John Klossner

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Is it leadership and innovation? Or leadership vs. innovation?

Klossner goalieMy closet is a mess. I am reminded of this as the seasons change and I have to make the transition between readily available cold-weather clothing to readily available warm-weather clothing. This transition does not necessarily take care of my mess -- I have developed a system over the years of pushing the sweaters to the side and pulling the T-shirts to the front, and vice versa. The world outside of my closet would not see me as disorganized: I run a relatively successful freelance business, I speak in complete sentences (except when the Boston Celtics are involved) and I like to keep my kitchen sink area clean at the end of the day. (Okay, my lawn is not a uniform height, but that is an experiment to see at which height grass growth will slow down.) But I know that my closet is a mess. Does this mean I, too, am a mess? Should closets in general be a place of order? After all, this is a small room where we choose to hide our clothing from the world. Weren't closets, in fact, created to hide our messes?

My question to myself is, do I need to make changes in my closet? I think of this as I read accounts of how to approach change in the workplace. For those of you who have been away from the planet for a couple years, the word "change" has been bandied about a bit. But, as you know, change isn't an easily quantifiable process. How do we measure "change?" And do we recognize when we have it? Since change is a constant, maybe we need to consider different ways to view "change."

For starters, I think you need to begin by changing small, just to recognize the process and be able to get easily viewed results. For example, the president has used the analogy of creating change in the federal government being like turning a cruise ship around. The change I would like to create would be to put a moratorium on the cruise ship analogy -- it has been used beyond its expiration date. Of course getting the world to stop using the "we're-turning-a-cruise ship- around" analogy would be like turning a cruise ship around.

What is the goal? Willie Nelson once said "you can't make a record if you ain't got nothing to say." Do you want to make a specific change? Or do you just want to be heard? I think a distinction has to be made between creating change and being heard. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be heard, and making sure people feel heard could be a good change in many situations.

I read a recent conversation on GovLoop about how to make decisions to create change in your organization. Specifically, how and when to "butt heads" in order to let your voice be heard. This created a picture for me of change as a switch that can be turned on and off, as opposed to a hose that is always on and you point in different directions. (Or a cruise ship that is always moving and that you just have to steer very slowly.) What I heard this person saying was that she didn't feel heard, leaving her feeling out of the change process. Her frustration would probably lessen if she knew that she was being heard, even if her ideas for change weren't immediately being implemented.

On a related note, I would recommend presenting ideas for change in the best light. I picture managers being inundated by a tsunami of ideas (threatening to overturn their cruise ship) from the many creative individuals in their offices. If each of these people chooses to butt heads, the management can become quickly overwhelmed, probably shutting off the possibilities for change. As someone who works very far from a group situation, I probably sound naive when I recommend finding a critical mass for ideas. Is the experience in these situations that management closes the door and doesn't offer any opportunity for people to be heard? Hearing the phrase "butt heads" makes me think the communication process has started rearranging the deck chairs, if you know what I mean.

On another related note, my wife was once having trouble with a relative who made her feel unheard. This had been a longstanding condition, and she would often consult other family members for advice on the situation. Once, in describing a recent episode with this relative to an older uncle, she became very exasperated and finally said, "How long do I have to keep trying?" The uncle calmly replied, "My dear, as long as it takes." This measured approach must seem quaint in a culture where conversations begin with swords drawn and flaming is as natural as breathing, but it still holds true.

The GovLoop piece linked to a blog entry comparing the ages of those who want to "make change" compared to the ages of most leaders. It is a modern version of the 1960s adage "don't trust anyone over 30." If I were to put on my wise old sage pants (with suspenders) I would say to tread carefully down that road. If someone over 30 has ideas for creating change, does their age make their idea any less valid? Technology has allowed those who use it to feel heard more quickly, but it might not allow change to take place more quickly. And, to paraphrase the New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet, no one knows you're over 30.

Meanwhile, please check out my joke contest, “How many federal employees does it take to change a light bulb?”


Posted by John Klossner on Jun 04, 2010 at 12:19 PM

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


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Reader comments

Tue, Jun 8, 2010 Mike Alexander MA

"Don't trust anyone over 30" came out of the protests at UC Berkeley in 1964 (or thereabouts). Irony of ironies: one of the principal leaders of those protests, Mario Savio, was already older than 30!

Sat, Jun 5, 2010 Don Jacobson

The title of your great post grabbed my attention. I quite agree that leadership and innovation are inextricably linked. The role of the leader is to work through others to bring about change for the better. You can't do that without creating a climate conducive to innovation. There are a lot of managers who don't do that well. There are two sides to this coin, however. Leaders have to be listening actively to identify the good ideas bubbling up in the organization, but follower behaviors are just important. I have seen a lot of younger Feds get frustrated because their ideas to implement obvious problems did not get accepted right away. My blog post "Tips for Change Agents" suggests what government employees with good ideas can do to sell and implement their ideas more effectively.

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