Do we over measure in government? Plus your weekend reads!

 Leaders are trying to use measurements as their swimming goggles. It is the major technique they are relying on. My beef with measures is that we are not applying them proportionally.  - Martha Johnson. 

You've probably heard the phrase, "measure twice and cut once." But in government it seems like we are measuring eight times.

In the fourth and final part our interview with Martha Johnson we talk about over-measuring. She told Chris Dorobek that one of the fallout pieces of the performance revolution is that we measure everything to show that we are performing better.

"Measures are tremendously important and we have gotten a lot better at them. We know how to measure and how to interpret the findings. But I think we are using them as the one way to see underwater, when we are trying to see our organization."

What the problem with measurements?

"You might not have an organization that is really not all that mature. Systems are out of date. It’s measurement systems can only get you 80-85% accuracy. That’s about what they can do now. But to go in after them with six sigma expectations and ask them about nickels and dimes when we don’t even know about the dollars is crazy," said Johnson.

How do you lead without measurements?

"A leader needs to calibrate what level of measurement it should stretch the organization to but not swamp the organization with. In government there is a lot of talk about why we need to be doing these measurements. But there is no discussion about how mature is the organization at this point and how are you going to get it to those measurement levels. It is a huge waste of time to go into those levels of measurements when it really is not productive. That’s my real beef with it, it is just out of whack," said Johnson.

Leaders should do what?

  • Leaders need to be looking at measures and say what does that really tell me?
  • How much effort did it take to give me that particular measure?
  • Was it worth it? Am I learning what I need to learn?

"Sometimes you can learn more in other ways and sometimes perhaps you need to know more, but let’s learn what we can and see where we can place our resources better. It is a resource allocation issue as much as anything," said Johnson.

Talk about culture. 

"Let me preface this by saying right now our management and business curriculum is not sufficient in that it teaches us a lot about risk, financial risk and operational risk and market risk so we talk about risk all the time, but nobody really talks about cultural risk. I think there is huge cultural risk," said Johnson.

How should leaders work with culture?

"A leader needs to understand the culture of an organization. There is always some real value in a culture and always some real limits in a culture. You need to figure out what is working and what you need to help nudge along. Culture is all about the behaviors, the rituals, the artifacts, the way people interact. You can see a lot of that without a huge effort. There are some many different kinds of cultures. I recommend Carol Pearson’s book because she has different names for cultures, the hero culture, cowboys culture, jester culture, imperial cultures. It is not that you have to put a name on every culture but you do have to know that every culture is different.  You also need to know what you have and how you can work it and inspire it and move it forward to take the best out of your culture," said Johnson.

There is no one government culture.

"There is not one government monolithic culture. There are hundreds of government cultures. I had organizations at GSA that were almost like Silicon Valley, in their casual young spirited way. Then I had other groups that were very formal with their three piece suits and formal meeting times. So the leader needs to have some flexibility to appreciate the best of each of these sub-cultures and then figure out how to weave them all together," said Johnson.

Culture is like a cake, it's got layers.

"When you belong to the government there is some layer of attribution that you belong to that culture. Of course that culture is public service. Then you are in your agency and they have a particular mission and that shapes some of the culture. Plus the longevity of the organization and how embedded the culture is. Then you have the work you do. The work could be very isolating, individual, analytical - you could go on forever describing them - but they are fascinating and they are what you have to work with," said Johnson.

Why does culture matter?

"If the leader doesn’t even recognize that the culture is offering so many knobs and levers to pull and push you are missing a huge resource that you can take advantage of," said Johnson.

Leading in the bigness of government. 

"Size is a challenge and it doesn’t even have to be the billions of dollars or numbers of people, size can be anything that is beyond your own scope. Where you don’t know everyone’s name and you don’t know what all that is going on. It is not in your control, at least the way we think of control," said Johnson.

What should leaders or large organizations do?

"What the leader needs to do is create some form of order. They can not control. It is the difference of how to assert the power. In these vast organizations it is even more important not to spend all this energy thinking you can control it because that is just hubris gone wild.

  • It is all about roles. So if you have a role about setting a big vision and a role of putting really good people in at the next level you are betting in the right direction.
  • Then you pick what systems need to be fixed and things like that, so that you can start going down the wedding cake of it.
  • The top person needs to understand role as much as anything. What is your role? And what is everyone else’s role because it should not be controlling you need to play the role of leader.

Don't go crazy with the agenda. 

"The other problem is if you come in with a big agenda you are only going to be blowback. You need to come in and work with the organization, live in the organization and say “What do we have here that we can work with?” I was so lucky at GSA because I had had five years of training wheels as the chief of staff. So coming in I didn’t have to scramble to figure it out," said Johnson.

Government has been kicked around lately. What do you say to current public servants?

"We have figured out how to support and welcome the military. That is in our consciousness. We’ve learned those lessons. But we have forgotten those lessons for our public servants. Part of it is telling the stories that are powerful. I love going around the country and describing government to people and having them say "I had no idea." That is a piece of it. But that is also kind of block and tackle. I think we are in a very tough time of deciding what the work we need to have done as a society together. Some other political elements and ideology are coming at it that is making it a very hard conversation," said Johnson.

Public servants are really there for the mission.

"What Americans are good at is getting good things done. Inventing new ways. If people can reach deep and remember we have done a lot under a lot of adverse circumstances. Not to be sanctimonious but to hear the stories of federal workers who were really upset because they couldn’t go to work is to know that people love their work," said Johnson.

What three things are you most proud of?

  1. I was really proud that we were able in such a concentrated way to just jump in and get going. We didn’t spend a lot of time wringing our hands and saying is this the right thing. There was something special about having everyone ready to go and just needing someone to blow the whistle.
  2. I am also personally proud of the ZEF. The zero environmental footprint piece because it is an important step in how you can insert environmental performance and efficiency into a working model that makes business sense.
  3. And finally I can’t not say it, I think our work in the building service was really tremendous. Special and beautiful buildings were being built for the sake of our government and for people that go to work for our country that stand in communities and represent who we are. Those are very permanent markers.

More with Martha Johnson: 

Weekend reads

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