The value of tombstone thinking

Bob Woods

Whenever you face a new leadership challenge, there are a million things that could be done. Additionally, you are often bombarded by suggestions from well-intentioned advisers — some internal, some external. (Of course, don’t assume that all the advice is well-intentioned.) When you sort through that plethora of information, the real questions boil down to: What would you like to get done, how long do you have to do it, and what obstacles will you need to overcome?

For those in the federal IT community, the time cycle is roughly equivalent to the political cycle — i.e., four years. Those who plan on having longer than that are likely to run out of time. All too often, political appointees start their cycle thinking they have at least four years, but in reality, they only average about 28 months in office. So for planning and motivation purposes, think three to four years and build a sense of urgency into that time frame.

The next, and most important, question is: What do you want to accomplish? Most of the strategic plans I have read would be better put to use as natural anesthesia in dentist’s offices. Only a well-done few have ever served their intended purpose. Instead, I recommend thinking about goals in terms of an epitaph on a tombstone.

Epitaphs reflect on a person’s life in short and simple terms. They necessarily have to be powerful and to the point. By considering how you would want your tombstone to read, you are forced to shorten the list to things that matter. You probably want those things to be positive, and you would want your loved ones to understand what they mean. In bureaucratic organizations, that means going beyond the buzzwords and jargon.

If a better mousetrap is your intended legacy, then actions that don’t contribute to that mousetrap lose their importance.

Once you have decided what you want your tombstone to say, start figuring out how to get it done. If a better mousetrap is your intended legacy, then actions that don’t contribute to that mousetrap lose their importance. Otherwise, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Leaders are constantly bombarded with the newest and latest information. There is always a new crisis or topic, a new directive from the Office of Management and Budget, or a speech by a distant policy-maker. We all pay attention to such things, but do they contribute to the activities that really matter?

As for the things that matter, the human part of the equation should always be one of your tombstone lines. When you leave an organization, how you treated people — good or bad — will always come up. Very few tombstones say, "She signed a great memo." So as you focus on the important things to accomplish, remember that some things worth doing are not necessarily worth doing well. When you have limited resources, choosing what not to do or what to do only minimally is also an important decision.

Once your tombstone lines are identified, you should communicate them within the organization. You should identify the things you want to accomplish, and you should also share your time frame for getting them done. A member of my senior staff once asked, "Why tell your employees you only plan to be here three to four years?" Letting your team know your time frame will cause those who back your agenda to feel a sense of urgency. For those who don’t back your agenda, it will give them hope.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 8, 2013 Tim Washington, DC

Actually, I will strongly disagree with the sentiment of this article. Tombstone management encourages discontinuity and has a net negative impact on organizational performance. If you are at a level in which you are considering tombstone management then you are at a very senior level of the organization. This means that you had a predecessor and will have a successor. Tombstone management requires you to abandon everything your predecessor did because all of that will be on his or her tombstone, not yours. It will also require your successor to abandon everything that you are doing because that will be on your tombstone, not his or hers. Thus the net impact is that the staff will have whiplash because every 2 years when we have some new campaign. A lot of what goes on in federal IT requires a sustained effort. This approach, tombstone management, causes us to abandon horses that are winning the race and causes me to lose confidence in a leader whose ego is more important than good and effective government. I say tombstone management is a good thing if you want everything that you do to be ripped out by your successor. It has no staying power because you can never get sustained leadership.

Mon, Mar 11, 2013

I think most mangers would have on their tombstone "Great Vision - no clue how to implement"

Fri, Mar 8, 2013

You make me laugh. When we worked for you we realized how direct you were about what had to be done. We never thought it would get so convoluted. I was at the Willow Wood departure party last week and I made the point that government needs to worry about the value we deliver. Thanks for listening

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 Kim Thompson metro D.C.

Great perspective, especially in times of general uncertainty. Having a clear vision of where we want to go can keep us steady when the winds of domestic and international unrest try to toss us to and fro. I will be sure to share this gem.

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