The Experience Strategy

Before selling a solution, a leader needs to "sell the problem." That's best done when managers themselves experience what's wrong.
August 5, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management consultant, educator and author

A few years ago the city manager of a medium-size city was getting frustrated with his department heads. The manager kept hearing from residents who were upset by the city's long, tedious processes for obtaining services, permits and information. He passed on those complaints, but the department heads just got defensive. "The citizens don't understand that we are required to use a certain process," they protested. "We're bound by federal and state laws and regulations." It was all true, but that didn't make any difference. The department heads weren't willing to get creative, and the city manager wasn't getting through to them.

So he tried something different. He sent the department heads on a scavenger hunt. He formed three-person teams and gave each team the task of applying for something that the city offered: a building permit, a parks-and-recreation program, a business license and the like. They had to navigate the entire process, document the steps they took and the time required, and note their experiences dealing with the various city employees.

A month later, the very same department heads who had been so unwilling to consider change were now demanding it!

One of the common dynamics inhibiting organizational change is that, while front-line staff often see the need for it, middle managers (and often senior leaders) stay resistant. There are many reasons, but perhaps the most significant one is this: front-line employees experience the agency's problems every day; managers and leaders do not. Instead, managers tend to be several steps removed from the specifics of daily operations. It's not necessarily obvious to them that employees' productivity suffers because of ancient technology, endless reports and forms, or leaders who preach teamwork but evaluate employees on their individual performance.

The experience strategy helps managers and leaders gain direct experience with the key problems that employees and customers have to deal with, in order to generate a desire for change.

There are many real-world examples of the experience strategy. Here are a few:

o At Disney theme parks, managers spend many holidays working with front-line staff taking tickets, serving food, answering questions and cleaning up. The managers are not only helping out, they're gaining invaluable information about the perspectives and needs of customers and employees.

o A middle manager in one state agency was frustrated that her senior managers wouldn't fund her division's maintenance needs. She got creative, and invited the leaders to meet with her on a topic they cared about -- in one of the state's oldest and most uncomfortable buildings. It was hot, the air-conditioning barely worked, the lighting was poor ... and then it started to rain. Water began seeping in through the roof. Soon after that meeting, there was a nice increase in the her division's maintenance budget.

o The president of Penn State University spends one week each fall living in one of the freshmen dorms. He says the experience is invaluable. It gives him a first-hand look at the incoming class and how they're different from previous classes, how they're using technology, and what gets their attention (besides attractive fellow students). The president has made several changes because of insights gained from his time with new students.

o I once consulted with an internal unit in a law-enforcement agency that used this method. A street cop spent one hour with my team and told us that our wonderful analysis wasn't helping him or his colleagues at all. "We don't have time to read your long reports," he said. "If you have important information for us, call us. Then, follow it up with a short report." It totally changed our strategy.

o An increasing number of agencies are encouraging or requiring managers to take rotations in different agencies in order to be eligible for promotions. This is especially important for those who seek senior positions, where working across boundaries is a critical task.

The last example is one of the most powerful ways to promote collaboration and information-sharing between and within agencies. When staff have the experience of working in other agencies or units, they start to see the work world through a different lens. They gain insights into how communications between the units could improve, and inevitably they start to see how their work fits into the larger scheme of things. Rotations, like the other examples of the experience strategy, help people learn why things work as they do. Such experiences also leave most people hungry for change. Smart leaders will tap that hunger and provide direction for the change.