Avoid the transition slowdown

Empowering employees is critical to sustaining government gains, a Cisco executive says

Like federal agencies, Cisco Systems is transforming its organization and working to sustain performance during the transition to a new administration.

The provider of networking equipment and management is migrating from a top-down organizational structure to one that fosters collaboration and teamwork at all levels of the company. In an interview with Federal Computer Week, Randy Pond, Cisco’s executive vice president of operations, processes and systems, offered some best practices for sustaining system and process transformation gains in uncertain times.

FCW: What are some challenges both Cisco and government agencies face in transforming their enterprises?

POND: It’s the three pillars: people, process and information technology. The challenge is different in different environments. The government can get better leverage out of its IT — [those systems that] have a process orientation to them. The change management of people is the biggest problem. You have to do it so it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a possible negative impact. That’s what scares people about change.

Our challenge is that the work that businesses need to get done exceeds the current resources available. With these changes, we can free you up to do other things to move the enterprise along. We’ll craft a vision of where we see the work going and move you from where you are to there, if you’re intellectually curious and you have enough IQ. At Cisco, we have taken people off the manufacturing floor who were parts chasers and made them demand planners. We retrain people. Some can’t make the transformation, the work or culture.

People going into the workforce to do certain work over the next two to five years have to realize they won’t be doing the same work in six to 10 years. Work will continue to transform. We’re going to pay people for breadth, not depth. Most organizations pay for depth, for deep content knowledge, but that’s going away.

People who move across several functions during their career here — such as IT, finance, customer service, manufacturing and who are now vice presidents — I can put them on any cross-functional project and know that [the work] will get done. I’m willing to pay a premium for that. You have to let them know that they can move across the organization and land somewhere and that we’re not going to pay you for your current skills. We’re going to pay you for your leadership skills and willingness to learn new things.

FCW: How else is the employee changing in your organization? Are you mixing collaboration into your traditional command-and-control mode?

POND: What we’re trying to say to businesses is that teamwork and collaboration play well when you’re analyzing a problem, looking at possible solutions, gathering data to make sure that you get everybody’s opinion on the table and discussed. But once the decision is made and you’ve moved to execution mode, that’s when we’re telling the managers and leaders, turn off the collaboration and turn on execution. Now is the time for command and control. Now is the time to execute the plan. Unless there’s something fundamentally wrong, don’t go back to the collaborative loop because all it will do is slow you down. It’s part of leadership.

For example, when we lost our engineering leader, we looked at the team and said no one [person] can run this. Let’s run it as a team. We created an eight-person leadership team, and they run engineering as a council. First, 70 percent of their compensation is tied to the total results of their group. It drives the collaborative spirit. Second, they’ve [divided] the work so two are responsible for leadership, development and assessment; two for portfolio management and analysis; two for budgeting; and two for global deployment of resources.

They now have to let go and empower their peers to take the work. The peers who do the work are then enabled by reaching out to their peers in the next level down. As they create a board or working group, they make certain that everyone gets represented.

I think the organization is more functional today than it was under a single leader because they overcommunicate in a way that didn’t happen before.

FCW: How can agencies sustain transformation during the transition to the next administration?

POND:
They have to be aware of the human resources side of the conversation. I think you have to identify who the change agents are in an organization. Frequently, they can be two levels down. But you have to be sure you don’t pull the leader and the primary change agent out at the same time during the transition. We use a tool, part of Six Sigma, to determine who actually is in charge and has influence on the change and who has to be held accountable for it. There are all kinds of tools like that that help you create a view of a project that is less hierarchical and more about how things are getting done.

Change can’t always happen from the top. Part of the transformation change is that they’ve got to be able to delegate it down. At Cisco, when we started the councils, they were led by my peers. We purposely put in senior executives as leaders. But over time, now none of my peers are the drivers of any of those councils. We sit on them. We’re not pushing the decision-making and the change process down into the business because we’re getting more comfortable empowering our people to make those decisions for us.

For example, one council, through which Cisco’s [chairman and chief executive officer] John Chambers said he wanted to see a certain outcome happen, spent four weeks at the council and board level looking at what he wanted to have happen and realized we couldn’t do that. But they could make some other things happen. We sent it to a workgroup, and four new innovations came out of it that were different from what John expected to happen. Now those four are being executed as part of the overall priority. It would be different from the way he wanted it to happen, but we articulated what could and couldn’t happen and how we could innovate.

Under the old way, we would launch a thousand ships, and I still might not get what was wanted even though it was what we were asked to do. We were such an execution kind of organization because we were moving so fast.

We’re actually much more effective now in terms of getting measurable results out of the transformation work. Boards and councils make that happen. In the past, the chain of command would not have let that happen. It slows down in the front end, but the execution goes much faster, and the end results are much better than they were.

Documentation is another important way to sustain gains. The consistency of the documentation will give leverage to move this forward and get past any of the changes that come as a result of transitioning to a new administration or even just in a standard transfer as a person’s career progresses. It’s more than a manual. Process documentation isn’t what you consider standard policies and procedures. There’s a little more context to it.

You create an awareness inside of the business of what’s going on, and you test. If I’m here and you’re three or four levels below me, what message are you getting? That’s why I meet with the directors because I always want to know the message they’re getting. The message can get filtered.

FCW: What are some other best practices you’ve learned at Cisco that government could use?

POND:
You’ve got to earn your way up the pyramid. One of the mistakes I’ve seen in transformation is that they take the biggest, hardest project in the organization and try to sell it. But if you can do small, quick wins to demonstrate that transformation can happen and can get the right business results, you start creating a new thinking around metrics and around value propositions for the people in terms of getting new and different work. Then it’s easier to tackle the bigger projects. If you start big, you stall.

Second, how you measure has to change in transformation because if you aren’t measuring leading indicators as part of the transformation, you delude yourself that you’re getting results when you’re not.

Third, as a leadership team, you have to test change management at all levels of the enterprise. You can’t trust that what you’re driving is getting communicated by your captains all the way through the organization to their captains and what you’re getting back is a true rendition of what’s actually happening. So you skip levels. You get bodies together and you have conversations. What do you think of this, what are you hearing, what’s the impact to you? You test at all levels of the organization to make certain that you’re not getting someone just nodding and then not doing anything.

During our transformation, there was a re-education of managers with me going to all-hands meetings at different functions to communicate why we were doing it, the impact on them and finding a new role for them in the organization as things change. It takes a lot of perseverance. You can’t assume that you communicate it once and it sticks. This is an endless process.

As a leader, communicating and communicating and overcommunicating are needed to make this work. For example, we had 2,500 employees at a leadership forum off-site, but we taped it and made it available online so all the company could see it — including John Chambers’ keynote [address], me talking about process and transformation. We use the tools to make things available and then push it to the audience regularly. It’s a constant reminder.

Another thing as part of our communications is we use storytelling and examples in every presentation. They add substance and context. 

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