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ASPA’s Strategic Execution of Change

By Christine Springer Gibbs

org_alignWhen public managers know that change is needed, they also recognize that it will require leadership and the changing and aligning of measurement and management systems to truly make it happen.  ASPA has been a model of doing so for 75 years. Its first annual meeting at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C. (1939) was referred to by Louis Brownlow as meeting with “friends and co-conspirators” which included William Mosher who would become ASPA’s first President[1]. It should be noted that this occurred at a difficult time for government just as the country was emerging from the deepest depression in its history and after his participation in founding the “1313 Center” in Chicago, made up largely of associations in the field of state and local governments.  It was important then and it is equally important today to launch an eight-step process for leading effective change in a way that makes the steps more operational and effective for public managers:

1.  Establish a Sense of Urgency

2.  Form a Powerful Guiding Team

3.  Create the Vision for Change, an Agenda and a Strategy

4.  Effectively Communicate

5.  Empower Others to Act on the Vision and Strategy

6.  Produce Short-Term Wins

7.  Sustain the Effort and Produce More Changes

8.  Institutionalize the New Culture

The first step involves overcoming complacency and creating a climate of change.  In a world of continuous change, global competition and dynamic technological disruption, managers have come to understand that the status quo no longer applies and that “If it ain’t broke, it soon will be.” The organization must understand the importance of recognizing current problems and the need to change to solve those problems. This was the motivating factor behind the creation of ASPA.

Secondly, it is important to have the right team in place to map out a strategy.  Some members will be on the team because they head a major organizational function such as human resources, finance, technology, public safety, social services, public works.  All must be able to leave their comfort zone as subject matter experts and think about overall organizational direction and strategy.  ASPA did so by creating a Council elected by regions and an Executive Committee of a President, Vice President and Vice President Elect. Sometimes, 12-weeks is spent developing a strategy map and scorecard to measure progress and in the process of creating them, a consensus among team members about the strategy and a commitment to helping make the strategy happen emerges. This difficult process of debating and agreeing upon the strategy is powerful because it builds a guiding coalition at the top of the organization.

Thirdly, every organization should create, review and reaffirm its mission statement and its value statement and redefine its vision so as to mobilize the organization into action by defining a target that it cannot achieve through business-as-usual operations. ASPA’s mission: Advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration. This motivates the team to select a strategy that will enable it to achieve the vision.  The strategic agenda is created as a management tool to link the vision to the strategy by comparing the current status of several organizational structures, capabilities, and processes with what they need to become over the next three to five years.  As an example, The US Federal Bureau of Investigation in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks put together a detailed change agenda moving It from a case-driven organization (reacting to crimes already committed) to becoming a threat-driven organization (attempting to prevent a terrorist incident from occurring).  Instead of being secretive, agents now had to work outside of the traditional operational silos and become contributors to integrated teams.  The guidelines and the agenda emerge from an extensive dialogue throughout the organization and engaged all levels of the organization.  For the FBI, It was printed out on a one-page change agenda that every employee received and that Director Mueller carried with him whenever he visited a field office. For ASPA, it is comes down to four core values: Accountability and Performance, Professionalism, Ethics and Social Equity.

Fourth, communication is important and over-communication is critical to the successful execution of a strategy.  It begins with words but it needs to move to answering  questions like:  What’s in it for me? What am I supposed to do differently and better to help the organization implement its strategy and achieve its vision? If done effectively, communications unleash the powerful forces of what psychologists call “intrinsic motivation,” in which people internalize for themselves the goals of the organization’s strategy, answering two key questions that they continually ask about their organization:  Does my organization have a strategy for success?  How does my coming to work each day play a role in my organization’s success? For ASPA, this has developed and expanded over time.  From the creation of the P.A. Times in 1977 to online editions and even an ASPA Blog (2009), and Professional Development Webinars (2009), ASPA has continued to put communication as a top priority.

Fifth, empowering others to act can be challenging when the organization is decentralized or diversified and often is addressed through the decentraliztion of strategic objectives and the empowerment of local decision makers/frontline workers. As an example, companies such as Infosys, Statoil and HSBC Brasil have been successful using hundreds of strategy maps and scorecards throughout their enterprises that help them achieve both vertical and horizontal alignment of singular and shared objectives.  Other organizations have established Theme Teams based on the thematic structure of strategies and others have converted maps into detailed process objectives allowing front-line and back-office employees to act and track their progress on strategic priorities. ASPA has created Chapters and Sections and partnered with numerous other professional organizations nationally and internationally

Sixth, producing short-term wins is key to sustained momentum.  Many organizations like ASPA check the process after three or four months of operation.  In doing so, they find that some of their existing initiatives can be eliminated or consolidated with others. Since effective strategies provide a natural balance between short-and-long-term performance, improvements in key operational processes can usually be documented within six to twelve months and improvements in member/citizen service processes can usually be documented in twelve to twenty-four months and then discussed at a strategic planning meeting of the council. As an example, ASPA created an International Coordinator position in 1973 which led in part to the creation of the International Conference on Public Administration beginning in 2005. Short-term targets usually focus on improving operational processes, middle-term targets focus on member/citizen management processes and long-term targets focus on innovation processes.

Seventh, sustaining the effort and producing more change involves extrinsic motivation of employees by aligning incentives to reward achievement of personal and organizational goals.  Employees need to discuss with their supervisors how they will contribute to the business unit’s and overall organization’s achievement of strategic objectives.  When I recently asked 45 CEO’s what they would have done differently in strategy execution, they all responded that they would have linked it to variable pay to performance sooner because it created a powerful motivational force for employees.  Most of them also indicated that they would have started monthly strategy review meetings emphasizing learning and improvement rather than finger-pointing or blaming earlier in the process.

Eighth, Institutionalizing the new culture requires replacing or complimenting the short-term financial control and budget culture with an innovation and learning culture based upon effective strategy execution. This is sometimes accomplished through the creation of a new organizational function such as the Office of Strategy Management (OSM).[2] ASPA has continually done this by creating new organizational functions like the Section for Certified Public Management in 2007.

In the final analysis, leading change and establishing direction by developing a vision of the future along with a strategy for producing those changes requires an alignment of leaders with employees and members, effective and continual communication as well as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to stay the course.  To do so, as ASPA has done, is to take charge of the change that will occur for better or worse with or without us and to manage strategically.





[1] Brownlow, Louis. 1958. A Passion for Anonymity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chicago,  page 463.

[2] R.S. Kaplan and D.P Norton, “The Office of Strategy Management,” Harvard Business Review, October, 2005.

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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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