Thoughts on the box and life outside it

Steve Kelman reflects on the challenges of convincing others that unconventional wisdom is common sense

As administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the mid-1990s, Steve Kelman pioneered some unconventional ideas. The ideas stemmed from a realization that government agencies had tied themselves to a procurement process that was unnecessarily convoluted. He began by pushing for legislation and regulations that simplified the procurement process. Then he tried to convince procurement officials to free themselves from the restraints that were no longer there.

In an interview with FCW's editor-at-large, Judi Hasson, Kelman — a columnist for Federal Computer Week — talked about what it's like to bring unconventional thinking to the federal government.

Do you think of yourself as an outside-the-box thinker?

I don't spend my time going around thinking I'm out of the box or in the box.

There are two ways that maybe I try to think differently ... in an academic context and in general. Academics value a new idea for its sake. As an academic, there's part of me that likes [being] counterintuitive. If it's intuitive, everyone could have thought it up.

Then there's the public policy and public side of me. I remember being very affected by Ted Kennedy's speech at his brother Robert's funeral when he paraphrased lines from a play by George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'"

That line sort of captured me in so many ways. My approach to thinking about government and the public sector [is] let's not assume that the way we are doing things now is the best and [let's] always look for ways to do things better.

Was it frustrating working in government?

Everybody always says people resist change. One day I was thinking about it ... gee, it's not the case necessarily for most elements of our lives. If you look in politics, there are some people who like the way things are and some people who are actively seeking change.

If you look at technology, there are some people who love to try the latest new gadgets. For other people, it's the last thing they want to do. Why should governmental organizations be any different? Suddenly I realized that you shouldn't think of people in any government organization as a monolithic mask who resist change. There will be some people who resist change and some people who will embrace or welcome or seek change.

I guess it's outside the box, it's different, from the way of managing change in government. ... It's a big theme around government. I guess my views on that are somewhat different. Almost every one of those conferences and discussions start with the idea that people resist change. I start at a somewhat different place.

Yes, there are people who resist change. There are also people who seek and embrace change. There are also people who embrace change for change's sake.

I see managing change in government as more like trying to manage a political process where you have some people for, some people against, and your task is to get the people who are for [change to be] more powerful, more in a position to try to help [you] out and weaken the people who are trying to resist. I see it more as a political process.

I felt frustrated surprisingly seldom. I was afraid when I went into government that I was going to be frustrated because of the idea that people resist change. A lot more people embrace the idea of change and improvement than I expected.

When I came into government, I think many people, including me, thought that what we were trying to undertake in terms of turning around the procurement system was completely utopian and would never happen. ... What I observed there were a lot more people who signed up and were energized by change than I think most people, including me, expected.

What does it mean to be outside the box?

For me, it doesn't just happen. A part of it is in your genes, the optimism. My version of outside-the-box [thinking] has a strong element of "we can do better" and "don't accept the status quo as inevitable."

To think you can do better, I think you need an optimistic personality. And some of that comes from your genes. My dad, who is now 85, left his home country as a refugee when he was 19 ... a Jewish refugee from Hitler. He jumped off a train. He was expelled from Switzerland. He was a refugee in France. He got tuberculosis. He came to the United States and didn't speak a word of English. His education had been interrupted when Hitler came to power. He had a relapse of TB and couldn't work for a few years. And if you met him, you would think, here's a man who has never had a bad thing happen in his life. He is so upbeat.

I think you have to have an optimism that you can make progress. If you are going to think outside the box, if you are going to dream things that never were and ask why not, you have to be optimistic. That part I think comes down to you are either born that way or not.

The dirty little secret of out-of-the-box thinkers is that they are very good listeners. You have to constantly train yourself and remind yourself to listen.

A lot of outside-the-box ideas you get from someone else. There's a lot of research on creativity. A lot of creative ideas come from taking an insight or way of thinking and applying it to another area.


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