National OD Network Conference

Hoorah!!!

Faith Addicott has been selected, with Staceye Randal of Dallas, Texas, to be a presenter at this year’s annual Organizational Development Network Conference! Faith and Staceye will be presenting an integrated, experiential introduction to Appreciative Inquiry for practitioners, and framing the learning and conversation in how AI can bolster engagement, inclusion, and authenticity to create more resilient organizations.

Please congratulate Faith & Staceye on this awesome achievement! Confluence is proud to be sending one of our own to network and share with the vibrant community of OD practitioners.

Thinking In Systems

Almost everything which does work in the world is a system – a collection of smaller things or actions or relationships that together form a mechanism for self-regulation or creation or life. Understanding how these systems work, and that they follow finite rules and consistent patterns is incumbent upon anyone who wants to understand or change the world. Understanding systems is vital to public administration and organizational development (OD) work. Donella Meadows wrote the pivotal work on this subject, THINKING IN SYSTEMS; A PRIMER. This approachable and enlightening work is a must have for any serious OD practitioner. For it is only when “we see the relationship between structure and behavior,{that} we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns.”

Meadows explains that a system must include elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose (p.11). When we look around, we can see that so much of the world consists of systems- our cars, our clocks, our ecology, our institutions, and even our bodies. All of these things work because they have parts (elements) which work in coordination (interconnection) in order to achieve an end (function or purpose). They are so much a part of everyday life and the life of society that we hardly notice them at all, and yet they are perhaps the central element of all human endeavor and even of the natural world. Systems built well can be self-sustaining, reinforcing the energy and propagation of creation. But systems can also become out of balance, either through changes in circumstance, intervention, or because they have an archetype (structure) that is inherently perverse (p.112). Meadows refers to these instances as systems traps, situations that can become so out of whack that they must be changed or dismantled, not because there is any one actor to blame, but because the whole show is poorly written. Being able to recognize when a problem is really a systems trap can deeply influence the way solutions are found.

In the context of a discussion of systems thinking, we are reminded that the Constitution is a document or rule book for establishing a system, in this case of government. Any government, organization, or group which gathers and attempts to implement policy is creating a system, one which will succeed or fail based upon how it is defined, and how clearly and adequately its purpose is defined. Meadows is clear that purpose is “the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior” (p.17). In the Federalist Papers and the many writings contemporary to them, we can see the effort and energy put into trying to establish a working system, with stated and thought out feedback loops (checks and balances, three branches) to allow the system to maintain balance through time and changing circumstances. It is doubtful the founders thought in terms of systems, but it is precisely what they were creating. In this country, if more attention were paid to the purpose of our system than to the mechanisms of it, the implication is that the function of government would be smoother.

Similarly, changes in policy or changes in policy systems must be changes in purpose in order to affect real change and get away from reinforcing feedback loops (p.17). The goal of all policy professionals is to create or steward systems that work better and are more responsive to the needs of the people and governments they serve. In seeking to adjust or make changes to those systems, care must be taken not to move the lever (change) in the wrong direction (p.57). Only a deeper understanding of the system itself will allow anyone to push or pull in the right direction.  Systems thinking, being able to watch the history and behavior of systems and see what they really are as opposed to what we believe or are told they are, is a skillful tool for policy makers. Within this way of seeing the world lies the key to understanding our jobs, the limits of what we can do, and the factors that most need attention in work and crisis. Systems traps can be seen in action all the time, when multiple attempts to fix problems either create more problems or require constant intervention. In policy, most of these traps are related to what we call wicked problems (Head, 2008 p.101). Learning how to change existing systems and create new systems might be the key to solving these, just as systems thinking is the key to seeing them clearly.

Meadows shows us how in system dynamics, resilience and self-organization are intrinsic to system health but are too often sacrificed in the name of productivity and stability (Meadows, 2008, p.79). This is something that can be seen all around us every day, and reflects one of the arguments in policy circles about the management theory of administration. The third crucial aspect of  system health is hierarchy, which in public policy and all systems must “balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing” (p.85). This ability and need to balance multiple elements is integral in all levels of any system. Paying attention to the balance and health of a system, cultivating the will and ability to think within those parameters, is perhaps the best way possible to affect real change and make a difference in the world. We must endeavor to “design policies that build learning into the management process” (p. 177), so that we create dynamic, self-adjusting systems. And then implement them.

REFERENCES

Head, Brian (2008), Wicked Problems in Public Policy, Public Policy, Volume 3,  pp. 101-118,

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/43502862_Wicked_Problems_in_Public_Policy

Meadows, Donella (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, White River Junction, VT

Mid-Level Leadership: The Art of Balance

Do you as a leader often find yourself between two or more bad decisions, and none of them are really your choice? When policy is written it is with the best intentions, but at times formed in a nascent way, leaving a lack of funding or specificity in how to make the changes necessary to comply. The practical implementation of policy can be messy. It is often left to individuals and teams who do not specialize in the type of work to be done. This can prove frustrating for all parties, particularly those who are made aware of the changes without specifics, and who then must pass along the message, and try to allay fears of the staff. This often falls on mid-level leadership.

Mid-level managers have power over their teams, but nothing beyond the scope of their immediate circle. They are often 4-5 layers down the hierarchy from the commissioner, or other executive leadership team members. This can often lead to vast gaps in information between people, and breakdowns in communication. Simply because the scope of power and realm of influence is limited, that does not mean that they (you!) have no recourse, or that the staff will always feel unsupported, or in the dark.

Below is a list of 5 tips that can help mid-level management feel engaged, and supported, in a way that enhances choice and decision making to support their teams and thrive in their work. If you are a leader, in any level, the following tips can be useful, especially if you are, or support, mid-level managers.
Five worthwhile Tips:

1. Be clear and don’t make excuses or skirt the issue.
One clear sign to employees that they are not getting the full picture, is if they cannot get a straight answer, or a commitment by when something will happen. It is important to set clear timelines by when you will follow-up on questions, or concerns of the staff and team. If you don’t have the information by the time the deadline hits, acknowledge that it didn’t happen, re-commit to a new time before the deadline hits, and give feedback as to why you were unable to get the information by when you said that you would. Vague statements about what will happen in the future can cause unease, panic, stress, and ongoing tension in the workplace.

2. Acknowledge you do not know if you don’t know.
If you are unsure about something, do not make up an answer. Always commit to a time by
when you will find out the information and get back to the person asking about it. If you
are not authorized to tell them, let them know that. Respect yourself and your team.

3. Have a regular check-in schedule with your manager, with set agenda items, and some time for open discussion.
Having set agenda items will help ensure that topics are kept in mind, and checked-up on, even if there is no progress on them. Hearing that there is no progress, in itself an update on the matter. This will also be a point that you can refer to with staff, that you are remaining up to date, even if there is no tangible change.

4. Set-up multiple pathways to communicate with your team.
With time-off, absences, and flex-schedules, it can be helpful to have multiple ways of communicating updates. Shared drives, white-boards, or group emails are all very effective. It is important to make sure each person on your team feels supported in the way they are communicated with. E-mail can be tricky, because of the fatigue that can happen with the volume of emails received.

5. Be proactive in addressing concerns, and keep an eye out for signs of stress, or frequent questions.
Everyone presents stress differently. It is common for people to continue to bring up issues, or ask questions about what is on their mind, or that is making them nervous. Keep an eye out for this and be proactive in following-up with people. It could be worth taking extra time each week to check-in and have a brief 1-1 update on what is going on.

The thing to remember is that ambiguity is fine and will happen no matter what. The way to empower yourself, and your team as a manager is to create structure within the ambiguity. Staff want to know they have an ally, and someone who is “on their side,” even though the situation may be completely unknown, or unclear as to how a policy will be implemented or will affect them.

Be clear, be honest, and remember to be a stand for yourself, your team, and your organization.

Doing Democracy

What is democracy? We talk about it all the time, use the word as a banner of identity, and often claim it’s inherent superiority over other political systems. Yet I have found that few can accurately define more that the right to vote, and the underlying principles which are the foundation of democratic theory, dating back to ancient Greece, remain unpracticed. In the public service sector, it is vital to understand what we are in service OF, if not democracy itself.

Once again, I might argue that language itself tells us a story of where we go wrong in our understanding of democratic principle. Democracy is a noun. It’s a thing, outside of ourselves. And reasonably speaking, there is no comfortable verb form – democratize? That means to make democratic, but doesn’t indicate the ACT of democracy. Instead, when speaking of the action principles of democracy, we use most commonly the term ‘democratic practice’.

The Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in research about how to make democracy work, states that “Democratic practices are ways citizens can work together—even when they disagree—to address shared problems.” Furthermore, “Democracy requires responsible citizens who can make sound decisions about their future and can act on these decisions”. These statements frame a picture of engaged, involved citizens in a democratic society, working together at all levels of community to solve shared problems, and to create a shared social value which accepts dissent. Voting once a year is simply not enough to keep democracy going, but rather is just a jumping off point. Our elected officials, while ostensibly representing our interests, cannot act democratically in our communities FOR us.

The most fundamental principle of democracy can be summed up by those nine words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Or better still, the probable source of those words, a 1858 sermon by Theodore Parker in Boston, which states, “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people”. A democratic society, or an organization serving that society, must be actively engaged and serving the common good. For ALL people. A society which does not perceive all people of deserving of good lives is a society divided, and one in which democracy cannot work. Inclusion is at the core of democratic practice, and in a place where populations are systematically left out of education, voting, and progress, no democracy truly exists.

What does all of this mean in terms of public administrators? It means that we need to take some hard looks at the organizations that serve as the gears of government. While we purport democratic ideals, most government organizations are hierarchies, fraught with power dynamics and a structure that is inherently undemocratic. Government agencies need to embrace democratic principle, and actively engage citizens in decision making, goal setting, and process. Those citizens include staff!! Agencies should be developing and practicing processes that bring people together from all levels to make sound decisions to solve shared problems. How can we expect our democracy to survive, let alone thrive, when the millions of people who serve in our local, state, and federal agencies are not engaged in democratic processes, not treated as if their voices matter, not included in decision making? We cannot, and we see everywhere around us the results of this structural failure, in the lack of innovation, in the systemic disenfranchisement of the poor, women, and people of color.

Government, and governmental agencies, must find a way to be of, by, and for the people again. Even the receptionists, techs, and mechanics are people in this democracy, and it is time we treated all citizens as equal. In conference rooms and in community halls, in video meetings and in policy briefings. In a democracy, we should ALL be in the room.

Hiring Practices- Setting the Tone for Innovation

The resume is believed to have been first used in 1482 by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. In a letter to a prospective employer, Leo wrote out an impressive list of his accomplishments and skills and sent it off in an effort to secure a position with the Duke of Milan. In the late 1500’s, Englishman Ralph Agas published a list of his skills in several newspaper ads promoting himself – the first use of media to job search.

Since the 1950’s, the resume has been an integral part of the hiring process for most fields – a great resume gets you an interview is the common conception. While the formatting has changed (typewriters & computers make a difference), the substantive content of the resume has remained virtually the same for almost 70 years despite the huge changes in the world, workforce, and needs of organizations. And the key elements of the resume, experience and education, are no longer the most important factors in successfully finding employees who love their work and are dedicated to their agency.

Acknowledging this is more important in public administration than anywhere else. Careers in public administration are based on a desire to help the world, to do good work, and to be a public servant. No resume can tell a recruiter how positive a person is to be around, or how passionate they are about the work they do. Tim Stevens, author of Fairness Is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace, says education and experience are what a company should care about least.

“A person’s skill set and personality–the things behind the resume–are much more important,” he says. “You need to know if a person has an aptitude for leadership, how they deal with failure, how they treat people when they disagree, and if the role you’re hiring for is their passion or a stepping-stone to something else.”

Current hiring practices in PA are focused critically on these two things, eliminating candidates with skills and passion while rewarding experience over all other metrics. This is a recipe for stagnation and waste, as those hired for positions are most often those who have already done the same position, most likely in another agency. The same people, with the same skills, tend to get hired over and over, moving from agency to agency in search of job satisfaction. Each time this ‘experienced’ applicant gets hired, they leave behind a vacancy, which then costs time and money to fill.

When the same person, or the same KIND of person, gets hired over and over there is little impetus for innovation. Indeed, innovation can almost only come from new ideas and new people. Diversity and inclusion are about more than just ticking boxes on EEOC forms – real diversity means diversifying perspective, allowing different people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences into the halls of policy. Current hiring practice belie the principles of inclusion and innovation by focusing on the wrong things when choosing interview candidates.

A single mother, recently divorced and just gone back to school will have very little experience. But she has a perspective and an innate understanding of where public support systems are failing. This person might make an excellent addition to the Department of Early Learning, but chances are she won’t make it into an interview room. A young black artist with a Master’s degree, whose life has focused on creativity and social change might apply for a position with DSHS, but not be talked to because he hasn’t worked in government before. An older person with 25 years in the private sector might decide to change their life and dedicate to social service only to find that their experience in business management gets no traction because it isn’t PUBLIC management.

All these voices are being lost. Those most served by governmental agencies – the underprivileged, the young, and the elderly- are almost never among those hired to serve and advise those same agencies. There can be no reasonable expectation of real innovation and change when the people in the room are always the SAME people.

If public administration is serious about inclusion and innovation, and if there are limited resources for making changes, hiring practices is a strong leverage point. This is the beginning point, the entrance, the gate to public service that sets the tone and standards for behavior and beliefs in our public institutions. Deep structural and procedural changes to hiring practices, like finding an alternative to the ancient and irrelevant resume, can bring in new blood and new ideas that might save our toppling institutions. Hiring for culture, focusing on skills & abilities over experience, and broadening the social origin of applicants can reinvigorate public administration.

Hire the people we need, not the people we already know. Success is more about risk than continuity. With where things are now, what is there to lose?

Process IS Product: You can’t eat the pie before you make it.

 

In government, policy is king.  Policy sets the expectation for process, and the parameters for action by any agency, agency head, or line worker. For instance, if the Governor’s panel convenes and then writes a policy statement that the State will “work to promote governmental actions that are transparent”, it means that every State employee must have the reasonable expectation that their work (and emails, texts, etc) will be open to public disclosure.

What policy doesn’t do is tell us how to get there. We want transparent government? How do we make actions easy to view? Does transparency include decision making? What if we want inclusive hiring practices? How do we set that up? What are the definitions of inclusive, or transparent? For either of these stated goals, why are they important, and what purpose do they serve?

It becomes clear upon any in depth analysis that “how” and “why” come BEFORE “what”. And yet, we rarely see this happen. While it should seem self evident that VERBS are how we really get things done, and NOUNS are just the things we use to do them, our language betrays our lack of intent. We spend in public administration a lot of time talking about WHAT and not nearly as much time talking about HOW. Let me use my favorite analogy – pie.

My boss comes in to my office and says he wants me to make a pie. It’s super important, because the Governor (or director, or City council, or whatever) really thinks that what would make our community great is pie. Then he turns around and walks out, and I am left to make a pie.

No one talked about what kind of pie. No one laid clear guidelines about whether the pie would be refrigerated or baked. These require entirely different tools. Does everyone in the community like the same kind of pie? Is cherry pie going to offend some people, and coconut pie offend others? Am I only allowed to make one kind of pie? Is it a french baking technique that’s most suitable, because if so I must determine the order in which the ingredients must be combined and the type of butter to be used…. on and on.

You pexels-photo-205961.jpegdon’t make pie by walking into the kitchen and throwing flour, butter, salt, fruit and sugar in a bowl and calling it pie. That is not pie. That is THE THINGS THAT MAKE PIE. The pie is made through a specific set of actions, processes, and timing that are all determined by the type of pie required. And the type of pie required is different for everyone.

In the same way, a policy of inclusion is NOT in itself inclusion. The set of actions and processes by which we (verb) BUILD inclusive practice is inclusion. Engaged community is not achieved by having five people in leadership meet to talk about (noun) engaged community. It is achieved by ENGAGING (verb) the community in the decisions, actions, and processes that determine the tenor and quality of the communities health.

“Side note/ soapbox: It cannot be overstated that successful democratic governance must actually BE democratic. Over and over, we see policies struggle to achieve successful interventions in the real lives of citizens, perhaps because a policy is a noun. We see the entire apparatus of government outside the electoral process run in hierarchies, with little chance for democratic practice within the system itself. Without the verb, the actual hows and whys being asked and engaged every day, democracy fails. Every time.”

The next time your organization or agency struggles to achieve some policy change, or engages in decision making that excludes the voices and processes of stakeholders, ask yourself this – what kind of pie are we making here? And who decided not to make cake?

Setting the Pace of Change

Martin Luther King Jr said it best. ““Tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” 

This is one of many quotes MLK has about the lie of incremental change. And yet today, more than 50 years later, I still hear the words in every government office, in boardrooms and staff meetings, in the halls of academia and the apologetic coffee shop cliques – ‘You can’t make big changes. We are making a difference, little by little’.

The evidence suggests otherwise. We are today living in a world where the gap between rich and poor makes 1963 seem like a dream of equity; where police violence against the citizenry is at an all time high; where for profit prisons churn out checks for big corporations while robbing generations of poor children of their fathers. How’s that incremental change working out?

The truth of the matter is that we CAN make big changes, but we can’t make them and expect those currently reaping the rewards of hegemonic patriarchy to be happy about it. We cannot make them and keep everyone comfortable. We cannot make them POLITIC. But we can make them. Making big changes necessitates being prepared to think deeply and with bravery about what it means to really believe in something. Like equity, or environmental justice.

We make big changes by having big ideas, and by having difficult conversations. When we approach change as the necessary precursor to achieving those things we most idealize, and then commit to the hard work of CHANGING OURSELVES and challenging our own perceptions of what is and what is not possible, we begin to tread a path towards a better world.

It will not be easy. Social and economic systems, like all systems, are full of reinforcing feedback loops that stymie attempts to radically alter the shape and flow of information and power. Success to the successful is perhaps the most powerful: those persons and classes of persons who have traditionally held political and social power tend to shape policies and rules that further entrench their own wealth and status. A young white man born in the Hamptons, for instance, is astronomically more likely to achieve societal ‘success’ than a Latina woman born in South Central Los Angeles. Not because he is smarter, or in any way intrinsically more capable, but because he will be the recipient of the best schools, adequate nutrition, and opportunities that our Latina simply will never see.

Within our organizations, the systems traps are the same. Those who play politic, who do not rock the boat, and who understand the unstated social hierarchies will tend to rise in position, because the WAY they work is understood and accepted by those above them. People who come in and are brimming with radical new ideas, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, often do not ‘play the game’ correctly. Fresh ideas, and differing perspectives, are lost because these people rarely benefit from the social workplace norms that come naturally to those accustomed to the dominant paradigm.

So how to we make big, systemic changes? By knowingly bringing new perspectives into the rooms where decisions are made, by respecting dissent, and by fostering organizational culture that is open to conflict and growth. We get to this place by being more mindful of the unspoken norms which turn away difference and change, and by being intentional in our workplace relationships. Changes in hiring practices, org structures, performance metrics, and management methodologies are all in order – and all come directly from our choices in honoring difference and working together.

Through compassionate, mindful workplaces, we can change the world. TODAY. Before it’s too late.