are decisions fair, and is everybody treated as equally important? 
  • Predictability: Is there enough certainty about resources so you can focus on your job and goals?  Do goals, strategy and direction stay consistent, not changing too often or too fast?
  • Significance:  Is the work highly visible to people that matter?  Is your work recognized and appreciated in ways that feel good? 

“This framework will work for you whether you’re a supervisor or an individual contributor,” Peng said.

Get Real About Work/Life Balance

It’s almost too obvious to say that agencies should care about their people in order to attract and maintain a happy, productive workforce. But while plenty of organizations talk about responding to their employees’ needs, many do little about it. And what does “care about” mean anyway?

In the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), agency leaders devised specific strategies to support OIT staff and alleviate employee burnout. Nathan Tierney, OIT’s Chief Human Talent Management Officer, said OIT wanted to understand the root causes of employee unhappiness. “Not just asking people,” he said, “but really diving into what was going on in their lives and how we could make some changes.”

One of the key takeaways was that work-life balance was a top priority for OIT employees, and so the agency designed and implemented (and continues to improve upon) a program that includes, among other items:

  • Clearly understood and measured business policies, programs and processes 
  • A culture of transparent communication and employee recognition
  • More telework and virtual work opportunities
  • A new enterprise coaching and mentoring program 
  • Institutionalizing healthy work practices into the OIT culture (such as regular coffee chats, “courageous conversations,” “Tinker Thursdays” and “Worthwhile Wednesdays”)

“Organizations that do not embrace the mantra ‘People First. Mission Always’ will struggle to modernize and be competitive,” Tierney said.

Switch Simple Questions to Get Different Outcomes

You’ve heard it before: Data is a key enabler of decision-making. But exactly how does it happen? How can data actually empower decision-making and drive transformation within government?

Asking questions is a start, but the key is to follow through. Think about the outcomes to guide data problem-solving, said Thomas Sasala, Chief Data Officer for the Department of the Navy. That may likely change the angle of the questions you ask.

Time-to-hire is one example. Data can help answer how long it takes to hire personnel, but that may not be the insight you ultimately want to know. 

“It’s not about 15 days or 45 days to hire. It’s about: Which one of the steps in the process is taking the most amount of time?” Sasala said.

In other words, you want to drill deeper into the problem you want to solve. What kinds of answers will help you take action?

“That’s how data will allow you to pivot from a relatively rudimentary, simple question of how long does it take to hire someone, into a business transformation mode of, we’re going to revamp our process,” Sasala said.

Pearl Kim, Candace Thorson and Nicole Blake Johnson contributed to this report.

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