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A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.
By Susan Paddock
Organizations are omnipresent. We live and work in them – families, community organizations and work settings. They engage in activities with particular, even idiosyncratic, approaches and processes. As members of those organizations, and especially as public managers, we want those organizations to work well—to achieve their goals, to support harmonious and productive relationships and to contribute to the greater good.
Accomplishing that is challenging since organizations are complex entities that are difficult to understand, much less to manage. How we attempt to manage them often depends on our training and education, our values and our perspectives by which we view them. Viewing them in one way may unintentionally ignore or overlook some other key aspects that are necessary for success. Because we tend to do most often that which we do best, it is important, even for the best administrators, to review regularly how we see and manage our organizations.
For example, suppose that your organization faces an overwhelming workload – too great to be completed given current employees and resources. As a manager, you make decisions about that work, including how to categorize and prioritize tasks based on some criterion. This criterion may ignore some other political or economic priorities or stakeholders who have political power. Will you process economic development proposals based on your city’s strategic plan, on skills and capabilities of current employees or technology, on likelihood that the project will be completed successfully or on some other criteria? Your decision reflects what you believe or know about your organization.
Making decisions and taking management action depend on any of a number of ways through which you view your organization. Among those are:
Other ways to examine an organization include its structure, approach to employee engagement, attitude toward citizen involvement, processes supporting teamwork, use of helpful mechanisms (meetings, memos, social media, etc.), relationships within the organization and with other organizations and incorporation of strategic planning. It should go without saying that understanding, much less controlling, these diverse approaches to managing organizations is a difficult endeavor. It is entirely possible to create an organization performance plan that works in one organization and not in another because on some level the organizations are different. That is why simply copying what works somewhere else will fail if you do not appreciate the dimensions of your own organization.
Understanding your organization is especially important when seeking to work with another organization. If your organization’s culture celebrates employee engagement and involvement, and you seek to collaborate with an organization that relies primarily on command-and-control, you will discover roadblocks despite both organizations’ interest in a shared outcome. If your organization is comfortable with all kinds of social media, your collaborating partner should be as well. Otherwise, information and opinions shared in cyberspace may derail an otherwise worthy project.
Organizational differences need not disrupt a collaborative effort if those differences are understood. The state crime lab of Wisconsin, a division of the Department of Justice, sought to increase the diversity of its professional staff— a human resource concern, not directly a productivity concern—reflecting a leadership and organizational value. The lab’s leadership found a partner in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Clinical Sciences Program. The university provided advanced-standing students from underrepresented classes who were interested in a career in an organization like the lab. The lab provided an internship experience that later led to employment for some of the interns. The university generally has a collaborative and creative approach to problem-solving and achieving outcomes, and leadership is shared. The lab, as a state agency with a mission that includes statutory and law enforcement responsibilities, is more hierarchical. Leadership and interns needed to understand this difference for this collaborative project to be successful.
Some organizational questions to ask if considering collaboration (or, for that matter, any project) include:
It is probably most important to hire people, or identify people, who view the organization from a variety of perspectives. The views of performance managers, organization design experts, social media mavens, financial authorities, citizen involvement advocates and others will increase the likelihood that one point of view will not drive decision making. In addition, it is important to ensure that these people have regular opportunities to discuss the organization’s present and its future. The best-run organizations set aside resources to consider and plan for the future, this is their R and D function. In the same vein, setting aside time for careful analysis will increase the likelihood that your organization will achieve its goals, support productive relationships and contribute to the greater good.