Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How government leaders can take more risks

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Senior government leaders appear hesitant to make decisions or convert risks into opportunity even when presented with data that justifies a certain decision. Why?-Supervisor (GS-14), U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Decision-making is difficult in any organization given incomplete information, competing stakeholder demands and tight timeframes bearing down on leaders who are responsible for making any final call. And when you consider the impact, scrutiny and other constraints in government, it’s not surprising that they are hesitant to make decisions.

As a federal leader, or an adviser who is supporting one, the challenge comes in embracing the technique employed by some of our world’s best innovators – shrinking the risks associated with any decision. In his book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, Peter Sims offers valuable insights from the world of innovation and describes how federal leaders can avoid the pitfalls while moving in a positive direction.

Using examples as diverse as comedian Chris Rock’s process for developing new jokes, architect Frank Gehry’s approach to designing new buildings and Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster’s strategies for effectively engaging Iraqi citizens in securing the country, Sims shows that successful innovators shrink their problems and risks to a manageable size as a means of improving the outcomes of their final decisions.

For example, Sims examines McMaster’s experiment to diverge from the military’s traditional strategy of operating from large bases and raiding cities in search of insurgents. The traditional strategy often produced mixed results, and McMaster had a new approach to improve the military’s performance – living among Iraqi citizens to gain their trust, collect better intelligence and engage them in securing their own country.

Before changing the military’s strategy entirely, however, McMaster tried his new approach in one city, Tal Afar. After a lot of trial and error, he took the new approach to a larger city. After a series of successes, the Army implemented the strategy on a bigger scale and now uses it as a part of their training program before troops are deployed.

As a federal leader, it may seem impossible to shrink the risk associated with your decisions. However, the key is to look for small opportunities to test your favored approach. Next, collect feedback and refine your plan. Then take it to a broader audience. In the end, you should find that decision-making is both easier and more effective.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Dec 09, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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