Better government management is in reach

Student ideas reveal effective management techniques that could be adopted today in agencies.

I've been busy the last few days grading final student papers from my fall semester management and leadership course. Students could chose from among four books to write about.

Interestingly, about 80 percent of the students chose "The Progress Principle" (Harvard Business School Press 2011) by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer -- perhaps because it was the most recently published of the four, or perhaps because it was the shortest. For whatever reason they chose it, I have been impressed overall by the quality of many of the students' observations about the book, including applying it (as one of the questions requested) to their own work experiences before coming to the Kennedy School.

When the book came out last summer, I wrote a column about it because I really liked the book. Although there is a lot more to the book than the brutal summary I'm about to give, the basic message was simple and powerful: Day-to-day variations in employee performance are heavily driven by variations in their reactions to experiences at work, and the most powerful driver of how one experiences one's job in turn is whether an employee feels he or she has made some progress on a meaningful task that day. An important part of a manager's job is both to facilitate and recognize such everyday progress. (The book presents an arresting analogy with videogames, which keep people hooked by doling out constant, but small, doses of progress.)

Among the student papers I read, two observations particularly caught my eye. One was by a student discussing an experience working at a famous private-sector consulting firm. The student noted two things about how jobs were organized and managed in the firm.

First, before any new project began, each team member developed, together with the team leader, specific learning and personal development goals for the employee during the project. At the end of the project, the employee and manager discussed how well those goals were met (this was not part of a performance evaluation process). Second, at the end of each week during the project, the team always put aside time to discuss what progress had been made that week, what the setbacks were, and what approaches the team could follow to try to deal with the setbacks. Sounded like it was taken directly from Amabile and Kramer's advice to managers about how to do a good job.

The second observation that caught my eye was a paper discussing how the Transportation Security Administration might do a better job of making employees aware of progress they were making, in an environment where progress ultimately means that there is not a terrorist incident – an abstract measure really impossible to touch or feel. The student suggested that local management prepare and distribute to screeners each week a list of actual objects screeners had confiscated -- one could imagine showing the items at a weekly staff meeting, providing a tangible artifact of the success at the mission.

I bring up these two examples from the students partly because I found them interesting in their own right, but also because they illustrate a point about the challenges and opportunities of managing in government. Federal managers are quick to complain, often rightly, about the constraints they labor under in managing in a government environment. And, as I noted in my column about The Progress Principle, the many signoffs, coordinations, and rules surrounding action in a government environment often make it more difficult for an employee to feel they are making some progress doing something meaningful each day.

At the same time, the technique the management consulting firm discussed by the student used to encourage and track progress is available to pretty much every federal manager. There is nothing about the federal environment that precludes its use. Likewise, nothing stops TSA managers from applying the idea my student suggested -- or other, doubtless even better ones they might develop -- as a simple way to recognize screeners' daily progress at a meaningful task.

Yes, there are problems trying to manage well in government. But we should remember there are also opportunities, mainly involving the intrinsic interest of a lot of the work government does. And above all federal managers shouldn't feel sorry for themselves about the constraints, but take advantage of ways to manage well that are very much within their grasp.

PS. I am chuckling over an incompetent virus spreader. Got an email with attachment today about "USPS Failed Delivery Notification" that told me: "Unfortunately we failed to deliver the postal package you have sent in time because the recipient's address is erroneous. Please print out the shipment label attached and collect the package at our office." Unfortunately, they identified USPS as the "United Parcel Service of America, Inc.," rather than the U.S. Postal Service. :p