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Posted by on Sep 2, 2010

Just Do It

This year’s results for the best and worst places to work in the federal government are out. Winners and losers.

If an agency shows up on the Partnership for Public Service’s “worst” list there prima facie is a question around what to do about it. (Unless the leadership decides it doesn’t really matter. This then becomes a much deeper problem.)

So virtually every agency wanting to make progress on this front naturally wants to know, “What should we do now? How do we ‘fix’ this?”

The bad news, to quote an old slogan, is: “You can’t get there from here.”

This may seem discouraging, but if it discourages quick-fixes, Band-Aids and superficial remedies, that’s good. If it makes eager beavers stop for a minute and think, that’s good, too.

To make sense of this, it’s important to step back for a minute and think a bit differently. The best way to start this inquiry is to realize a fundamental truth of organizations: “Everything that happens in any system makes sense.”

This may be galling to those who have scratched their heads in bewilderment over meetings, decisions, conversations or outcomes, but trust me — to someone, somewhere, whatever happens makes sense. You may not agree with it, but the person who has the decision doesn’t intentionally make stupid decisions, with the intent of creating dysfunction, drama or poor results. Those may, and often do, result, but they are not the goal.

So the plot thickens. To advance our understanding further, it’s important to realize that all those policies, procedures, actions, decisions, conversations, meetings, regulations and outcomes that were the basis of the organization getting deep-sixed as a place to work were actually logical or sensible in someone’s world – probably the one person or persons who made the call.

Edgar Schein said, “If you want to really understand any system, just try to change it.”

Let’s make this tangible.

Assume that a lack of flex-time is a reason the place got low marks. Well, someone, somewhere decided that it was more important to have people there when he or she wanted them there than the employees have autonomy over hours.

Another example: Perhaps telecommuting is not an option. Why? Someone doesn’t trust employees to be productive at home.

Another: Recognition is lacking. Reason: Managers don’t want to give positive feedback because “people will get big heads.” (We actually hear this one frequently.)

Finally: Leadership doesn’t communicate much. Reason: “We’re really busy getting work out the door. We don’t have time.” (We hear this almost all the time.)

Executive coaches have a concept called “breaking the coherence” that is important here. It means that clients often have a very tightly wrapped “story” around why they do what they do — even when it is not working. The coherent story explains, justifies and rationalizes whatever they are doing. The coach’s breaking of the coherence can mean challenging the story, pointing out the rotten fruits of it, or holding a deep assumption up for re-examination.

The point is: Organizations can’t fix what is broken until the coherence that gave rise to whatever is wrong is broken or shifted in some meaningful way. People will not arbitrarily change behavior until their underlying values, priorities, agendas and interests start to shift.

When the leadership of those bottom-dwelling agencies start to ask: “Well, how did we get here? What happened that we missed?” they can start to open new doors, not just stay in the room and re-arrange the existing furniture. Perhaps the leadership can even ask, “How can we involve those who are unhappy in creating solutions?”

This is new coherence, and can lead to meaningful change and results. It is strategic, not tactical thinking. But trying to get better numbers out of the mindset that put the agency at the bottom of the barrel is flawed at the most fundamental level.

“Just Do It” – the mantra for practically every organization these days — will not work in this case. You really can’t get there from here.

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