Managing through the buzz

There are scores of management buzzwords — "project-based structures," "operational decentralization" and "horizontal links," to name a few. During one presentation at this year's Excellence in Government Conference in Washington, D.C., all those terms adorned a single Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint slide.

One man clutching an oversized notebook grumbled: "Everyone agrees these are important, but nobody can explain how to do them."

How do agency executives make sense of that jargon to help project leaders work more effectively?

Patricia McLagan, chairwoman of McLagan International Inc., a management and performance consulting firm, has made a career out of translating such language into everyday terms.

A 30-year management consulting veteran, she helped NASA change its strategy from "How do we go to the moon?" to "Let's get a space shuttle running." She is now working on a reorganization effort at the Interior Department.

McLagan said today's federal managers are under more pressure than ever to bring their organizations in line with the Bush administration's directives, and technology projects can be particularly trying. She said half of all information technology projects come in 200 percent over budget, and 30 percent are shelved or canceled. But there is a new urgency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for agencies to share information, and the number and importance of IT projects are increasing.

The success of a technology project can hinge on how the people affected by it are involved in the process. Managers must motivate employees to not only accept but facilitate change. This is difficult, but undergoing change without proper management is harder, she said.

First and foremost, McLagan believes every tech project must include a plan to manage people's reaction to change. Managers should identify stakeholders and ensure they understand why the change is important. "Many projects fail because the question 'Why are we doing this?' is not adequately answered and understood by key stakeholders," she said.

McLagan recommends using "opinion leaders" within the organization. These individuals often are not part of management but are considered good sources of advice. Including them can be an effective way of gaining support and disseminating important information throughout an organization.

When departments merge or technology deployments create new jobs, McLagan recommends filling those positions quickly. "The fact that [people] are in the new job will accelerate the change process," she said. "A lot of agencies will restructure, and some of them will wait and wait before moving a person into the job."

Getting employees from multiple levels of the organization to collaborate with experts on a new project is another effective way to manage change. It is helpful to have "experts working with the people who need to do the work," McLagan said.

Education can also play an important part. By ensuring people have the knowledge and skills they need for their new roles, managers can effect change. "People often go into a workshop and get some 'ah ha's,' " she said.

McLagan also noted that resistance to change is good. "When I see it, I encourage people to talk about it," she said, adding that opposition shows employees are dedicated to a particular system.

"These are good tools to have," said David Kepley, an employee at the National Archives and Records Administration who heard McLagan speak at the Excellence in Government conference. "Use a hammer for the nails and a screwdriver for the screws."

He was skeptical that any one manager could master all of these techniques. "Nobody can do all of those things," he said, "but you can have a team of people with different skills working together."

Linskey is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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Taking it from the top

Some traditional top down management techniques have a place in modern organizations, said management consultant Patricia McLagan. Rewards can be powerful ways of effecting change, she said. McLagan recommended some management techniques for use near the end of a project to "cement good behavior." In order to help employees adapt to change, it is useful to show them that acting a certain way is in their own best interests. Agencies need to use directives, which are specific orders employees must follow because the boss has instructed them to do so. Although people generally do not like orders, there is a place for this tool when personal safety or legal issues must be addressed, McLagan said.

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