Passionate About Collaboration

Collaboration is one of the key elements of President Obama’s signature Open Government Initiative.  However, federal agencies’ Open Government Plans don’t seem to address it very well.   But collaboration expert Russ Linden says “collaboration is vital, difficult, and learnable.”  And he’s written a book that makes all three of these points.

If you, like many other in government, think collaboration is becoming a critical part of your being successful, his “how to” book is worth reading.  In “Leading Across Boundaries,” Linden draws on two decades of insights, noting:

“Most people in Western countries have two fundamental needs that must be met if they are to be effective in the workplace.  These needs are (1) to be competent (and respected as such) and (2) to belong, to connect to something larger than themselves.


“These two needs are expressed in four questions that most team members ask (not necessarily out loud):


  1. Do I have something to contribute that is needed, recognized, and used by the team?
  2. Are we working on a project that is important to me and my own organization?
  3. Are we making progress: do we have a reasonable chance for success?
  4. How will this project support or threaten any of my core needs or interests (and those of my home organization)?”


He goes on to observe that when team members can answer these positively, that there’s a greater chance for collaborative behavior in the team, and that collaboration is a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

It’s Vital. Linden illustrates how a collaborative mindset is vital with the story of Hurricane Katrina, where FEMA director Michael Brown thought his job was to manage FEMA and couldn’t control other agencies outside his span of control.  In contrast, his successor, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, saw his role as coordinating a huge network of agencies.  He did this by emphasizing transparency of information a ongoing communications.

It’s Difficult.  Linden covers all the tough parts of doing collaboration:  how do you create and sustain trust among the group’s members?  How do you share information?  How do you navigate the different organizational cultures that may be involved in a collaboration (for example, how do you. blend law enforcement and social workers on the same team)?  And how do you deal with difficult people?  He notes that “collaboration inevitably requires negotiation, give and take, and compromise.  Each is easier in the context of a trusting relationship.”  But you often face “huge egos, empire builders, information hoarders, and cultures that reinforce them.”  He offers examples, and techniques to help overcome these difficulties.

It’s Learnable.  The most encouraging part of Linden’s book is that collaborative mindsets are learnable.  He offers key collaborative factors (such as ensuring the appropriate people are at the table).  He defines the tasks and roles of champions and sponsors.  He offers tools and techniques.  He describes strategies for establishing commitment to a project.  And most importantly, he does all of this by using real-life case examples and not theory.  These examples are federal, state, local, non-profit and international in scope.  These include examples of co-locating operations, such as state fusion centers, and the use of data-driven approaches, such as Washington State’s GMAP initiative.

And why is Russ Linden passionate about collaboration?   He concludes his book with: “I am convinced that a collaborative mindset is the leadership characteristic most critical for dealing with the networked world of the twenty-first century.”  I agree!


Doing Big Things in Government

The release of a new book, “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon . . . ,” by Bill Eggers and John O’Leary, helped set the stage for the National Academy of Public Administration’s annual meeting that centered on management issues related to health care reform.

The authors examine big successes undertaken by the government – like the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the moon landing – and draw some lessons about what each took to be successful.  They also contrasted these successes with failures such as Boston’s Big Dig, Iraqi reconstruction efforts, and Hurricane Katrina.

In surveys of senior career executives in the federal government, “60 percent said that government was less capable of executing large projects today than it was thirty years ago,” noted the authors.

The authors declare: “This book is about executing large, important, public initiatives. . . making sound policy choices is critical . . . however, brilliant policies poorly executed will likewise disappoint.” They then look at large government undertakings from a process perspective, identifying six key elements:

  • The undertaking must start with a good idea.
  • The idea must be given specifics, often in the form of legislation, that become an implementable design.
  • The design must win approval, as when a bill becomes law, signaling commitment.
  • There must be competent implementation.
  • The initiative must generate desired results.
  • Over time, the initiative must be subjected to reevaluation.

The authors take on each of these steps, describing potential pitfalls as well practical principles, tools, and techniques to be successful.  They provide entertaining, well-written stories of people and projects, from the efforts of Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen in the wake of Katrina; to the implementation of the 2003 London traffic congestion charging program by Mayor Ken Livingstone; to the rolling blackouts in the California energy crisis of the late 1990s created by well-meaning but ill-designed state legislation, that led to the recall of Governor Gray Davis.

Their book contains insights and warnings helpful to the ongoing health care reform debate.  For example, they note that poor policy design “occurs because the work of drafting a bill that launches a major initiative isn’t generally treated like the design process it truly is.  Instead of a sound, executable design, the goal of the legislative process is often producing a bill that can pass . . . “  The authors continue, “Fully 45 percent of federal executives say that policy is rarely designed by those with relevant experience.  The dramatic disconnect between policy designers and policy implementers is perhaps the most broken part of the journey to success.” They recommend role playing and scenario planning efforts, like those used by military strategists and the private sector before it launches major initiatives.

They conclude with a warning:  “The tendency to see the enactment of legislation as an end unto itself, to claim credit for a great achievement upon the creation of a new law, is one of the most destructive tende3ncies in democratic governance.”

While Congress leads the legislative and policy design, the executive branch (and the Government Accountability Office) could proactively offer insights on the implementability of the pending legislation.  Eggers and O’Leary offer an ideal(istic) approach, recommending an objective “implementation feasibility assessment” to be done by an independent review board, much like the Congressional Budget Office offers its independent assessment of the cost of legislation.  However, that is not likely to happen any time soon!