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Adaptive Strategies for Administrators—Part 1

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ferd H. Mitchell and Cheryl C. Mitchell
April 17, 2015

Mitchells janAdministrators in the public sector face difficult challenges. They must deal with constant change in their organizations and the outside world, and must decide how to guide their organizations through uncertainties and turmoil. In such settings, there are five major tasks faced by all administrators, which together may form a foundation for effective performance.

1. Administrators need to develop new ways for understanding their organizations. This requires the preparation of customized knowledge bases that they can refer to daily and use as a starting point for identifying issues, making decisions and taking appropriate actions to achieve and maintain the desired operations.

Each knowledge base should be grounded in relevant ways for understanding the organization. Establish a set of key measures of  “health and well-being” that can guide activities. These key measures can help direct the attention of administrators in useful directions, allow constant “checking over” of the situation using a comprehensive way of “looking at” the organization.

2. Administrators need to track the daily operations of their organizations from the points of view of each of these measures. In this way, areas of change and potential issues that need to be addressed may be identified in an “early warning system.” The result is a daily survey of the organization.

3. Administrators should prepare a list of the key measures that are being used and post this checklist on a smartphone, tablet or notebook computer for easy referral. Daily notes may then be posted about observations and concerns.

4. From this evolving list of key measures and notes, administrators need to identify potential issues that require their attention. This is the way an “agenda” may be created and tracked over time. Different techniques may be used to spot developing issues like surveys of the organization. Some of these techniques may be based on informal intuition and experience, while others may be based on more formal and structured approaches. The intuition-and-experience school of issue-spotting is well-established and widely-applied.

5. Administrators can post daily notes of potential and actual issues that have been spotted. Notes are useful, because reviewing them over time gives the administrator an overview of the changes that are taking place and more insight into the areas of activity that may be most important.

These observations and notes may develop into a powerful knowledge base for use by the administrator and may allow more effective decision-making to take place. By drawing on a comprehensive understanding of organizational activities and issues—tracked over time—better decisions may be reached and the implications of these decisions better understood.

Appropriate actions may then be taken. However, it is essential for administrators to understand that actions may not achieve the desired objectives. It is often inadequate to simply decide what needs to happen and then order it to be done. This procedure does not allow for consideration of the ways in which individuals and groups may react and cause the results to swing away from the desired outcomes. Administrators need to develop new skills for understanding how actions and reactions can lead to unexpected results. This is true for both daily planning and decision-making efforts and for formal planning procedures.

Benefits of an Adaptive Approach

The adaptive approach to administration “builds in” an awareness of and appreciation for the importance of constant change in organizations and their environments. The tracking of operations, decision-making, planning and action strategies all reflect—on a continuing basis—the changes that are taking place and how they are being accommodated.

For many years, we have been studying the realities of public administration in today’s environment. The combined effects of constant change and intense financial pressures have been reshaping the ways in which administrators need to understand and perform their functions. The process described above, for developing and applying a knowledge base that is customized for each administrator, has been developed from our studies.

We are presently wrapping up a new book titled Adaptive Administration, as part of the ASPA series in Public Administration and Public Policy. For the rest of this year, our columns will be based on the results of our studies as described in this book.

Over the next few months, we will be suggesting how each administrator can prepare a custom knowledge base to improve personal effectiveness in a changing world. Some of the topics to be discussed initially are how to track organizational performance; how to encourage cooperation and deal with conflict and how to determine the best mixes of rigidity and flexibility for an organization.


Authors: Ferd Mitchell and his wife, Cheryl (MPA), are both attorneys and authors. They are partners at Mitchell Law Office in Spokane WA, and work together on programs and activities related to health care and the elderly for over 30 years. Ferd Mitchell’s degrees include a DPA from the University of Southern California.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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