Story provides map for reinvention efforts

While reading Sensemaking in Organizations, by University of Michigan management professor Karl E. Weick, I came across a story filled with significance for anyone engaged in the work of reinventing government. It's a true story told by Albert Szent-Gysrgyi, the Hungarian Nobel laureate in medicine who discovered Vitamin C, and it goes like this:

A commander of a unit of Hungarian soldiers on training sent a detachment on a reconnaissance mission in the Alps. A terrible blizzard soon began that lasted for two days. The detachment did not return to base, and the commander feared the soldiers were lost.

On the third day, the soldiers returned. The commander asked how they had made it back. The head of the detachment told him that initially the soldiers believed they faced certain death. They stopped trying to find a way back and simply stopped moving, waiting for the end. Then a member of the group found a map in his pocket. The soldiers realized that with the map, they had a chance. They pitched camp and waited out the blizzard. When the storm was over, they used the map to find their bearings and eventually made it back to base.

Later, the commander took a look at the map. To his surprise, he discovered it was not a map of the Alps but one of the Pyrenees!

How did a map of the Pyrenees help the stranded soldiers make it through the Alps? The answer is that it gave the soldiers the confidence to get started on their tough journey. Once started, they were able to use their own ingenuity (clearly not the worthless map) to attain their goal.

When I saw this story, it caused me to reflect on how agencies could change government organization so that it can perform better on behalf of the American people.

Changing government organization is a tough challenge. There's the heavy weight of the many rules and practices that define "how we have always done it around here." There are the clearances and the sign-offs. There's the risk that failure will be punished by inspectors general, congressional committees or the media. There's the belief by federal employees that success is like the proverbial tree in the forest that nobody hears when it falls. There's the popular cynicism with government that puts a damper on all improvement efforts. And last but surely not least, there are the responsibilities and pressures of doing your old job and keeping the trains running on time, even if those trains are creaky and shabby.

In this environment, perhaps the hardest thing about starting an improvement effort is to give people a push. And I don't mean planning or talking about doing something. Giving people a push is what Vice President Al Gore tried to do with the "permission slips" the National Performance Review started handing out in 1993 to give people the confidence to get started reinventing.

When I began my job as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, my biggest concern was to persuade people to try improvements. My view was that action sets the stage for further action. This was the idea behind the "pledges" to push agency people to agree to undertake jointly some concrete actions, such as doubling credit card sales within a year or using past performance as a major evaluation factor on specific contracts -- in essence, to reform the procurement system.

Of course, getting started will only take an organization so far. Obviously, many times improvement projects are launched with enthusiasm but then become mired in problems of implementation. It was no sure bet that the Hungarian detachment would make it back. But the greatest danger is in giving up before even getting started.

An important role for leaders in government organizations is to fill the role of the map the soldier found in his pocket. Leaders need to use their positions and skills to give people on the front lines the confidence to set in motion the scary process of reinvention, knowing that once people have gotten started, their own creativity and determination will help them finish.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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