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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Richard Daniels
February 7, 2017
As managers, we are easily caught up in the idea our ideas matter. Not to say they don’t, but realistically, managers often think their ideas matter more than most others. More precisely, we believe our ideas hold such a vast amount of weight others should comply — so much so we call not falling in line as insubordination. In doing so, we groom followers, engaging staff in a manner that is purely top down. This does more harm than good and creates an environment in which staff members are reluctant to bring forward innovative ideas. It’s these innovate ideas that change the world we live in. Some may say innovation can go as far as founding countries.
There are three primary advantages to allowing staff to develop their ideas into potential policy. Staff becomes motivated to create rather than complain, staff feels valued thus buying into the organization and senior staff naturally takes on a mentorship role. This organic organizational theory is rooted in theoretical design and application (see research done by Burns and Stalker). Though, the truly organic organizational structure they describe is impossible in the public sector primarily because of idea job descriptions, official duties, etc., being thrown out. Despite this, the public sector has a bountiful cultivation of the millennial workforce that wants to make a difference but is disillusioned with the mechanical structure of public agencies.
Bringing solutions rather than problems is something staff must learn and it’s not inherent in everyone. Staff is more likely to produce solutions instead of problems when they feel comfortable in an environment — an environment that, to some degree, uses their ideas. The ability to see an idea through the bureaucratic system, even if the change is only a fraction of what the original idea was, is a motivational learning opportunity. Staff members see this change take place and become energized to produce more, utilizing their experience to shape a policy design which is more reflective of organizational structure and culture. This is purely to see a higher percentage of their original idea become policy. This, in turn, creates a sense of being valued. This sense then creates an organic organizational structure staff is more willing to work in — to the point of not leaving for a job with a better rate of pay (a sight all too common in the public sector).
The most valuable aspect of the organic organizational model is the availability of mentorship for line staff. The opportunity allows for staff to gain a better understanding of the organization and gain an appreciative perspective that not all ideas come to fruition. Humility in the face of failure is one of the most undervalued lessons someone can learn. It is in the face of failure we reevaluate motives, structure, culture and other aspects which may have impacted the chances of success. The ability to take a reflective, self-inventory after a failed venture is one of the best ways to help someone professionally develop. How someone handles failure is often an indicator of how effectively they can lead in the future. Some may share a concern being so transparent and organic may lead to alienating staff who attempt to gain professional development but never find their ideas being accepted or crafted further. Again, the ability to weather the storm of failure is the litmus test for any future leader that will eventually take on the mantel within the organization.
Implementation has no easy, cookie cutter recipe that will make this process easy. So much is dependent on the type of organization structure that is not only in place currently, but the type of organizational structure that has been in place over the past five years. Organizational change is an incremental process — of which I have written on previously — to swift of a change and the organization could plunge into chaos. The process of change takes place over years through attrition and other staffing changes. As leaders, we are left with the task of developing leadership teams that share our ideals and vision for how the agency moves forward. Clearly, without changing the players, it is tough to change the outcome of the game. With that said, be patient and remain focused on the kind of organization you envision creating.
Effective leadership is the kind of leadership and model that carries on long after you have moved on. This can easily be developed by creating an environment that listens to staff’s ideas and mentors them in developing these ideas into effective policy. Though our jobs, especially as public administrators, is to be good stewards of the public trust and goods, our secondary calling is to develop those who chose this line of work into leaders who can carry on our visions while creating their own version that assists the generations of constituents that follow.
Author: Richard Daniels is a Program Manager for the Central California County of San Joaquin. In this capacity he manages programs for the elderly and disabled populations. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].