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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Authority, Responsibility, Management

           “I can’t do anything about that agency,” the government official said. “I don’t have authority over it.”
          The statement reflects a primitive, fundamentally flawed management philosophy, for a number of reasons.
          For one thing, it implies that one-way exercise of power is the only way government can function.
          For another, it denies the speaker’s responsibility for outcomes he/she can’t control.
          You can find the same kind of thinking in nongovernmental organizations.

          In the real world, though, it is delusional for anyone in a position of authority to believe you make things happen as a continuing practice by ordering them done.
Organizations headed by such people tend to be circuses of hypocrisy and just-pretend. They become progressively less functional as they lose good people and gain a culture of fictional behaviors.
No one has all the answers, and smart leaders know how to spread authority around in the right places, and how to empower people to use it with pride to multiply quality results.
Conversely, people willing to be treated as lackeys pretend respect and compliance while they play hidden games that hollow out the operation.
You don’t dare question a dictatorial boss, but you don’t waste time and energy actually trying to carry out all of his/her stupid directives, either. Such bosses often see what they want to see, while they punish and humiliate those who don’t stay in line.

          Bad bosses have bad bosses. When a power-obsessed incompetent is allowed to continue in place, it’s because someone agrees with the behavior, isn’t paying attention or is practicing avoidance or denial. The boss’s boss isn’t doing the job.
          That is as true in the private sector as it is in public service. If you are elected or appointed to a position of power, it is because you are expected to get certain things done. That’s the responsibility part.
          If you take your responsibility seriously, you equip yourself with the skills and practices you need to get the desired results or as close to those results as possible. So you build relationships, and you learn and respond to the motivations of other people in the environment.
You respect and understand how others see their authority and responsibility. You work creatively and persistently in the realm of the possible. You negotiate, giving and taking in at atmosphere of mutual dependency and respect.

          That sounds a lot like project management. While “government as business” is in many ways a failed concept, there is significant value in seeing project management as politics.
          The typical functional manager in business, industry or the nonprofit world generally has more formal authority than the typical political leader – and far more than the typical project manager.
          What is common to all management roles, though, is the responsibility to achieve results through obtaining the constructive involvement and contributions of other people. What you can’t order into place, you must nurture into being.
          Power needs responsibility.
          Responsibility demands collaboration.
          Collaboration must be earned.
          Authority is dependent upon competence.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Project Elect Me

Government should be run like a business. Right or wrong?
Pick your side and jump right in. The debate is just as hot as ever, so be prepared for a lively time.
The current primary election campaign is a fine venue for excessive mutual battering among political true believers. And it wouldn’t be the same, would it, without the good old government/business bull in the arena?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney presents his business experience as exactly what the country needs to haul it out of the current economic swamp. As an immensely successful practitioner of business, he promises to turn Washington around in a hurry.
The competing candidates running on more standard public service resumes tout their experiential distance from the seat of national power as a central qualification for the presidency. Doesn’t make them all businessmen, exactly, but at least it implies less entanglement in standard political thinking.
In a related case, the sitting governor of Maine was among several around the country elected last year as fervent proponents of installing businesslike government. In office, Gov. LePage, a former retail executive and part-time mayor, often refers to business thinking as the driving principle for his actions and proposals.
We should pay attention to these propositions, as well as those of the opposite or differing persuasions. Even during a primary campaign, they are not necessarily hot air.
By the time the dust, smoke and mirrors of this campaign clear in a year or so, some of these people are going to be making and enforcing your laws. Presidents have lots of authority of various kinds, and close contenders frequently wind up in – or return to – other powerful positions.
We expect them, once in office, to pursue whatever it is that convinced a sufficient number of people to vote for them. Those of us who did so believed that doing it meant something.
Project managers can provide special value to their fellow citizens in times like these. That’s because the campaigns themselves are projects, and the changes proposed by the candidates will require project management if they are to be achieved.
Since that is so, here are a very few of the points one could apply in evaluating the project of running for office with the intent of mounting the project of changing government.
First, the political campaign as project.
What is the nature of this project? It is a marketing project, right? The fundamentals of marketing are identifying a need, analyzing the prospective customer, defining an effective solution and convincing the prospect to buy it.
That’s what candidates and their staffs do.
The most convincing factor a marketer can employ is an absolute fact that is of obvious, immediate value to the targeted consumer. When the value isn’t all that obvious, it’s up to the salesperson to persuasively explain its worth according to the prospect’s way of thinking.
The further the pitch gets from absolute, obvious fact, the more carefully we consumers should examine it before buying.
So what is the assessment of a political campaign whose main thrust is seeking to convince the customer that the other guy is a jerk or a crook? Does our discerning project manager see that as a satisfactory proposition?
You want to know how well the candidate understands what we citizens need and want, how credible the candidate’s proposed solutions are, and how competent that candidate is likely to be in delivering once in office.
Candidates who play on our fears and perceived prejudices as their central message are high-risk/low-trust project managers. We don’t vote for them.
How about that fascinating “government-as-business” concept?
This is where the project manager wants to see the candidate’s definition of “business,” as well as his/her definition of “government.”
Is the candidate’s intent to promise crisp, sharp, swift decisions on important matters of public concern? In the real world, that matches poorly with both business and American-style government.
The accurate definition of “business” is as varied as the countless differences among the countless businesses in our world.
Most well-run businesses, though, do have relatively stable lines of authority and reasonably well-defined target markets. Democracy, by its nature, has neither. This doesn't even touch on the fundamental issue of profit vs. service.
Your government-as-business candidate is proposing a hell of a fight from the get-go, with high likelihood of getting nowhere in a hurry, and/or a lengthy, destructive struggle.
Not good project management.