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.
by | June 7, 2017

Russ Linden

A management educator and author

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, Challenge.gov 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?

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