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It's Amazing We Get Anything Done At All

Photo by Sean McEntee via Flickr

Been reading Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It by James Q. Wilson.

Aside from realizing that Gov 2.0 isn't all that new - they called it "Reinventing Government" back in the Clinton era - I am starting to realize that federal agencies present a unique kind of sociological challenge: Paradox!

As Wilson points out:
  1. Federal agencies are inherently paradoxical institutions- they must be responsive to the Administration (temporary) while also stable beyond it, acting as a permanent civil service outside of politics
  2. Agency missions can be paradoxical- e.g. regulate and serve the same population
  3. Managers must ensure that workers work, but obstacles prevent them from issuing reward or punishment
  4. Employees are technically accountable to managers,but in reality answer to others - the American people, Congress, etc. - their stakeholders go beyond, may have a different view, and change frequently
...and Wilson doesn't say this outright but putting 2 + 2 together -

      5. Employees are motivated by purpose (my work is meaningful), status (I am recognized for my contribution), and solidarity (I am part of an important agency), but there is a bias that says they will "shirk"or "subvert" at every opportunity.

Making the federal agency/management task even more complicated is the fact that agencies vary in terms of what they visibly produce. Ranking them from most to least preferable, from my point of view:
  • Optimal: Outputs + outcomes - Employees' activities are observable (e.g. how many phone calls taken) and impact is observable (customer satisfaction with agency responsiveness). We can measure efficiency.
  • Somewhat OK: Outcomes only - Employee operates largely unsupervised, but meaningful results can be measured (e.g. number of would-be terrorists stopped). We can measure results.
  • Less optimal: Outputs only - Adherence to process can be measured. Positive in that you know what people are doing; negative in that the effort could be purposeless relative to actual progress.
  • Least desirable: Neither outputs or outcomes: You can't see what they do and you can't tell what difference it makes.
So how the heck do we get anything done in the first place? How do we measure it?

Wilson says that basically, we are self-motivated and peer-motivated. We want to do our duty, and we want our peers to respect us.

That's all well and good, but is there anything else we can do to untangle some of these knots?

What can be done to help simplify, focus, and sharpen our efforts?

 All opinions, as always, are my own.

"Auschwitz Hands" and the Importance of Reframing

Frame the sky
Photo by Maarten van Maanen via Flickr

My father's mother walked around like a ghost most of the time. Her hands shook terribly. She passed that on to my father, and he to my sister and me.

May she rest in peace.

I hope Bubbie knows that I think of her now. Not with embarrassment the way I used to. Instead with respect, compassion, sorrow.

She went dutifully through life and performed the role assigned to her. Even though inside she had been left nearly dead.

My hands shake when I try to hold things steady. I tell myself nobody can see it or I find ways to avoid being observed. Like I prefer heavy cameras to pocket-size versions. I don't hold papers out to someone for any length of time.

As a kid I saw my dad's hands shaking and it scared me. But as I think about it now it is a mark of a survivor and of doing one's duty no matter what.

She went through the camp and miraculously got out alive. He grew up in the psychological aftermath - kind of a survivor too. And when my grandmother was so elderly and sick that she could not bring a spoon to her lips, he drove to her alone.

Experiences have no meaning in and of themselves. And how we react is a choice. It is what we do in our heads that makes our lives make sense. As a story with highs, lows, victory, challenge, beginning, middle, end.

My hands aren't shaking right now. And it's not like I'm going to flaunt it. But the next time it happens I will think of it this way: I am a survivor, the child and the grandchild of fighters, and I bear the mark of those who know how to take the hit and carry on.

Survival and responsibility are family traits. Part of who I am today. The battle scars reflect strengths I take into life and business.

What are your marks of strength? In what battles did you earn them? Be proud of who you are and what you've overcome.

Have a good and meaningful day everyone - and good luck!

7 Ways To Keep Naysayers From Ruining Your Brand

Hate Your Guys - Ethan
Image credit: Solid Bond via Flickr

In today's sermon (Feb. 5, "Knowing What To Ignore") Joel Osteen talked about critical question, one that every person confronts sometime:  

How do you handle the naysayers in your life?

"Naysayers" are not constructive critics. They are people who try to tear you down, bit by bit, under the guise of offering "feedback." But somehow, no matter what you do, they just don't like you!

These people always seem to have something to say. Naysayers don't like your:
  1. Identity - nothing you do is ever right
  2. Beliefs - values, philosophy, conscience, spirituality, religion
  3. Relationships - your choice of friends, or a mate; you're not a good enough parent
  4. Profession - you should have been this, or that
  5. Manner, style, even looks - too formal or not formal enough, introvert or extrovert, so on
Even ordinary criticism is hard to take. Osteen recalled a time when he would give a sermon, and it seemed that most people had truly gotten something out of it. But if even one person would come up to him and say something like, "Joel, that really didn't work for me," he would "drive home all depressed."
Over time Osteen learned that disapproval from some was inevitable. And that the more you progress in life, the more you will find that there are people who oppose you. It's not just that you will always have critics. It's that you will always have people who just don't like you no matter what you do.

The more you accomplish, the higher you go, the worse this problem will get.

Jewish people believe this too. Life is basically a series of tests, and it's designed to be hard. The more we take on, the more we achieve, the bigger the obstacles.

Opposition exists because we exist.

What do you do with that personally? How do you handle it when you're running a company?

A useful model that Osteen referred to briefly is the incident in the Bible when the Jewish prophet Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He faced intense opposition. Nothing stuck. So the enemy accused Nehemiah of wanting to build the wall so that he could be king.

In a corporate or brand situation you can imagine the parallels. You build up a company with a unique philosophy - Google and come immediately to mind - and there is tons of interest in your terrific corporate culture. People intuitively "get" how your culture helps your brand. But lurking in the background is a secret desire to rip you apart, to bring you down to the level of the rest of us.

Nehemiah wasn't a corporate leader. His task was much more important - had to build that wall to fortify Jerusalem's defenses. A city without a wall was defenseless.

In the sermon Osteen emphasized that Nehemiah kept going, despite his detractors. But if you look at this simple summary of the events closely, he did that and a whole lot more:
  1. Kept going: As Osteen said, no matter what happened on the outside, the work had to continue: "So we all returned to the wall and each of us continued our work."
  2. Prayed, continuously: Understood that he needed direction from a higher power
  3. Obtained written support from a legitimate authority: It's not enough to count on God or your intuition; people look for tangible evidence that your efforts are legitimate. "And I said to the king, ‘If the king is willing, please give letters to me." 
  4. Faced the problem by responding: Nehemiah sent a message directly, in writing, replying to the lie. Didn't dwell on it, but took care of it. "I sent this reply to Sanballat, ‘What you are saying is not true. You are making it all up.’"
  5. Confronted "the enemy inside": Building a security wall takes time and effort, and the poorer members of the community suffered. Worse, the wealthy were profiting from them: "Then I accused the chief men and the officials. I told them, ‘These people are your own relatives. But you are making unfair profits from them....They were silent, because they had no excuse."
  6. Reassured the team: "I said, ‘Do not be afraid of our enemies. Remember that the *Lord is great and powerful. Fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters. Fight for your wives and your homes.’"
  7. Let authority change hands: When his part of the work was done, put somebody trustworthy in charge - proving that he was not a power-monger.
In his sermon, Osteen talked a lot about choosing your battles. If somebody hates you or the brand you represent, that's a fact and there's not a thing you can do about it. There's no way to win them over and no point in even trying.

At the same time, it's clear from Nehemiah's experience that you can't ignore the detractors either. They are actively trying to bring you down. They use communication, particularly, to harm you. And it's not hard to imagine how your external enemies and your internal ones can work together, in a way, to perpetuate a negative state of affairs.

It seems to me that the most important thing a brand leader of any kind can do is to trust their vision. You have to know in your heart that what you're doing is important - whether you can get support for it or not. The second most important is to assemble and take care of your team. And the third is to confront and remove any obstacles in your path.

If you focus on the task, rather than getting sidetracked by the people who want to make it an issue about you personally, you stand a much greater chance of success than if you start to question who you are - and whether your vision is legitimate.

There is only one you, and you were put here for a purpose. So do everything you can to achieve your goals, and don't let the naysayers distract you.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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