Dealing with Disruptive Change? Protect the “Core”

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

When the country closed down in March 2020, Jill Clark sat at her desk wondering how the Jewish preschool she directed would survive. More than the financial challenge, she worried about the children; kids 2-5 thrive on social interaction. There was no way she and her staff were going to ask them to tune in on Zoom for daily instruction. What to do?

Jill, like all of us, was struggling with disruptive change. For decades, organizational theorists have said that the only constant is change. But today’s leaders know that it’s not just change that they contend with. It’s disruptive change, change that comes suddenly and makes a massive impact on millions of people. For instance, from 2001-2021 our country experienced:

• The 9-11 attacks.
• The Great Recession.
• Extreme weather events related to climate change: In 2020 we had so many major hurricanes that we ran out of names for them!
• The massive social justice movement launched after George Floyd’s murder.
• The @Me Too movement.
• The deep 2020 recession.
• Our hyper-partisan politics, which divide political parties as well as families.

And I haven’t even mentioned the coronavirus pandemic.

We humans aren’t suited for this kind of turmoil. Our brains are wired for predictability and control, and disruption threatens both. At the same time, disruptive change often leads to a surge of innovation. In 2020, numerous drive-in movie theaters that had sat empty for years became sites for weddings, private movie screenings, concerts, art shows and stand-up comedy. Communities which worried about Fourth of July parades that could create a surge in virus infections created “reverse parades;” the bands and floats sat stationery along the side of the parade route while spectators drove very slowly along the street to take it in. A Texas history teacher got in her car and took a 15-day road trip to several historical sites, narrating the history of each location, posting it on her YouTube channel, Instagram, and Twitter accounts so she could interact with her students in real time. And that’s a tiny sample of the remarkable innovations we saw in 2020.

How Can We Manage During Times of Disruptive Change?

There are numerous answers, of course. But here’s a good place to start. Take a tip from the authors of Built to Last, who captured the characteristics of 18 companies that maintained high performance for several decades. One of the characteristics was, “Preserve the core, stimulate progress.” The “core” is the firm’s set of shared beliefs and purpose. It provides a sense of identity, a base of continuity that doesn’t change. At the 3M company, those include collaboration and innovation. At Johnson and Johnson they have a “Credo” that identifies the stakeholders they’re committed to serving, in order of importance. Their consumers are first; interestingly, shareholders come last. And “stimulate progress” acknowledges the fact that in a continually changing and unpredictable environment, the organization must change with it—everything, that is, except its core.

When managing during disruptive times:

1. Preserve the “core,” and
2. Be willing to change everything else.

When disruptive change hits, it’s critical to focus on the organization’s core. It reminds people what’s most important and must be protected. Moreover, it helps meet our brain’s need for predictability and control. But we also need to be innovative on everything else because disruptive change demands flexibility. Perhaps ironically, reaffirming the core makes it easier for people to be creative in a changing world: it’s much easier to be adaptable when you know what you’re adapting from.

During the pandemic, drive-in theater owners maintained their core purpose—providing a way for people to be entertained together, separately—and found new ways to use its purpose to help people starved for social contacts. The history teacher protected her core purpose—bringing history alive for her students—as did local communities planning for July 4th—celebrating our nation’s independence together—in imaginative ways they never would have considered during “normal” times.

Back to Jill Clark and her dilemma: how could she keep her preschool running safely during the pandemic? In a webinar she learned about “forest schools,” which use the outdoors to help kids learn through exploration and discovery. There are some structured classes, but most of the time is spent learning holistically in the natural environment. This was a safe way to help kids learn together, which would protect her school’s core. But it required major changes in just about everything else: what would the parents and teachers say? Where to hold it? What training would be needed?

Jill started by consulting with the teachers. They had dreamed about integrating the
outdoors into their curriculum, so this was a great our opportunity. They were intrigued, but also nervous. It was a huge change, and some were in their 50s. Then she met with parents.

“They were shocked!” she recalled. But as she described it parents got on board, and many helped design it. The staff organized kids into multi-age pods, keeping kids from the same families together. They worked out safety protocols, found a camp that wasn’t being used during the school year, and had the teachers attend a training program on the forest school model. Within two months the school was up and running. Here’s part of the letter Jill sent the parents as they and the teachers planned the new school program together:

“We want to be safe, we want to support each other, and we want what’s best for our children. We know we will not bounce back to how we operated in the past, but instead we will “bounce forward” to a new reality. We will partner in a way that we can be together, use new safety protocols, and imagine a new school focusing on developmental growth while emphasizing Jewish values and practice through a nurturing and stimulating environment.”

The forest school opened in the summer of 2020 and has been a resounding success. Jill’s story demonstrates the power of preserving the core and adapting on everything else when dealing with disruptive change.

For more on forest schools:

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Leading by Indirection

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

I love to sail. As any decent sailor knows, you can’t sail directly into the wind, even if that’s where your ultimate destination lies. But you can usually get there by “tacking” back and forth, learning how to read the currents and breezes, keeping a firm hand on the tiller and paying attention to timing.

Leaders often face the same dilemma. They may have a clear goal in mind, only to learn that they’re flying into the wind. Powerful constituents oppose you. Perhaps your staff doesn’t buy in, or there’s no funding for the idea. And sometimes the stars seem aligned, and then a major event occurs and everything else is put on the back burner. These speed bumps occur even more often during the kind of disruptive times that we’re experiencing today. There are myriad reasons why change requires leaders to be flexible, think creatively, and seek other ways to achieve their goal. In short, they need to learn the art of “leading by indirection.” Here’s an example:

Karen, a social services manager, led a division that dealt with child sexual abuse. This is a terrible and complex issue, often involving other organizations like police, health departments, and prosecutors. She met with leaders of those agencies and they all agreed they should work more closely together, but nothing was changing. The leaders were focused on other demands. Since her direct approach wasn’t working, Karen took a different route.  

She did her homework and learned of a collaboration model that was working in other communities. It involved co-locating professionals from agencies that spend the most time on child sexual abuse. Housing these professionals in the same space helps build relationships, which leads to much more collaboration and information sharing. Now that she had a proven model to offer, could she convince the agency leaders to try it?

Rather than meet with the agency leaders again, she found middle managers in the three key agencies who worked on child sex abuse issues and shared her concern about the need for more collaboration. They liked the co-location model. Then she learned about a co-location training session being offered in another state. The three managers agreed to attend and planned to meet at the session. Karen suggested they drive there together. “Let’s save some gas, the meals will be on me. It’ll be a fun road trip.” Even though two of the three didn’t know each other, they agreed. That road trip became a team-building activity. They had time to learn about each other outside of their work responsibilities. And the trip back from the training gave them several hours to compare notes on what they’d learned and how to move forward.

Long story short: The middle managers sold their agency directors on the co-location idea, they tried it on a pilot basis, and continued it as they saw success. More information sharing meant more kids were being rescued from terrible situations and more perpetrators getting caught. Karen had learned the art of leading by indirection.


Those who learn how to lead indirectly are usually good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

When Karen’s initial efforts toward collaboration went nowhere, she considered the situation. The agency directors weren’t responding, so she was flexible and looked for a different strategy. Courting the managers made sense; they were already eager for collaboration and just needed someone to offer a way to get started. Urging the managers to drive together allowed their ideas to “ripen,” which was critical. And Karen was very pragmatic. She’d originally hoped to try the model for one year. When two of the agency directors balked, she suggested they first pilot the idea for several months, and they agreed. Karen understood the importance of timing.

            Karen was a middle manager; she didn’t have the authority to direct the other managers to work with her. But even leaders who have that authority often need to lead indirectly. Here’s an example from the Hebrew Bible:

In the book of Exodus, when the Pharaoh finally allows the enslaved Israelites to leave,  God is ready to bring the people to the promised land. But God doesn’t lead them in that direction. Au contraire, God leads the people south, away from the promised land. Why? The direct route is occupied by a powerful tribe. God says, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.” God is reading the situation as well as the people’s readiness for battle. The timing is wrong, God is flexible and changes course.

People trying to speak out against wrongdoing often lead by indirection when the direct route hasn’t worked. A classic example has to do with unidentified flying objects. A small, secret Pentagon office has tracked reported sightings of UFOs since 2007. Numerous sightings were deemed credible, meaning there was video evidence showing the objects moving at remarkable speeds and making sudden changes in ways that had never seen before and couldn’t be explained. The office’s director, Luis Elizondo, studied the videos and interviewed several Navy pilots who’d witnessed these phenomena and were concerned that the government wasn’t doing enough to investigate. He urged his superiors to reveal the office’s existence, arguing that UFOs are real, we’re studying them because they have national security implications, the public and Congress should know. Nobody listened to him.

So in the fall of 2017 he resigned and then told the New York Times about the office and its evidence of UFOs. The Times investigated the allegations and then printed the story. It prompted enormous public interest in the country and on Capitol Hill. The government finally acknowledged the office’s existence, and members of Congress began demanding more information about UFOs. (“60 Minutes” ran a segment about this on May 16, 2021, and the Times story is at

It’s important to note that leading by indirection as I’m describing it isn’t unethical. These leaders weren’t trying to manipulate people, nor were they hiding their true intentions. They had a clear goal and were open about it, the direct path to their goal didn’t work, so like good sailors they tacked.

Let’s take another look at some characteristics of people who lead indirectly. As mentioned above, they are good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

What about you? How would you assess yourself on these five characteristics? Which ones would you like to improve?

[To purchase this book]

Blog for the DOD Family Readiness System.

Recently I delivered a webinar for the Military Families Learning Network ( which helps organizations that provide services to military families to share ideas, information, and resources in order to better serve their clients. The conference theme was Relationships for Readiness. My topic was Collaborating Across Organizational Boundaries.

We used some polls in the webinar. One of them asked participants to assess themselves on the five characteristics of effective collaborative leaders: Which of these characteristics are strengths?

Here are the results (participants could select more than one):

Listen carefully to understand others’ perspectives: 66%
Thinks systemically: connect the initiative to a larger purpose: 55%
Have great determination, resolve: keep ego in check: 50%
Look for win-win possibilities: 37%
Use more “pull” than “push”: 24%

As you can see, participants rated themselves lowest on seeking win-win possibilities and using “pull” more than “push.” Push is using the formal authority of our position. Pull involves tapping something internal in others – a value, a goal, a source of motivation. And win-win possibilities – solutions that benefit both (or all) parties – are possible when people don’t assume that life is a “zero-sum game;” that your gain must be at my loss.

These poll results are consistent with my experience in working with government and nonprofit officials for over 35 years. There are good reasons why these two skills are difficult for most. One of the biggest challenges to win-win thinking is that people must first believe that collaboration can be in everyone’s interest. But we Americans tend to be very competitive people; according to some studies we’re the 5th most litigious country in the world, and most people see competition as a win-lose game.

And why is it that most of us have a hard time with “pull?” Several reasons. We’re more familiar with push. Push is quicker (though not usually as effective). Pull is more indirect, and it requires knowing what motivates others; it can require a lot of trial and error.

Given these “speed bumps,” how can we improve our use of these two key collaborative leadership skills? It may be easier than you think. After all, both pull and win-win have something in common: they both require knowing the other person or group’s values, motivations, and interests. And here’s the good news: as our poll shows, most of us think we’re good at understanding other people’s perspectives. In fact, it was the most frequently-cited strength among our webinar participants. So we can use a proven strategy for making a change: use a strength to address a weakness.

Here are some examples of using a strength – understanding others’ perspectives – to employ pull and win-win solutions:

  • Ask certain questions that give you a clue as to your colleagues’ values, goals and sources of motivation. Questions like, which work activities do you find most meaningful? Which give you energy? I sometimes ask my clients, “When are you at your best at work?”
  • When Steve Jobs was looking for an experienced executive to become Apple’s CEO in 1983, he started courting John Sculley from Pepsi. Sculley kept saying he was happy where he was. Nothing Jobs said could change his mind. Finally Jobs made a different pitch; he asked Sculley, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water to teens, or do you want to come to Apple and help us change the world?” That hooked Sculley. It touched one of his values. And he took the job at Apple.
  • The HR director at a large university was known for his ability to hire and retain very competent staff. I interviewed most of his 10 senior staff to learn how he did it. They all said the same thing; he made them feel “special.” And how did he make them feel special? They reported that the director was an excellent observer and listener, and over time he discovered talents in each one, sometimes talents that they didn’t see in themselves. He told each what he saw in them. He gave them expanded opportunities to use those strengths, even in ways that weren’t part of their job description. They learned, they grew, and they thrived in that environment.
  • I’ve used a variation of the HR director’s approach while facilitating collaborative teams. If certain team members aren’t very active in the group’s discussions, or seem to be displeased with the team’s functioning, I sometimes talk with them between meetings. I’ll mention something positive they’ve said or done, and that I think they can contribute a lot to our success. Then I ask how they think the team is doing and what the team needs to do to improve. Usually they open up, and identify something that’s bothering them about the team. Then I ask if they can use some of their strengths to help the team succeed. It often works well. It pulls them in, and everyone wins.

Using pull and seeking win-win solutions takes time. It requires us to think from the other’s point of view. It’s easier and quicker to use “push,” easier to focus only on what we need. With push we can get compliance, but using pull and finding win-win approaches usually results in commitment. And there’s a world of difference between the two.

Organizational Miscommunication? There’s a Good Way to Avoid It.

It’s all too easy for team members to misunderstand something. Effective leaders know the value of the “pre-brief.”

In a 1993 survey of 531 companies that had undergone major restructuring, the study’s authors asked the firms’ CEOs this question: If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? The CEOs’ most frequent response? “The way I communicated with my employees.”

Having worked with senior executives not only in the private and nonprofit sectors but also across all levels of government, I’ve been struck by the number of public-sector leaders who are just as frustrated as those CEOs were because their messages don’t seem to stick. Here’s a stunning example:

On Jan. 13, 1975, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team played Davidson. Terry Holland was in his first season as Virginia’s coach. He had been Davidson’s coach until the year before, so he knew the opponent well. With one minute to play and the score tied, Virginia had the ball and Holland called time out. He outlined the play: UVa would hold on to the ball until the last 10 seconds (there was no shot clock then), and the point guard would pass the ball to Dan Bonner, the team’s captain.

But when 10 seconds remained, the point guard took a shot! He missed. Bonner got the rebound and scored as time ran out. But rather than celebrate, Bonner was furious. He grabbed the guard and yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?” The guard replied, “I was supposed to take the last shot!”

The play that Holland had given the team wasn’t complicated. Everyone else knew Bonner was supposed to shoot. But that’s not what the point guard heard (or, perhaps, wanted to hear).

There are multiple explanations for why the point guard didn’t follow the plan. Players were excited, running on adrenalin; the crowd was screaming; the point guard had been called on to take the last shot in some previous games. What could Coach Holland have done to prevent the mistake? What if, during the time out, he had asked each player to briefly state what he was supposed to do during the final minute of the game? Would that have seemed childish? A good idea? Waste of time? In fact, some of the most effective managers do just that in their own organizations.

Here’s an example. In some law-enforcement agencies before a major activity — say, a raid on a drug den — the team meets to conduct what I call a “pre-brief” (some call this a “brief-back”) to review the plan just before executing it. Each team member states where they’ll be, at what time, to take what action. Sometimes they include what’s going to happen just before they act. The exercise might take no more than two or three minutes. And it offers many benefits:

  • The team leader learns if anyone is confused.
  • It reminds everyone of their colleagues’ roles, which is critical if someone makes a mistake during the activity and others have to cover for them.
  • Team members can also review their Plan B — what they will do if something goes awry.
  • It’s action-oriented, and gets people warmed up for the task.
  • It increases accountability.
  • And the team can determine if there are any remaining issues before starting.

This short, simple and powerful exercise can be used in many settings. Some IT units use it when deploying a new piece of software. It can help conference planning teams the day before the event begins. And many managers use a variation of the pre-brief on Monday mornings. They hold a “stand-up meeting,” at which their direct reports review key events from the previous week and the major tasks for the current week. At a good stand-up meeting, the leader also asks if anyone needs some assistance for any important tasks. A pre-brief is similar in its focus on action, roles and accountability. It differs in that it focuses entirely on an immediate task at hand.

Managers and leaders who use their own version of a pre-brief know a fundamental reality about organizational communications: Many people don’t hear things accurately the first time. People may think they do, but there’s often a gap between what was said and what people heard. And that’s especially true during major organizational changes.

Pre-briefs can go a long way toward eliminating that problem. They can help you know whether what you said and what your team members heard is the same, and enable you to take immediate action when there’s a gap. Leading organizations in today’s turbulent environment is complex and challenging. Nothing is more critical than getting the communications right.

A Management Mantra for Turbulent Times: ‘Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry’

It’s critical for public leaders to take the time to distinguish the signal from the noise.

News of the Boston Marathon bombing shows on a TV screen in a Boston bar. (AP/Elise Amendola)

In today’s world of 24/7 news cycles, endless “BREAKING NEWS!” alerts, viral conspiracy theories and constant charges of “fake news,” it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t. Statisticians have terms for this dilemma. They talk about “signal” and “noise.” “Signal” is information that’s accurate and relevant. “Noise” is everything else. It’s rumors, gossip and deliberate disinformation, as well as accurate information that’s not of use for the issue you’re addressing.

Separating signal from noise is increasingly difficult. It’s also a critical part of managers’ and leaders’ jobs — no more so than in the public sector, where failure to separate signal from noise can even threaten public safety. Case in point:

At approximately 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, just minutes after the Boston Marathon bombings, a report started circulating that another explosion had occurred, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library just a few miles from the site of the Marathon explosions. Soon, the Boston Police Department started circulating reports to the media that the library had been damaged by an explosion that may or may not have been related to the earlier bombings. At a 3:50 p.m. press conference, the police chief said that he didn’t know if the two events were related but that “we are treating them as if they are.”

It turns out there was no explosion. A fire had broken out in one part of the library building, and it had been quickly extinguished. But the police didn’t acknowledge it as a fire until two and a half hours after the first reports of an explosion, despite the fact that staff at the library had simply reported a fire.

You might be wondering, so what? The original report was overstated. No big deal. It’s a fair question. The answer is, the time and effort that the police invested in checking into the library “explosion” was time and effort that wasn’t available to track down the perpetrators of the Marathon bombing.

In other words, there are real costs when managers mistake noise for signal. And there’s an awful lot of noise out there today, especially on the Internet.

What to do?

We can take a lesson from Tony Bennett, the coach of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team and one of the most successful basketball coaches in the country in recent years. One reason for his success: Unlike many coaches, he puts a premium on listening, not just talking.

Consider, for instance, what happens when there’s a time-out on the court. Bennett spends most of the two or three minutes listening as his assistant coaches describe what they’ve observed. In this photo, Bennett is in the circle on the right with hands on his hips, surrounded by his assistants.

Then, with perhaps 30 seconds left in the time-out, Bennett sits down in front of his players and gives them a few things to do differently when play resumes:

Asked why he maintains this routine, he explains that, like his father (who also coached basketball), he used to lose his temper during times of stress. But he didn’t like blowing up at the players. So he created this simple structure during time-outs to avoid responding in the heat of the moment: Listen to his assistants, gather his thoughts, cool down and then engage the players. Everyone benefits — the assistant coaches as well as the players, who have time to think and talk together before their head coach weighs in.

Tony Bennett is following an idea long preached by another legendary men’s basketball coach, UCLA’s John Wooden: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” Bennett quickly gathers information and various perspectives from his assistants, but he doesn’t hurry his decision (what to convey to his players). Public leaders and managers should take a page from Wooden’s playbook:

  • Be quick. Quick to meet with people whose judgment you trust. Quick to decide what information you need to determine whether an apparent problem or opportunity is important to investigate. Quick to assess the credibility of the people presenting the information.
  • But don’t hurry. By quickly taking the steps listed above, you won’t be forced to hurry where it counts the most: deciding and acting.

The environment in which public-sector managers operate today is filled with noise of every kind. Public employees are often distracted and rattled by the noise that passes for news: rumors of another downsizing, talk of “churn at the top,” worries about next year’s budget. Managers can help their employees focus on the important signals — valid information that’s relevant to their mission — by following Tony Bennett’s and John Wooden’s lead. Be quick … so that you don’t have to hurry.

A Model for Agility in the Public Sector

Search and rescue task forces need to deploy at a moment’s notice, and they have to be ready for any challenges they may encounter.

Pick up just about any public-administration journal and you’re likely to read about the increasing demands for agencies to be more flexible and agile in our wildly turbulent and unpredictable environment. We can learn something about intergovernmental collaboration, flexibility and agility from a set of organizations that have been dealing with turbulence — in the literal sense — since they were formed in 1989: urban search and rescue task forces.

Teams from the national network of 28 US&R task forces deploy to jurisdictions nationwide when floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and other disasters overwhelm local first responders. The network was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the task forces are managed by their local jurisdictions, and the majority of their members are local first responders. The localities pay, train and deploy the task forces; FEMA provides financial and technical support.

When FEMA receives a request for assistance, it determines which US&R task forces to send. They must be ready to deploy within six hours of notification. Once on scene, the local incident commander provides direction.

Task force members do more than search and rescue. They also provide emergency medical care for trapped victims, conduct hazmat surveys and stabilize damaged structures. The task forces were praised for their quick and effective response during the massive storms that battered Texas, Florida and Caribbean islands in 2017.

The task forces may have as many as 220 members, almost all of them working other jobs. Their managers give them time off for the frequent training sessions and occasional deployments. They don’t all deploy to an emergency. Rather, they deploy in what are called “mission-ready packages” — smaller groups of specialists to meet a specific need. These groups range in size from 15 to 35 people, depending on the specific requirements. Fairfax County, Va., which hosts one of the two oldest task forces, sent a team of 16 to help during Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that hit Texas in August 2017, for example. A typical deployment may last a week or two. During longer deployments, task force members rotate off and are replaced.

Membership in a US&R task force can be quite prestigious. Fairfax County replaces only 12 to 15 of its members a year. Some applicants wait years before being selected. And the training is rigorous. New Fairfax members train part-time for 12 to 18 months before they can deploy.

Once deployed, the US&R members must prove their value. “Our top priority is to meet the needs of the local emergency management leaders,” says Rick Roatch, the Fairfax County deputy fire chief who oversees its US&R task force. “We start by asking, ‘What are the key tasks you need: Helping people get access to their homes? Evacuating people?’ We make sure that our commanders bring a ‘we’re here to serve’ attitude, and do whatever’s needed.” That’s especially important because US&R is sponsored by a federal agency. State and local leaders often complain about feds who come to their communities with a “we know best” attitude.

Interestingly, task force members don’t develop trust through formal team-building exercises. Rather, trust develops through their continuous training. While members usually train within their own specialist group, the Fairfax task force also holds an annual week-long simulation requiring each member to interact with all specialist units. Bottom line: Formal team-building programs aren’t needed because the members already know, trust and respect each other.

Agility is as important as trust for the task forces. “Sometimes a local commander will announce, ‘We need a US&R team to leave in 30 minutes to take care of an emerging situation,'” says Chris Schaff, Fairfax County’s US&R program manager. “Our members always volunteer for those quick turnarounds.”

What contributes to the task forces’ agility? Some of the key factors:

  • The use of relatively small teams, with relationships built on trust.
  • Their multi-skilled members’ ability to address a variety of needs, combined with year-round training that emphasizes the need to make decisions and act rapidly.
  • The nature of their mission, which attracts action-oriented people.
  • High standards: Once selected, task force members must continually demonstrate teamwork, flexibility and responsiveness.
  • And “line-of-sight”: US&R members can see (and touch, and save) the people they’re serving.

Much of the US&R model is widely applicable across the public sector, and it demonstrates that governmental collaboration and agility are attainable goals, even in the most turbulent of times.

For a good overview of how US&R task forces operate, watch this video.

The Question Governments Need to Ask: How Are We Doing?

There is a range of customer-feedback tools, including very simple ones.

Ed Koch was the brusque, feisty, confident mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. He loved engaging people, and whenever he walked the city’s streets or gave a speech he asked his signature question: “How’m I doing?” People were taken by his openness and chutzpah, and loved to tell him what they thought.

Back then, Koch was almost unique in continually asking how he — and by extension, the city government he led — was doing. Today, of course, we’re bombarded by hotels, car-rental companies, online retailers and others that pester us for feedback on the services they provide. Governments are also getting into the feedback game, and it’s a smart thing to do. Governments ought to focus on customer service just as much as hotels and car-rental companies do. But how do you find how your agency is doing?

The usual answers include surveys, focus groups, individual interviews with key stakeholders, program participation numbers, and number and types of complaints received. All have strengths and limitations. Surveys are the most efficient way to capture large numbers of responses … if people fill them out. They may tell us where to look, but they lack depth. Focus groups, on the other hand, allow us to probe deeply for the reasons why small numbers of customers do or don’t like a particular service. The number of people attending a class or requesting a service is important for management purposes, but the numbers alone don’t reveal the reasons behind an increase or decrease — quality? cost? convenience? competition?

Tracking complaints (as well as praise) is important, as long as the results are understood in context. One federal survey found, for example, that people share their experiences of poor service with seven other people on average, while they share their good service experiences with only three others. And certain agencies are going to get higher customer scores than others simply because of their missions: The tax department’s scores are never going to rival the library’s. Managers who don’t understand that will create fear among staff rather than an openness to examining the data.

What to do? Here are a few tips:

• Use customer feedback to continually improve service, not as a punitive tool.

• Ask program managers what kind of customer-satisfaction data would be useful for them as management tools. They’ll be motivated to use such data.

• Use more than one method. Surveys can be helpful if accompanied by individual or group interviews.

• Keep surveys very short (four or five questions, max, for most purposes), in order to increase the response rate. You can use longer surveys with certain customer groups that are motivated to complete them, such as those who have registered complaints.

• Publicize changes you’ve made that were the result of customer feedback. Doing so can increase your response rate.

• Pay attention to trend lines. If a new permitting system is developed, track customer satisfaction in the months before and after implementation.

Surveys and focus groups certainly have their place, but so do simpler, automated customer-feedback tools. One that’s gaining a lot of attention is the HappyOrNot system, which offers a simple way to get real-time feedback from large numbers of customers. HappyOrNot uses terminals with four “smiley face” buttons — signifying very happy, somewhat happy, somewhat unhappy or very unhappy. Customers simply push the button that reflects their experience. The data are fed wirelessly to a web-based collection and reporting system. Responses are date- and time-stamped, allowing managers to monitor trends by time and location. People who would never fill out a 15-item questionnaire are willing to pause, touch one of the buttons and go on their way.

Thousands of businesses are using this system in countries around the world, and it’s beginning to catch on in government, where a number of U.S. hospitals, airports, and passport and Social Security offices, along with some cities and counties, have installed HappyOrNot terminals. Riverside, Calif., has used the system since 2015, when its city council identified enhanced customer service as its top priority. There are HappyOrNot terminals at 11 city departments, as well as on the city’s website (go to and wait about 15 seconds for the smiley and frowny faces to appear). The city is also using HappyOrNot terminals to monitor employee morale, a creative way to keep a finger on the pulse of the workforce.

You can create your own version of the happy-face product. It works because it’s easy to understand, takes just a few seconds to use, is available immediately after service is provided, and provides location and time-specific information about the feedback. When managers receive ongoing customer feedback data and dig beneath the numbers to learn what they mean, they can make much better decisions.

Ed Koch died in 2013, so we’ll never know what he might have thought of something like HappyOrNot, but it’s reasonable to speculate that he might have liked the idea. How easy is it for your customers to answer the question, “How are we doing?”

Giving Public Employees the Power to Use Their Judgment

There are risks, and there still must be accountability. But some leaders have shown the way.

As a public official, how can you empower the members of your staff to use their judgment and creativity and still maintain accountability? That’s a classic management issue, and there’s no one solution. But we can learn from leaders who have handled this well.

On Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard was appointed the principal federal official in charge. He said he was mortified by the scope of the destruction and amazed that thousands of first responders were wandering around, trying to be helpful but with no guidance.

Allen recounted how he dealt with that situation: He called an all-hands meeting. Some 2,500 people attended. He got up on a desk, explained his role and then said, “You need to listen to me — this is an order. You’re to treat everybody that you come in contact with that’s been impacted by this storm as if they were a member of your family — your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. … And if you do that, two things will happen: Number one, if you make a mistake, you will probably err on the side of doing too much. And number two, if anybody has a problem with what you did, their problem’s with me, not you.”

Some people gasped, Allen said. Some started to weep. There was a great feeling of relief, “because nobody had told them what was important, what was valued, what their roles should be, and that their boss was behind them,” he reflected.

It was a classic example of empowerment. These valiant first responders who’d been so humiliated in the press finally understood how to carry out their roles and that their leader had their backs.

Here’s a second example, one that’s far less dramatic and can be applied to everyday operations as well as emergencies:

When the Phoenix police department started to develop its community policing program in the 1990s, an assistant police chief found a simple way to empower the officers, to make it easy for them to go out of their way to help people, without having to run it up several management levels. He gave officers business cards. One side listed these five questions:

  • Is it right for the community?
  • Is it right for the department?
  • Is it ethical and legal?
  • Is it consistent with our values and policies?
  • Is it something I’m willing to be accountable for?

And on the flip side was the following:

If the answers to these questions are “YES,” don’t ask permission. JUST DO IT!

Community policing is about fostering trust and relationships. It requires officers to use their judgment rather than being rigidly rule-oriented. And if you want people to use judgment and still be accountable, you need to give them some clear guidance.

That’s what the card accomplishes. Suppose you’re a Phoenix officer patrolling in your squad car. You see an older lady walking slowly with some bags of groceries. Looks like she could use a lift. But you’re not supposed to allow someone like her to ride in the squad car. It violates the rules; you could get in trouble. With the new card, however, it’s a no-brainer. Of course you’d give her a ride. It helps her, and it shows her (and others) that you have a heart. And if your superior questions you, you can explain that you had checked off of the questions on the card.

The same five questions can help officers in high-risk situations, such as when they’re in hot pursuit of a suspect. Sometimes these situations call for an aggressive response; in others, de-escalation may be the better route. These are judgment calls, and reflecting on the five questions both gives officers support and holds them accountable.

If you try this approach with your own staff, how will you respond when (inevitably) mistakes occur? Yes, there are risks here. They can be minimized if you invest time in communicating with your staff about the questions or guiding principles and discussing “what-if” scenarios. Make such discussions a regular part of your staff meetings. Over time, staff will learn how far is too far and when to ask for help.

What about you? If you were to give your staff a few questions or guiding principles to empower them without losing accountability, what would they be?

Avoiding Another Charlottesville

There is plenty that local officials can do to avert the kind of deadly violence that erupted in the Virginia city.

When chaos broke out during protests in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, many Americans wondered why police seemed to be standing back. Despite intelligence that neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist extremists planned to come to Charlottesville heavily armed and expecting violence, the city’s law-enforcement response was widely seen as inadequate.

Before the day was over, one Charlottesville resident had been killed and more than 20 people had been injured when an extremist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. How, many wondered, could that have happened with almost a thousand city and state police deployed to maintain public order?

Stunned by the events that had unfolded in a usually quiet university town, local law-enforcement and political leaders across the country began serious efforts to “avoid another Charlottesville” should demonstrators bent on violence come to their communities. How can localities prepare for demonstrations that pose a clear threat to safety? Fortunately, there is a wealth of emergency management expertise to draw on:

Before the event:

• Gather intelligence on the demonstrators and their leaders. Tom Martin, a retired Virginia State Police captain and the state’s point person for several emergencies, puts it this way: “You have to learn who are these people are. What’s their track record? How reliable are they?”
• Communicate with the groups’ leaders, clarifying expectations. “One of the most significant things you can do when you have two kinds of volatile groups is to meet with them beforehand and establish strong lines of communications. You want to establish the rules of engagement,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
• Seek assistance from the state’s fusion center (an information-sharing entity staffed by intelligence and law-enforcement professionals). Fusion center staff can monitor the protest groups and tell local and state officials about their plans and their expected numbers.
• Based on the information gathered, develop a plan. It must include clear goals, a set of contingencies and a variety of possible law-enforcement responses. “It might be to contain and arrest, to prevent violence or to disperse crowds,” says Martin. Determine what streets will be closed, where counter-demonstrations can take place, and what areas residents should avoid.
• Keep local elected leaders in the communications loop with public-safety officials. Bill Leighty, a nationally recognized crisis-management expert, emphasizes the importance of forming relationships prior to the event: “You don’t want to be handing out business cards in the emergency operations center!” And invite crisis-management experts to advise law enforcement and political leaders. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s wise to have experienced people on hand.
• Create a unified command structure, with one person in charge. Typically, this will be the local police or fire chief. That person should maintain continual communications with law enforcement and political leaders.
• Engage state and local police in joint training. When violence is possible, the training must include the methods for dealing with it, from de-escalation to dispersing crowds and making arrests. Joint training builds trust among the agencies.
• Create extra response capacity. The governor can place the National Guard on standby. Local hospitals can postpone elective surgeries.

During the event:

There is no one formula for responding to events that become chaotic. But a few principles are clear:

• Establish one command post, where all information is integrated, viewed, discussed and disseminated to local and state leaders.
• Vet the information before acting on it. Initial information is often inaccurate. That’s what happened prior to riots in Virginia Beach in 1989. “The governor was told that a bunch of drunkards and drug addicts were coming,” Leighty recalls. “And that’s what law enforcement was expecting. Turned out it was a group of college kids looking for a good time.” Things nearly came to bloodshed at Virginia Beach because law-enforcement leaders were prepared to act on false information. Leighty concludes, “I always say, ‘if you’re planning for a riot, you’ll get a riot.'”
• Designate who will communicate to the community and media. That may be an elected official, a city manager or other top-level administrator, or the police chief. If the task is shared, there must be one consistent message, telling residents what’s known, dispelling false rumors and giving people the information they need to remain safe.
• Station significant numbers of police between hostile groups. Otherwise you’re asking for just the kind of trouble that Charlottesville experienced; there, city officials reported, demonstrators didn’t enter the park they had agreed to use, preventing police from creating a barrier between the two groups. And organize for maximum flexibility. For instance, if police don’t want to increase tensions by stationing officers in riot gear at a demonstration, ensure that those who are in riot gear can get to the site very quickly.

After the event:

When hostile groups collide, mistakes are likely. Blame doesn’t help, but a thorough and objective after-action review does. It’s essential to take a clear-eyed look at what happened: Did we follow the plan? Did we change tactics as events required? How well did we maintain communications? What are the key lessons learned?

There are no perfect examples of emergency management when hostile groups threaten violence. But when government leaders use these principles, most people will forgive them when the inevitable mistakes occur.

The Agility That Governments Need for a Disruptive Age

Public-sector organizations aren’t designed for it, but some are finding ways to make it part of their culture.

It’s no secret that the environment affecting public and private organizations is becoming extraordinarily turbulent. Change is not only occurring more quickly, it’s also increasingly unpredictable and disruptive. And most organizations aren’t designed to adapt quickly and intelligently.

When large corporations don’t see disruptive change coming, it can be devastating for their bottom line (consider the Big 3 automakers and the challenges posed by foreign competition). In other cases, it can threaten the very existence of companies with long, proud histories. Kodak’s downfall was precipitated by its difficulty in transitioning to digital technology. (Ironically, It was a Kodak engineer who created the first digital camera in 1975. Management’s reaction was, “That’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it!” In 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy.)

For public agencies that don’t have the agility to adapt to major change, the implications are different. They’re more likely to lose reputation, credibility and relationships with key stakeholders. In the 1980s and ’90s, public schools, social services and public-housing agencies were slow to respond to the public’s frustration with programs perceived as ineffective. One of the results: major changes mandated by elected officials, some of which (such as the federal No Child Left Behind education law) seemed to create more problems than they solved.

It’s no surprise that public agencies are often slow to adapt. That’s what our Constitution’s framers wanted. Their overriding goal was to avoid the tyranny of another king. Checks and balances, and the division of power between the federal and state governments, became primary tools for achieving that goal. In that sense, their system has been a brilliant success. But it came at a great cost. Today, we’re chasing fast-moving 21st-century problems using snail’s-pace 18th-century models.

Here’s the good news: A number of public agencies are finding creative ways to become more agile in the face of disruptive change. Here are four approaches:

1. Dedicated units that identify emerging challenges and develop innovative responses: One example is a “bimodal information-technology organization,” which combines two IT units with very different objectives and cultures. The Mode 1 unit is focused on efficiency and stability; it manages ongoing IT operations. The (much smaller) Mode 2 unit deals with innovation and change; it develops creative approaches to emerging problems and helps the Mode 1 staff learn how to implement those approaches. Boston’s celebrated and widely replicated Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has been a pathbreaking Mode 2 unit. And the spread of dedicated innovation units and data-analysis teams in recent years has brought new agility to city governments.

2. The use of crowdsourcing to quickly find creative solutions to emerging issues: In 2011, the city of Mesa, Ariz., created “iMesa,” a crowdsourcing platform to engage its residents in their local government and its services. In the five years after iMesa’s launch, more than 400 ideas were submitted and 46 were selected and implemented, including two urban community gardens, a downtown “hacker space,” a collaborative workspace called “Thinkspot” and a new 140-acre park. (The iMesa platform is currently offline, with “iMesa 2.0” in the works.) At the federal level, leverages crowdsourcing by enabling agencies to describe technical, scientific and other problems and allowing anyone (in government or out) to propose solutions. Agencies give cash prizes to competition winners.

3. Collaborative networks and task forces that join organizations with similar missions: These efforts create their own identity and often can respond creatively and quickly to sudden opportunities — or threats. Joint terrorism task forces, for example, pool the skills and knowledge of law-enforcement and intelligence personnel from all three levels of government. They develop the trust needed to share information and work as one team, responding quickly to break up terrorist cells and prevent attacks.

4. An agile culture across an entire organization: When Bill Leighty took over the Virginia Retirement System in 1995, it was badly in need of a transformation. It had silos within silos. The mantra was, “This is how we do things, we can’t change.” Leighty’s initiatives included a “dumb rules” contest (to identify and eliminate those that made no sense); cross-functional teams empowered to implement major process changes; employee road trips to learn what key stakeholders needed; and a leadership team that employed “managing by wandering around.” These steps created a vibrant and agile culture in the agency, one that continues to adapt to change today.

The first three of these approaches are much easier to implement; they don’t disrupt an organization’s culture. The fourth — making the entire organization more agile — is far harder. It requires changes in how people are hired, trained and evaluated; new skillsets and attitudes; the ability to sense emerging changes; and a special kind of leadership. What approach will you and your colleagues take to develop the agility needed for these disruptive times?