Federal Agency: From Bureaucratic to Top Performing
We worked with the Director of a large, complex, and technologically advanced federal agency. Its mission was critical, but it had become arrogant, bulky, and unresponsive. The number of policies, procedures, products, services, and projects continually expanded - leading to more and more bureaucracy.
The agency ended up with too many departments and each acted as a rigid silo. Interaction between departments was challenging. The organizational hierarchy was steep and rigid. The management style was command and control, and (not surprisingly) employees felt disengaged. Too often when difficult problems surfaced, management disappeared behind closed doors, threw money at the problem, and announced new changes that seldom met objectives.
We introduced and led several agency-wide improvement initiatives that improved performance, and streamline costs by several hundreds of millions of dollars. The successes of our project teams were exciting, but as we looked to the future, we knew substantive changes were needed. We proposed reinventing the whole agency. The Director not only agreed but was fully committed.
Select the Right Reinvention Team Members
We worked with the Director to carefully identify those that would be the ideal next round of top leaders. These hand-selected individuals were assigned to work full-time on one of three different reinvention teams. These teams were organized around the core missions of the agency.
We took the leadership teams through a five phased process highlighted below.
We had the teams start the journey by meeting with stakeholders, customers, and partners. The teams asked for frank assessments, and the feedback wasn’t good. And, teams felt “safe” to share the needed changes with the Director. Such trust and honesty could never have emerged under the old, bureaucratic culture. Every team prepared a compelling “case for change” report. The message was clear: the agency needed to change! The Director led the charge in sharing the reports with stakeholders, partners, customers, and the workforce
Assess the Current State
We then provided tools to help the teams review outcomes, customers, products, services, processes, technologies, organizational structures, leadership practices, and the workforce. Within a relatively short time, it was clear a complete redesign was needed. We weren’t agile and prepared enough to meet the many new challenges of the future.
Conduct Best Practices
Learning about best practices (or benchmarking) is arguably the most important part of a reinvention. It not only helps teams to learn from others, it helps them to think more innovatively. But, the agency was and is unique. So, how could we compare ourselves to any other organization?
Eventually, we were able to create a unique perspective which empowered us to do meaningful comparisons. Here is what we did. We looked at basic functions and outcomes in other world-class companies and asked:
- Who does something similar (in at least one area) as we do?
- Are their outcomes “the best”
- How can we apply what they are doing to our own culture?
- What can we learn?
- Is what we are learning useful to our organization?
We visited these organizations with a purpose. And, we also shared information from our own culture about what was working well and what needed improvement. Every visit taught us something valuable we could apply to our own “unique” culture. It seems we weren’t as “unique” in all or every area as we thought we were. This was a surprising and happy realization.
The agency's mission requires it to be an innovation leader. To perform this critical mission, the agency needed to be several years ahead of all others in the same key areas. Teams went through a series of innovation exercises to identify new breakthroughs on which we should focus.
Our teams involved others throughout the organization in the design, prototyping, and piloting new ways of doing things. During the design phase, they:
- Identified clearly the needed outcomes,
- Defined the detailed requirements of our stakeholders and customers,
- Redesigned and developed new products and services,
- Designed and rolled out new processes, technologies, measurements, and knowledge management systems,
- Defined the needed roles, skills, traits, culture, and organization structures,
- Developed transition plans.
Leaders and employees moved forward confidently to implement new solutions.
Managing the change as effectively as possible, was a top priority. Considerable energy was dedicated to keeping stakeholders, customers, leaders, and employees aware and engaged throughout this process. This was done through town-hall meetings, ongoing presentations, staff meetings at all levels, focus groups, interviews, internal websites, memorandum, counseling, etc.
We had an incredibly talented workforce with skills that were unique and critical. The organization had invested heavily in training and helping its employees become as skilled and competent as possible.
We consulted with top executives of top technology firms who had successfully reinvented their corporations from top to bottom. We asked them, (and other thought leaders), for advice on how to best manage the change process. Their advice was simple. Just be as open and transparent, and clear as you can throughout the process. Also, provide people with as much lead time as you can. Share with them what changes will be made and why, and how it might impact them.
We prioritized our stakeholders, partners, and customers. The teams spent considerable time digging in to deeply understand their needs. Based on that, we redefined and customized our products and services to meet their exact needs. The need for agility, flexibility, and mobility were common themes. We also carefully engineered our processes, technologies, organizational structures, roles, and leadership practices to best deliver our offerings.
The careful top-down engineering and planning paid off. We were able to significantly improve mission outcomes, reduce costs, and strengthen the culture. The agency became a fundamentally different place from top to bottom.
Because of successes the mission of the agency expanded quickly. The Director was later promoted to cabinet position and headed up the integration, and modernization of several departments and agencies.