Mission not meetings: How government leaders could avoid self-sabotage

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When thinking about your organization, do any of these bureaucratic habits sound familiar?

  • insisting on doing everything through “channels”
  • never permitting shortcuts
  • referring all matters to committees for “further study and consideration”
  • making the committees as large as possible—and never less than five members
  • haggling over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions
  • referring constantly to matters decided upon at the last meeting
  • advocating “caution,” focusing on being “reasonable,” and avoiding haste—and urging others to do the same
  • raising the question of whether an action, as contemplated, lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with some higher echelon

If you’re like many of the government leaders we’ve spoken to, these habits will sound painful, but not new. And indeed, they aren’t. This list, entitled “General Interference with Organizations and Production,” was published by the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, in its 1944 Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

While many leaders may recognize their own experience with slow-moving, process-driven, hierarchical, and risk-averse organizations, thinking of it as sabotage (in effect, self-sabotage) may be shocking—but it can also be enlightening. And in a sector where missions are inspiring and employees’ commitment to them runs deep, getting the organization out of the way of the mission by defeating self-sabotage could unlock significant potential.

Based on our decades of experience in driving organizational and cultural change in institutions across sectors, we will address two questions that the Simple Sabotage Field Manual begs. First, why are so many of today’s government leaders living with pain points that were recommended nearly 80 years ago to would-be saboteurs (right between damaging radio equipment and disrupting military supply chains)? Second, how have some organizations overcome this self-sabotage?

Potential root causes of self-sabotage in government organizations

We do not believe that public-sector organizations are inherently or intrinsically self-sabotaging. Despite this all-too-common refrain, we have seen countless examples of inspiring transformation in government units of all sizes and mission sets.

Rather, we know firsthand that there are unique elements of how organizations work in the public sector, and it is important to understand and address these elements when organizations work to improve their performance.

So, if self-sabotage is not inevitable, why is it still a problem for so many in government organizations? While each context is unique, our experience working with government leaders suggests that there are a few root causes that are consistent across many public-sector organizations that struggle with unproductive behaviors:

  • many competing strategic priorities, without transparency into which are most important and how to measure progress
  • a legacy structure, with many layers from top to bottom and multiple overlapping or “matrixed” offices interacting in highly formalized ways
  • outdated people management processes that emphasize tenure more than talent and “one-size-fits-all” career paths
  • a compliance-based or “mission assurance” culture and governance that focuses more on top-down control and minimizing risk than maximizing impact
  • dated technology run by offices with analog systems and processes

Together, these root problems often create a system of incentives that encourage and reward the sabotaging behaviors of individuals within the system—and which, at scale, could result in self-sabotaging government organizations.

Lessons from leading organizations

Unproductive bureaucracies usually spring from the best of intentions. Indeed, there have been periods in recent American history when the forces created by and sustaining what now feels like self-sabotage were stabilizing. A system that is slow, consensus-driven, compliance-based, and focused on minimizing risk is inherently biased to the status quo, which can prevent misallocating resources, taking on too much risk, or making costly mistakes. A system can settle at this equilibrium and stay there comfortably for some time—and many government organizations did just that through the late 20th century.

But times have changed. As we get deeper into the 21st century, citizens’ expectations of government services—as they relate to speed, responsiveness, and quality—are higher. And government is not meeting expectations. In our prior survey research on the customer experience of thousands of citizens around the world, government was the bottom-performing industry in every country, and US government lagged behind the top-performing American industry by almost three points on a ten-point scale. Moreover, the private sector is moving faster and competing with government in new ways. New external forces, from climate change to hackers, are on the rise globally, and innovation is no longer an opportunity but a growing necessity. In a catchphrase, the modern world has become increasingly “VUCA”—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—and there is no more room for self-sabotage.

In our experience, we have seen five common elements that have helped some organizations move beyond self-sabotage and thrive. We call such organizations a “modern enterprise.” These five levers—strategy, structure, people, process, and technology unlocks—offer a view of what may be possible for government:

  1. Do less, sequence more. Successful organizations are aligned on a handful of priorities, how resources work toward them, and how progress is measured.

    Modern enterprises regularly revisit their list of strategic priorities to ensure they don’t multiply and become unwieldy. Instead, they keep them trimmed to roughly ten priorities that are likely to yield the most value. By communicating a “North Star,” or the mission-based reason underpinning these priorities, how they can achieve it, and how progress will be measured toward targets at the unit, team, and individual level, leaders create a “value agenda” that everyone in the organization can rally around. Matching this with data-driven progress reviews on a quarterly basis and transparently sharing results and corrective actions can create true performance management, allowing for momentum building and resource (re)allocation, which are essential to long-term success. In the private sector, companies that regularly reallocate more than 49 percent of their resources can more than double shareholder returns over a decade compared with those that reallocate less than 30 percent. Modern enterprises do not have to do everything at once; when targets are achieved, they can refocus on the next tranche and see it through to completion.

    Government is unique in several ways in this context. First, the North Star is often clearer and more immediately compelling than in the private sector. However, measurement in government can often be siloed and sometimes even absent, so the exercise of cascading the North Star into objectives and key results (OKRs) may require more effort and leadership attention than in a private firm. Also, given the manual nature of many government data systems, ensuring that OKRs are easily measurable (or better still, automatable) could prevent churn on the staff throughout the organization. A good rule of thumb is that time spent on performance management should be roughly 20 percent measurement and 80 percent management—not the inverse. Also, every public-sector organization exists within a unique political environment, where changing external priorities can necessitate regular reprioritization of internal strategic goals. Finally, in-year resource reallocation can be difficult in many government agencies, due to what is colloquially called the “colors of money.” However, within these categories of expenditure, there may often be leeway for financial managers to reallocate funds to benefit the strategy in the near term while bigger funding shifts are rolling out, often over the course of years (see sidebar, “MyVA transformation”).

  2. Rethink the org chart. Modern enterprises organize around value creation. Small, cross-functional teams working toward outcomes can unlock progress.

    Modern enterprises previously wrestled with the need to attack multiple, organization-wide issues quickly and simultaneously, and many of them moved past earlier mechanical, boxes-and-lines organization charts to meet these needs. While “agile” is overused, there are potential lessons to be learned from breaking down organizational matrices (where there are multiple overlapping lines of accountability) and matching teams with scope, resources, and outcomes to deliver. This shifts the talent function to focus on developing excellence while also dynamically deploying and redeploying talent as the mission demands. It may help to have a shared compact on the standard operating procedures for how work gets done smoothly by people from these different teams and to reallocate talent as strategic priorities shift, and not just as people “time out” of their current role. Among public companies, those that report agile talent management (including “flow to work” or other practices) are six times more likely to outperform their competitors in TSR than those with ineffective talent management systems.

    Ironically, government organizations can be on the leading edge of agility and working in cross-functional teams—during crises. Public-sector organizations have come together at lightning speed to manage an external shock, respond to an unexpected high-level request, or deliver something big. Too often, however, when the crisis is over, public-sector organizations flip from this “flow state” back into a “slow state,” with long-standing processes and sequential, cross-silo collaboration. To break this cycle and stay in the flow state, government could make everyday priorities a mission-critical crisis. They should, however, avoid a “zombie” task force—one that stands up and then never goes back down—by drawing a finish line for the work a group will do together. Especially in public-sector areas that are fundamentally cross-functional and time-bound—like contracting and procurement—these systems can potentially unlock firepower and excite the workforce at the same time.

  3. Upgrade talent. Modern enterprises find ways to “get the best and reskill the rest” to ensure that the best minds are working with the skills they need to deliver.

    Modern enterprises attract the best talent, and they are retaining it even as a tight labor market has spawned a scramble for qualified workers—a trend referred to as the Great Attrition. In a world of record job departures and unprecedented employee willingness to leave without a new opportunity in hand (over 40 percent of leavers in a recent survey said they had no intention of returning to a traditional job within six months), they do this by building and enacting best-in-class talent strategies stemming from a deep understanding of which roles and capabilities create the most value for the organization. Contrary to popular belief, these are not just the boxes at the top of the organization chart. Rather, modern enterprises use analytics to identify jobs that drive disproportionate strategic value and then apply those analytics to measure current and future workforce gaps. In order to attract and retain the talent to do so, these organizations articulate an employee value proposition, or what makes working for the organization valuable for each member of the team. This proposition is matched with competitive benefits and opportunities in key roles to ensure that high performers stay on.

    One of the most common refrains we hear is that personnel management is more complex in government than in the private sector—which is true and should be acknowledged. But the core tenets of what works for high performers remains the same, and the mission-centric motivation of many government employees forms a strong foundation for an attractive employee value proposition. But this foundation can only be leveraged if agencies clearly articulate it and then deliver for their employees by acknowledging how their work contributes to the mission. Recent data suggest that there is room for improvement—for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only roughly four of every ten open government jobs have been filled in recent months.1 That lags behind private-sector industries significantly,2 suggesting there is room for improvement in advertising the value of public service. And while salaries may not always be able to compete with the private sector, the offer of comprehensive benefits, better lifestyle, and sense of fulfillment from serving in government is something that public-sector leaders can emphasize. Research suggests that workers, especially younger ones, are looking for a holistic “good job,” and that they may have many options in government.

  4. Get out of the way. Organizations making progress replace moribund processes and resource-intensive management with a culture of accountability, collaboration, and excellence.

    Processes and culture are inextricably linked, and in government, they can work together toward a slower, zero-risk answer. But modern enterprises start with a culture of empowerment and accountability—emphasizing testing and learning, failing often, and growing. The government can consider doing the same, but it likely requires a fundamental shift in leadership to a model where seniors empower, energize, and coach their teams, rather than controlling how work gets done. In particular, the oversight and governance role of the corporate center is often reevaluated in modern enterprises for a move to focus more on what the organization should be doing and how to measure and remove roadblocks to achieve it. The biggest culture and process shifts (for example, how decisions are made and communicated) in modern enterprises are measured and communicated with the same rigor as the performance-based strategic OKRs. To achieve them, modern enterprises embed mindsets and behaviors such as identifying and training future leaders and underpinning in-person and virtual communications.

    Governance (defined too often as “meetings” and not often enough as “how decisions are made”) is perhaps, in our experience, one of the biggest pain points for top public-sector leaders. And the Gordian knot of process and culture is usually at fault. Government leaders, therefore, can wade in with eyes wide open, conscious that both these factors can be attacked together and that marginal progress will not suffice. The good news is that, because there is often so much extra time spent in meetings that often do not (if ever) yield decisions, one of the biggest shifts that government leaders could make at the beginning of change efforts is to stop holding so many meetings, and instead, return time and energy to their staff. When this happens, there may be a few things that may reemerge, but often, many person-hours can be saved without a commensurate dip in speed or effectiveness of decision making. We’ve found that over 80 percent of executives are considering or already implementing changes in meeting structure and cadence in response to the evolution in how people work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’d encourage government leaders to do the same. However, as public-sector organizations work on shifting away from top-down, hierarchical cultures, top leaders themselves could role-model the new way: to support midlevel leaders in their remit, to delegate their own decisions and refuse to make by default the ones that still boil up, and to celebrate those who fail fast. New reinforcing mechanisms, like a greater reliance on cross-functional teams (or small groups of hand-selected individuals who come together to solve a specific problem in a specified period of time and then return to their everyday jobs) could also help to break out of slow, legacy ways of getting work done.

  5. Let technology flow. Modern enterprises move from legacy technology units bottlenecking progress to a less centralized, more responsive model.

    Modern enterprises are nearly always digital natives—but this requires a series of interrelated enablers. First, they prioritize a common platform infrastructure or “backbone” organization-wide to allow for development and deployment of tools and technologies at a much faster clip. In many enterprises, this requires simplifying the core technology stack and architecture for accessibility and the enablement of application programming interfaces (APIs) and microservices. Doing so also allows for broader adoption of various workplace tools to increase collaboration and experimentation, within an atmosphere of uncompromising focus on cybersecurity. Finally, leading organizations work to embed data, analytics, and AI across the operating model to support humans with facts and recommendations to inform their choices.

    Government has generally been slower on the uptake of digital, and it faces a number of constraints. For example, the public sector often has higher regulatory requirements, fixed annual technology budgets, and aging infrastructure and systems. But the potential value is significant. Our research suggests that digitized government services require 50 percent less time from residents, can lower costs for companies by up to 50 percent, and may save roughly 60 percent of employee effort in case handling when processing is automated. During the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies had to adapt in real time to provide unprecedented volumes or wholly new types of services to residents, and there were many inspiring examples of rapid and responsive rollouts across the country. As the pandemic fades, there is an opportunity for public-sector technology organizations to build on this momentum and continue to move further toward the quick innovation and prototyping approaches they used during the pandemic to deliver new capabilities faster. By embracing these modern ways of working, the public sector could deliver new digital capabilities faster and more effectively and begin to address the constraints that these organizations have had to grapple with in the past.

Change anywhere is hard and change in government has unique challenges. But the government also has its special advantages—first among them a shared commitment to an inspiring mission, which is a strength not to be overlooked or downplayed.

Understanding what modern enterprises look like—what drives them and how they get work done on a day-to-day basis—could be the first step for government leaders to get inspired, learn, and evolve. Striving for modern enterprises will feel like a paradigm shift in government, swinging the pendulum from the inertia of “how we’ve always done things” to innovation in every aspect of how the mission gets done.

What will it take to begin fighting self-sabotage? First, it must be said that self-sabotage is a system problem, not one that can be solved by hiring a single individual or launching one temporary task force. To address the system, then, leaders may wish to start from the future and work back, instead of falling into the trap of immediately fighting what feel like the worst fires of today. If a top team can come together and align around a compelling aspiration for the future, as well as some of the biggest from-to shifts required to achieve it, they likely have what they need to start building a coalition to spark change and some initial areas of focus. Moving from this aspiration to a rigorous assessment of current-state gaps could then ensure that entities tasked to make change are laser-focused on attacking the most impactful elements of the operating model, and this is where the story truly begins.

Moving from self-sabotage to truly modern government enterprises will not be an easy fix. However, defeating self-sabotage, once and for all, may be precisely what this moment demands.

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