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?

Sexual Wrongdoing in the Government Workplace: the Leadership Challenge

Despite all the media coverage, assault and harassment remain too common. There’s a lot that public leaders could be doing.

We’ve seen more than enough sexual assault and harassment cases that were ignored for years or even decades. The Catholic Church scandal. Penn State and, more recently, Baylor University. The National Football League. The military service military academies and the Coast Guard. Some local government fire and police agencies. And that’s just a starter list.
At the National Park Service, complaints of sexual harassment and assault go back over 20 years. In one survey, 75 percent of female park police said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

The law on this subject is clear. Sexual assault is a crime. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as many state and local laws, prohibit both sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that employers are strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors if the employee suffers a tangible job detriment.

Given that the law is clear and that the media continue to report on sexual assault scandals, why does this ugly problem persist? Why do so many public-sector leaders seem unable or unwilling to take strong steps when serious allegations are made? And what can be done to turn the situation around?

There are a number of reasons for inaction. A 2014 survey of female firefighters provides some clues. Seventy percent of the survey respondents said they did not report their attacks. The reasons they gave — and some gave more than one — are familiar: emotional trauma and feelings of shame; a belief that their reports wouldn’t be taken seriously; fears of physical reprisal from attackers; and worry that they would lose their jobs.
In other words, fear is a major factor. But there are several others. Interviews with sexual assault victims in government agencies indicate:

• The internal reporting process is murky and often delayed by supervisors who want to keep incidents quiet.
• Some managers dismiss complaints as “simply a misunderstanding” between the supervisor and staff.
• The victim is often required to repeat her story multiple times to different people, which discourages many from pursuing their complaints.
• A hostile work environment exists, where sexist jokes, pornographic displays and unwanted sexual advances are common and ignored by management.
• Leaders want to protect the agency’s reputation, so they take mild steps such as moving the accused to a different unit.

The last factor is especially troubling. The leader may feel that he or she has acted appropriately, but the message to the staff is clear: You can sexually harass someone and get nothing but a mild tap on the wrist.

What can public managers do to prevent and address this ongoing scourge? Training and education are a good start. Henrico County, Va., for example, designed its own online training program on sexual harassment. All supervisors are required to complete it. The course defines sexual harassment, makes the laws on the subject clear and outlines the county’s procedures for handling claims of harassment.

Henrico’s approach emphasizes the importance of setting clear expectations for behaviors. Supervisors can’t complete the course until they get a grade of 100 on the final test. That’s unusual for government training programs, and it’s impressive. Many of the county’s supervisors have praised the training; several have gone through it with their staff members. And, in addition to supervisory training, all of Henrico’s new employees must watch and discuss “Let’s Get Honest,” a creative video about sexual harassment (it’s commercially available).

Another useful informational resource is the International City/County Management Association’s Effective Supervisory Practices: Better Results through Teamwork. Chapter 14 of the book, entitled “Ensuring a harassment-free and respectful workplace,” offers tips on, among other things, writing a harassment policy, responding to complaints, intervening effectively and protecting complainants from retaliation.

Unfortunately, however, information and training aren’t enough. They are helpful to those who want to do the right thing, but the best training program won’t change a hostile work environment or deter sexual predators. What’s needed is strong leadership — not just one leader, but a leadership team that is committed to creating a work culture that values and respects everyone.

Such teams are effective when they make clear that they have zero tolerance for any form of harassment and when they talk with genuine conviction about the importance of a culture built on respect. They should do so at new employee onboarding programs, at retreats with work units, at all-hands meetings. And leadership teams can help create respectful work cultures when they honor supervisors who take strong action against those who harass others.

They also make a difference when they ask groups of middle managers and supervisors what specific steps they’re taking to foster mutual respect — and hold them accountable for making respect a priority. When senior managers ask the same questions of their reports, over and over, people usually realize what their bosses want and care about, and follow suit. And leaders’ efforts gain credibility when they institute 360-degree reviews of managers and supervisors that include pointed questions about exactly what managers are doing to foster respect in their work units.

These kinds of actions will create healthier workplaces. They will help attract talented millennials who won’t put up with any sort of harassment at work. And they will make people proud of their organizations and their leaders.

When Performance Measures Go Horribly Wrong

They have a powerful influence. But unrealistic, unreachable goals can produce unethical behavior.

After the scandal erupted over the creation by Wells Fargo employees of more than 2 million bogus bank accounts, for which customers were charged over $2.5 million in unwarranted fees, the bank’s CEO claimed that it never wanted the accounts created, that it had fired 5,300 employees who were involved, and that he was “fully committed to … fix the issue and strengthen our culture.”

But here’s the problem: What happened at Wells Fargo wasn’t about culture. Nor was it about unethical employees, or about one senior executive who oversaw the program that led to these abuses (and walked away with an exit package worth over $100 million). No, this was a case of super-aggressive daily sales goals that were almost impossible to reach and where failure to reach them could lead to firings. As one expert on white-collar crime asserted, “This wouldn’t have happened without pressure from the top.”

We’ve seen this movie over and over in the public sector. Teachers and administrators in several public school systems have been caught correcting students answers on high-stakes tests, as a reaction to the enormous pressure they felt to improve student performance. In one of the worst cases, in 2011, an investigation found that 178 teachers and administrators in Atlanta’s schools had corrected student responses on standardized tests. Several of them went to jail.

The same kind of unethical behavior occurred on a wide scale at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, again because of high-stakes goals that were virtually impossible to meet. Supervisors directed front-line staff to cook the books to make it appear that all vets received a medical appointment within 14 days of requesting it — the department’s all-important performance measure. The huge number of troops who had been injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made it impossible for the VA to treat all vets so quickly. But there was intense pressure to do so, and that led hundreds of department staff and supervisors to falsify appointment records.

The old saying, “what gets measured gets managed,” is true. Performance measures have a very powerful influence on people’s behaviors. And that raises the key question: How do we know if the measures we use are appropriate? Here’s an example of one person who answered that question in a creative way:

In 1995, an excellent public-sector leader named Bill Leighty was named director of the Virginia Retirement System. He took over a deeply troubled agency. It was in turmoil because of a major scandal, support in the state legislature was almost nonexistent, and employee morale was in the basement. This agency had some of the most rigid silos I’ve ever seen. Leighty knew he had to make major changes quickly to raise morale and performance.

One of his early steps was to create a “dumb rules” contest. He invited employees to identify rules, measures and regulations that were getting in their way and leading them to do stupid things. After reviewing dozens of employee recommendations, Leighty noted that “we found about a third of these were outside our control, a third were rules we had written ourselves, and a third weren’t rules at all!”

By the end of this exercise, the agency staff had been relieved of rules and performance measures that wasted their time and, even worse, led to behaviors that lowered performance and customer service. And Leighty actively involved the employees whenever they developed new measures to ensure that those measures were meaningful and had no unintended consequences.

So when you look at your organization’s performance measures, ask yourself and your team a few simple questions:

• Which of these measures provide staff with operational information that’s truly useful?
• Which of them simply waste people’s time?
• Which ones promote collaboration and information sharing among staff?
• Which lead to unanticipated consequences that are harmful to customers?
• And perhaps most important, are the measures achievable? Do they focus on factors that staff can actually control?

Albert Einstein once said that “not everything that counts is countable, and not everything that’s countable counts.” Do your organization’s performance measures count?

The Difficult Art of Responding to Public Criticism

When accusations are flying or scandal erupts, it’s crucial to get the initial response right.

How do you respond when your agency or jurisdiction is called out for poor performance, terrible customer service or even scandal? When the charges are false, how do you correct the record without appearing defensive? When there’s some truth to the allegations, how do you regain public trust (and fix the problem)? This is far more art than science, but one thing is for certain: Nothing is more important than your initial response.

First, some tips on how not to respond. Don’t blame the messenger, minimize the problem or circle the wagons. That only raises suspicions. At the same time, it’s important not to accept the criticism at face value; you need time to investigate what happened. If there is some truth to the allegations, you’ll need to address the problem and recover from the bad press. Don’t make matters worse by issuing initial responses you’ll need to correct later.

And it usually doesn’t help to fire (or transfer to bureaucratic Siberia) a staff member who had major responsibility for the problem, although there’s often great pressure to do so.

The University of Virginia experienced some high-profile events in recent years that raised doubts about the prestigious public university’s truthfulness and priorities. UVa’s initial responses during two of these events offer guidance in both how and how not to respond to public criticism.

In July 2016, a former member of the UVa Board of Visitors, its governing body, claimed that the university had created a secret $2.3 billion “slush fund” to support “pet projects” and to improve its reputation. That’s serious money for any university. That amount, plus the board member’s terminology — “slush fund,” “pet projects” — ensured that her accusation would receive wide media attention.

UVa leaders didn’t apologize or get defensive. Within days, the UVa rector (the chair of the Board of Visitors) issued a statement noting that the fund in question had been approved by the board in a public meeting five months earlier. He explained the fund’s purpose and said the board had discussed it several times since 2014. He added that UVa officials would soon provide details outlining the sources and goals of the fund.

Just six days later, that detailed information was released. A UVa official explained that the fund would be used to minimize tuition increases, increase the financial aid program, hire new faculty and provide research money without straining operating funds. The university also posted a Q&A page on its website responding to questions being raised in the media.

A state legislator then charged that the decisions about the fund had been “all done in closed-session meetings.” Another stated that UVA has run “a covert surplus” for years, and announced an investigation.

A few days later, the UVa chief operating officer provided further records documenting specific public meetings held over the past two years at which its board discussed the fund, adding, “We have absolutely nothing to hide.” He also pointed out that the investment fund was included on the university’s balance sheet and audited annually by the state auditor.

The university’s leaders handled the initial response-to-criticism phase well. They:

• Acknowledged the criticism promptly, without going into details they had to put together.
• Took the issue seriously and didn’t minimize it.
• Provided a detailed, point-by-point response to each criticism in a timely fashion.
• Didn’t become defensive or blame the messenger.

Some of UVa’s leaders probably did want to castigate the messenger. She was the same person who, as rector four years earlier, had created widespread outrage when she convinced the Board of Visitors to fire the university’s popular president, only to “unfire” the president two weeks later following withering criticism.

UVa’s response to the “slush fund” allegation stands in marked contrast to its response to a devastating article in Rolling Stone magazine published in 2014. That article, since discredited and retracted, detailed an alleged gang-rape of a student who said that UVa officials responded passively when she reported the incident.

In that event, the president said that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct.” Then she left for an overseas conference. That led to outrage; she had called an alleged gang-rape “sexual misconduct” and then left town? After a law firm was hired to look into the rape allegations, university officials refused for over a month to say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Fortunately, UVa leaders regained their footing and soon started to take aggressive steps to deal with sexual assault.

Your initial response to public criticism poses significant challenges: You need to say something, but may not have enough facts to make a definitive statement immediately. Your superiors and staff will expect you to support them and the agency, even if the information you have suggests serious wrongdoing is possible or likely (consider a police chief’s dilemma when a video shows a white cop shooting an unarmed black man). You may face pressure to find a scapegoat as a way to calm the public and make it appear the problem is “solved.”

If you have a reputation for openness, honesty, and high standards, most people will be patient while you find out what’s going on … if your initial response is appropriate. Credibility is everything in this business. Be sure to maintain yours when responding to public criticism.

When the Heroes Are Also the Victims

PTSD is common among those who respond to disasters and other emergencies. It’s hard to deal with, but there are ways to help them.

Emergency-services professionals know that one of their key tasks is to take care of the people who deal firsthand with crises and trauma: firefighters who run into burning buildings, first responders at the scene of a mass murder, personnel who try to rescue people from floods and tornadoes. These brave people do truly heroic work under the most trying conditions. Sadly, they often suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Consider:

• On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people and wounded 17 others. It was the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in our country’s history. Police got inside the classroom building in eight minutes and found the shooter dead. But the suffering had only just begun. As medical personnel carried the dead students out of the building, cellphones on the students’ bodies began to ring. Horrified parents were calling to see if their children were safe. Some of the first responders had great difficulty getting over the scene. At least one of them retired early from a career he loved.

• When firefighters began fighting a house fire in a New England town a few years ago, most of them went to the main floor where the fire was blazing. After a while, one firefighter went to the top floor (the most dangerous spot in most fires) and found an unconscious young woman. He brought her outside and medics administered CPR. But it was too late; she died of smoke inhalation. The firefighter who had found her blamed himself for not getting to her earlier; he had nightmares and suffered depression for months.

Why do so many emergency-services personnel suffer PTSD? There are many reasons. One has to do with the nature of people drawn to the profession. According to trauma experts, emergency management attracts people of a particular sort. They are caretakers, action-oriented, flexible in chaotic situations, proud of serving others, very tolerant of stress, excited by high-stimulation events, and in need of structure.

Of course, many of these qualities are perfectly suited to emergency-services work. Many, but not all. Those with high needs for structure are frequently frustrated by situations in which systematic methods aren’t effective. People who thrive on high stress and constant action often get depressed when the emergency is over. People who love to care for others sometimes blame themselves when they can’t save someone, and it often sometimes help to provide evidence showing that it was impossible to save the person.

What does help? Emergency-services personnel find a number of interventions useful. Some seek individual therapy. Others benefit from group counseling. One effective group approach is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, a seven-phase supportive small-group intervention that has helped many people with PTSD. Those who work in law enforcement are usually more comfortable talking with other law-enforcement professionals, which is why peer counseling works well for them. And some people benefit from telling their story to a supportive friend or colleague.

And what can leaders do to address the human side of crises? Three key leadership tasks are to identify people who seem to be suffering from a traumatic event, help them understand that they need some kind of assistance, and show that it’s normal for people with PTSD to require some kind of help.

Many emergency personnel feel that it’s weak to seek counseling, so they tough it out on their own. A study conducted by the Army in 2011 revealed that 40 percent of soldiers believed leaders will blame them for having post-trauma problems, and 50 percent believed they would be seen as weak if they sought help. But in many situations, the person simply needs to hear from a trusted colleague or respected leader that there is nothing else he or she could have done.

Here’s a poignant example from the NASA Challenger accident. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle exploded in an inferno of fire 73 seconds after liftoff. The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling and four of his colleagues at Morton Thiokol (a NASA contractor) tried to convince NASA managers to delay the flight, arguing that rubber seals called O-rings wouldn’t function properly in the cold temperatures forecast for the next day. One of NASA’s managers told the engineers’ supervisor to “take off your engineer hat and put on your management hat.” The engineers stopped protesting, and the rest is history.

Ebeling felt extreme guilt about the launch. “I could have done more, I should have done more,” he told people. For 30 years he blamed himself. Many people tried to tell him that he did the right thing. It didn’t help. Then, after Ebeling told a National Public Radio interviewer a few months ago that he still blamed himself, a former NASA official who worked on the Challenger launch wrote to Ebeling: “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.” And NASA sent Ebeling a statement which said, in part, “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] … by constantly reminding each other to … listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

Those two messages were what Bob Ebeling needed. His guilt started to ease. His daughter noted a real change in him: “He doesn’t have a heavy heart like he did.” Bob Ebeling died three weeks later, with a clean conscience.

You Won the Election. What Do You Do Now?

It takes a lot of energy to get elected. But that’s the time to think about how to accomplish things once in office.

It’s been said that there are two kinds of political candidates: those who run for office because they want to do something and those who run because they want to be something — that is, the motivation is more about their egos than the community’s needs. I’ve often seen a third type of candidate: those who run because they want to do something but don’t figure out what they want to do or how to go about accomplishing it until it’s too late.

Some examples of the third type:

• Two candidates for a county governing board emphasized during their campaigns that they were independent-minded. “I’m not running to be part of a team,” one of them boasted. “I’ll make up my own mind how to meet my constituents’ needs.” They both won. Neither accomplished anything that their constituents cared about.

• A woman running for a city council seat promised to bring civility to a fractious council. She had great interpersonal skills and lots of energy, and defeated an incumbent. She was a model of professionalism while on the council, but had no impact on her colleagues. Few voters could identify anything she’d done when she ran for re-election.

• A state agency head ran for a seat in the legislature, promising to use his experience to “make the trains run on time.” He won his election handily; the voters were looking for competence in state government. Alas, he wasn’t able to make any difference in state agency performance and retired two years later in frustration.

These were bright, well meaning people, but none of them took time before their campaigns started to think through a few key questions: Why were they running? What were the three or four most important results they wanted to achieve? Which candidates or incumbents might be natural allies on their key issues? Who would oppose them? And what are the keys to getting things done once in office?

If you’re thinking that these seem like obvious questions to ponder, you’re right. So what did these candidates do before they were elected? They focused all their energies on getting elected. They remind me of the Robert Redford character in the 1972 movie “The Candidate” who turns to his campaign manager after his amazing upset victory and asks, “What do we do now?”

Here’s a happier example. It’s about three candidates for city council. They were very motivated to achieve important results if elected. During the campaign they met every week. As one of them explained, “We needed to get a feel for each other. We knew that we weren’t likely to be successful on council (if we won) unless we started building bridges. And we understood from the outset that once you’re on council it’s easy to get overwhelmed by hundreds of emails, long issue papers from staff, phone calls and endless community meetings. We had to pull together before taking office.”

Their meetings involved several dimensions, Some of the exchanges became passionate; they didn’t agree on everything. All of the sessions were candid. But they all were aimed at developing that most precious interpersonal factor: trust. More specifically, they:

• Got to know each other. They hadn’t worked closely together in the past, so some discussions focused on learning about each other’s backgrounds, values, hopes and concerns. And they talked openly about the things that pushed their respective buttons. One of their early agreements: Don’t surprise each other.

• Identified priority issues. They talked about the problems and opportunities they each cared most about and the issues most important to the community. Over time, they found some issues that all three could enthusiastically support.

• Educated each other. At several sessions, one or another of them discussed an issue on which he or she had deep expertise and experience: planning, housing, economic development, education. As one of them reflected, “Not only did we learn a huge amount, but we also gained confidence and trust in each others’ abilities and knowledge.”

They also met with the two existing city council members, sharing their hopes, concerns and priorities. And they reached out to past council members who were known for their collaborative styles to seek their advice and wisdom.

All three won seats on the council. It’s too early to tell how much they will accomplish. But I’m confident that they will be successful. Why? Because they did the hard but critical work of building relationships, developing an agenda and thinking strategically before getting overwhelmed by what I call “the tyranny of the immediate.” Unlike the character in “The Candidate,” they know what they want to do now and have a strategy for getting it done.

Pope Francis, Change Agent

There’s a lot that we all can learn about leadership from him.

As a student of leadership and change, I’m intrigued by Pope Francis. He is both “old pope-francisschool” and revolutionary. While maintaining fundamental church teaching (he opposes gay marriage, for example), he also reaches out to gay priests, saying of them, “Who am I to judge?” His recently published encyclical on climate change has been called “radical.” Francis says that we shouldn’t be so “obsessed” with culture-war issues like abortion: “We have to find a new balance.” And he has saved some of his strongest words for a critique of unfettered capitalism: “Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service.”

The pope certainly has his critics among the Catholic clergy. But his popularity around the world is enormous. Many Catholics who take exception with his positions nevertheless say that they love him and find his words and deeds inspiring. How does he do it?

At least part of the answer, I believe, is that Pope Francis uses some very sophisticated change principles that all leaders should consider:

• Honor the past (and present) as you push for change.

• Speak to shared values and shared background.

• “Shrink the change.” That is, make it less daunting; take it in small steps.

• Think politically without appearing political.

• “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it” (a quote from Dwight Eisenhower).

• Talk about the change and its impact in human terms.

Excerpts from Francis’ speech to the U.S. Congress last month illustrate many of these principles:

He began by saying, “I am most grateful for addressing this joint session of Congress, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It drew a huge ovation, in part because it so clearly honored both our past and present. It also showed his ability to think politically without appearing so. His gentle demeanor was so sincere, so transparent, that even hard-nosed and often cynical members of Congress seemed touched and delighted by the compliment.

He went on to say that “I, too, am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much, and toward which we share a common responsibility.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.) Francis is from Argentina and spent most of his life there before becoming pope. He had never visited the United States. But he found a simple, authentic way to connect with the members of Congress. And in this one simple sentence he did much more: He gently challenged the members to see their role as much broader than focusing on their states or districts.

Then the pope got personal when he moved to one of his strongest passions, the need to embrace immigrants and refugees: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, and I know that so many of you are also children of immigrants.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.)

In an especially moving and politically savvy part of his talk, Pope Francis went on to discuss four eminent Americans and certain values that they embraced: Abraham Lincoln as a guardian of liberty who showed a love of the common good; Martin Luther King Jr., who gave all Americans the possibility to dream of equal rights; Dorothy Day, a tireless crusader for social justice; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted peace between peoples and religions.

Francis noted that these individuals “shaped fundamental values that endure forever in the spirit of the American people. These values support a people through any crisis or conflict.” (Speak to shared values and shared background; talk about the change and its impact in human terms.) In a few sentences, Francis took core American values — liberty, equality, justice, freedom of religion — and put a personal face on them. He also made a subtle suggestion: that the nation has faced and addressed huge challenges in the past, so we must have the courage to face and deal with today’s challenges. This is an example of “shrinking the change,” framing it in a way that it doesn’t appear overwhelming.

Finally, in his efforts to build the church Francis effectively uses the idea expressed by Eisenhower: “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it.” Ike realized that certain issues can only be understood and addressed when seen as part of something larger. As the president of a Catholic institution noted, Francis “is connecting people to things that are timeless, fundamental truths.” He wants a church that is more positive, that accepts people as they are and addresses them in a loving and welcoming manner. This “big tent” approach is encouraging more people to join the church and creating enormous excitement and pride among millions of Catholics. Most priests and other Catholic officials who disagree with Francis on certain issues probably share the goal of a church that grows.

Time will tell how much impact the pope makes. He’s already accomplished one enormous change: getting hundreds of millions of Catholics and others to take a new look at an ancient institution. This pope has something to teach us about leadership and change.

Public Employees and the Path to Resilience

Knowing your organization’s story and why it’s important can go a long way toward helping workers cope with change.

Resilience — the ability to bounce back from a significant challenge — is on many professionals’ minds these days. Schoolteachers, middle managers, psychologists, leaders in homeland security and others are trying to learn where resilience comes from and how to help people develop it. Given the enormous demands on government employees today, it’s no surprise that resilience is on their minds as well.

How does resilience develop? Why is it that a child who demonstrates great resilience has a sibling who shows little or none? Can resilience be learned? Recent research on resilient children offers some clues to these important questions.

In a March 2013 article in the New York Times, Bruce Feiler pointed to studies indicating that children who are taught their family’s story — their ancestors, the family’s strengths, its challenges — tend to be more resilient. They handle stress better and have a stronger sense of control over their lives. The most powerful story, Feiler added, includes examples of a family’s ups and downs and the ways family members have hung together and supported each other. Kids who learn such stories develop an “intergeneration self” — they know that they belong to something larger than themselves.

Research on resilient kids shows that it isn’t the family story itself that builds resilience but rather the process by which kids learn it. In a word, it’s about communications. When kids hear their family’s story repeated during family trips, vacations or social events, they gain a sense of identity and learn that they can rely on others when they need to.

Interesting, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with government agencies and their employees? Many leaders believe it has everything to do with their work. Some police and fire departments, for example, invest considerable time and effort in teaching their new recruits about their profession’s culture and how it developed. At the U.S. Naval Academy, seniors are urged to take plebes on “history-building exercises” by visiting places of historic importance to the Navy and telling stories of those moments and what they meant.

At the National Security agency, new employees are brought on their first day to NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. They learn the history of cryptology (the study and deciphering of codes) and the enormous contribution it has made in warfare and in preventing wars. They also learn the story of how NSA came to be. Then the employees are told that they are needed to help the NSA tackle the huge challenges it faces. Finally, they take their oath to the Constitution and are reminded that the oath is to the nation, giving them a larger sense of purpose.

Veteran employees of an agency can benefit from hearing its story as well. I once consulted with a municipal social-services department that was going through an enormous change: Staff were transitioning from being subject-matter experts in one narrow field to being multi-skilled generalists who had to know something about many areas. Naturally, the agency’s workers were filled with anxiety.

We brought in a respected, recently retired colleague of theirs to talk with the staff. She discussed the conditions that led to their former roles and the many contributions the staff had made. She also reminded them that part of their department’s story was that it had gone through a number of major changes in the past decade or more and had always managed them well. Indeed, she pointed out, staffers had developed a “whatever-it-takes” attitude toward change.

The retiree had the workers talk about what they valued in their former organizational structure and what they would miss. Then she finished by acknowledging the huge challenge facing them, and expressed her confidence that they would rise to that challenge. “I know who you are,” she told them. “I know that you’ll manage this change very well, because it’s right for our clients. And that’s always been our compass, doing what our clients need.” The agency’s staff members accepted the challenge and regained their confidence.

Does your staff know your organization’s story? Do you?

Public Projects and the Optimism Trap

Rosy, unrealistic scenarios just cause trouble down the road. It’s far better for managers not to deceive their leaders — or themselves.

On Dec. 31, 2007, the “Big Dig” in Boston was officially completed. The largest single highway project in the country’s history, it was nine years late and had cost more than $14.6 billion, a stunning $12 billion over budget. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the project was plagued by corruption, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws and the death of one motorist.

It’s not that the project itself was unnecessary. On the contrary, for decades traffic to and from Boston’s Logan Airport was terrible, and it was difficult for the most experienced Boston drivers to negotiate the tangled streets and constant congestion downtown. The project greatly reduced congestion, air pollution and confusion. But because of its well publicized problems, the Big Dig has become a symbol of big government at its worst — unethical politicians, contractors who cheat, costly projects, shoddy quality. Whether it’s highway projects, weapons systems for the Pentagon, or NASA’s two shuttle disasters, the stories of botched government projects seem unending. Why is that?

One answer, of course, is that good news doesn’t sell. When did you last read a front-page headline proclaiming, “New Government Office Building Opens on Time, Under Budget”? Many government projects are well designed and executed; we just don’t hear about them. We can’t change media that seem obsessed with bad news. But there is another factor involved with government projects gone wrong, a factor we can control. It has to do with unrealistic projections.

Let’s go back to the Big Dig. Roger Warburton, associate professor of administrative sciences at Boston University, found that engineers knew that the original projections of $2 billion were far too low. In the late 1980s the engineers “already knew it was a $12 to $14 billion project,” Warburton wrote. “They told everybody who would listen — including the politicians — and those people kept it quiet.” Politicians worried that realistic estimates of the project’s costs would have outraged the public and that the project would have been dropped. So the politicians essentially lied to the public.

In other cases, it’s civil servants who mislead the politicos about their proposed projects. Competing with other program managers for scarce dollars, they exaggerate their project’s likely benefits and guarantee that it will come in at a lowball cost. Sadly, many managers decide that they must play the same game.

And sometimes program managers deceive themselves. They’re not lying; they’re overly optimistic. They base their projections of costs and benefits on a best-case scenario — if everything goes according to plan, if all of the contractors produce on time and on budget, if the early proof of concept proves successful and we’re confident that our model will work … and so on. I call this the “optimism trap.” As the plaque in my mom’s apartment used to read: “Man plans, and God laughs.”

Fortunately, we can counteract the downsides of excessive optimism. Here are several ways to do so. Some of these ideas come from a 2003 Harvard Business Review article by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman, “Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions.”

Take “the outside view.” As Lovallo and Kahneman explain, the outside view requires a look at similar projects performed by other organizations. What were the initial projections? How long did it actually take? What was the final cost? What were the lessons learned? Taking the outside view helps us avoid the human tendency to see ourselves as better than others. It is especially helpful when starting an initiative that the agency has never tried before.

Bring in an expert who has no skin in the game. This is another way to take the outside view. A well respected expert who has knowledge of the kind of project you’re planning can study your plans through a neutral lens. She has no incentive to make overly optimistic forecasts. She also can spot potential errors in your reasoning and assumptions you’ve made that aren’t based on solid evidence.

Include various scenarios in your planning. Smart planners often develop best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios for their projects. They attach probabilities to each, based on current knowledge of the economy and interest rates, political trends, reputations of the contractors they rely on and the like. This kind of analysis can bolster a manager’s chances of getting funding, and it demonstrates the manager’s professionalism.

Develop a reputation for accuracy in making forecasts. Sadly, there’s a risk to avoiding the optimism trap and providing accurate projections of cost, timeliness and benefits: You could lose out in the funding game to other program managers whose overly rosy estimates are convincing to decision-makers. What to do? One answer is to talk with decision-makers about your track record — your projects that came in on budget, your programs that achieved their objectives. The message: Senior managers can have confidence in your proposals. And doing this can implicitly remind your leaders that others’ proposals fell far short of their promises.

To be clear: Optimism is not a bad thing. It is sorely needed in today’s political climate. Optimism helps us remain resilient during the inevitable ups and downs of life in the public fishbowl. But optimism, like all qualities, can be overdone. When planning and pitching a project, avoid the optimism trap and play for the long run. Your leaders will learn to trust you. And that trust is invaluable.

Sexual Assault at UVA: 4 Lessons in Crisis Leadership

There are better ways to handle a situation like the one that has ignited a firestorm at the University of Virginia.

The turmoil that has enveloped the University of Virginia since Rolling Stone magazine’s publication of a scathing article describing a gang-rape at a fraternity party and a university culture “less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal” has done more than tarnish the reputation of a prestigious public institution. It has produced a primer on how not to lead during a crisis.

The Nov. 19 article included graphic references to a UVA coed, called “Jackie” by the author, who told the magazine she had been raped by seven men at a fraternity party. The article described a university culture in which sexual assaults “are kept quiet” not only by the university administration but also by students “as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture.” Later that day, UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement saying, in part, that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct” and that Charlottesville police were being asked to investigate the alleged rape. Then she left the country for a previously scheduled conference.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Students, faculty, alumni and others were outraged not only that a coed had allegedly been gang-raped but also that university officials had apparently done nothing more than offer their support to her. Dozens of current and former UVA coeds wrote to Rolling Stone describing their own rapes on the campus. A Charlottesville newspaper reported that Sullivan and others at UVA had learned of the alleged gang-rape in September but had done little except talk to fraternity leaders.

Sullivan became the focus of much of the outrage from the UVA community. How, some asked, could she refer to gang-rape and other criminal activities as “sexual misconduct”? Why didn’t she cancel her trip and address the firestorm of protests? In response, Sullivan announced that UVA was suspending all fraternities and associated parties until early this month. She also talked in much stronger terms about the problems of sexual assault on campus and promised a long-term effort to change the culture at UVA. Virginia’s attorney general announced that he had asked a prestigious law firm to investigate the rape allegations. And Rolling Stone’s editor acknowledged major discrepancies in the article and apologized, raising the question of whether the gang-rape had actually taken place — and leading to yet another storm of anger and protest.

Any institution facing such a situation needs strong, proactive leadership. To be fair, Teresa Sullivan is a caring, honest human being who has worked hard to improve the welfare of students, faculty and the institution. In this instance, however, her leadership has been flawed. Sullivan’s and other UVA leaders’ inability to understand and deal effectively with the crisis they face is a cautionary tale for all leaders and an important reminder of four key crisis-leadership principles:

• Be wary of the initial information that emerges during crises. In our rapid-fire desire for quick explanations, it’s easy to accept the first reports about a major event. The problem is that those reports are often wrong. After the 1999 murders of 13 people at Columbine High School, some students and school officials said that the two shooters had been victims of school bullying and were acting out of revenge. That explanation was quickly accepted by many professionals who work with kids. But 10 years later, David Cullen wrote in his carefully researched book Columbine that the two were not victims of bullying; indeed, he reported, one of them was often the perpetrator of bullying. Much of the information in the Rolling Stone article about UVA is now suspect, but UVA leaders initially accepted it as fact, creating serious problems for many individuals and groups.

Crisis leaders must resist the temptation to accept the first reports they receive and aggressively seek as much information as possible before taking decisive action.

• Listen carefully to people with sound judgment. President Sullivan’s immediate actions after being told in September of the alleged sexual attack seem woefully inadequate. So, too, were her first comments when the Rolling Stone article appeared two months later. Then, just days later after the article created a firestorm of anger, she switched gears and made very strong statements about rape. People were left wondering why she leapt from a passive response to an aggressive one. Her faltering responses raised an important question: What kind of advice — if any — was she getting as the crisis unfolded?

It’s very difficult to get a sense of perspective in the middle of a crisis. That’s why it’s so important to call on people whose judgment you trust, people who owe you nothing and have experience with the issue you’re facing.

• In crises, communications are (almost) everything. There may be excellent reasons why UVA officials refused for over a month to respond to multiple requests for records related to the alleged gang rape and wouldn’t say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Those reasons were not divulged. Thus, some people wondered whether UVA leaders had something to cover up.

The crisis leader’s most precious asset is trust. During a crisis, the leader’s most critical task is to communicate sincerely, openly and consistently with all stakeholders.

• First protect people; think about reputation later. This is one of the most difficult principles for many crisis leaders, especially those who work in agencies with very strong cultures, such as law enforcement, fire/emergency services and transportation. When such agencies experience a crisis that exposes them to strong criticism, they sometimes circle the wagons and point the finger elsewhere. Such defensiveness is understandable, but it is usually counterproductive, as UVA’s leaders have learned.

Crisis leaders need to put their focus squarely on the needs of the people they serve, irrespective of the criticism being leveled at their organization. When people see leaders showing a passion for protection, when leaders focus all of their energies on handling the crisis professionally and openly, reputation usually takes care of itself.