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The Battle for the Future Versus the Battle for Today

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

By Keith Reester
August 15, 2017

Government leaders are continually facing an uphill battle to drive strategy and improve performance while meeting the demands of the current fires burning in the organization. At times, it can feel like a battle of today versus tomorrow.

Over the past decade, the wedge between dealing with current crisis and framing future execution with strategy has become far acuter. Demands on government at all levels have continued to increase while resources have declined; many organizations still have staffing levels below the 2008 recession and buying power for services and products to deliver programs has continued to erode. The struggle to define executable strategy is also manifest in the steady pivot of elected leaders and an often-myopic focus on the short term. The role of elected leaders, notably at the local level, is to define policy and enable staff to execute on those strategic goals. When elected officials fail to establish policy without broader vision staff are left with a list of tasks in contrast to an executable plan where all efforts fit into measurable goals that support both short and long term outcomes.

Image of businessman compiling macro white puzzle. Building busiGovernment leaders must seek not to fall into the trap of proceeding forward in a vacuum of strategy. It is easy to do so out of frustration, it can feel like a constant smashing of your head against the wall. In the end, even high performing employees can succumb to a cultural inertia of pushing through paperwork, completing task lists and getting work out the door without ever asking the questions of how do we improve, is this efficient and is the community well served.

As a leader, we must commit to a process of regular review of strategy and goals for the areas we manage even if policy direction is unclear and lacks a long-term lens. Below are three strategies supporting visioning and execution at the team level aimed at cutting through the fog and providing organizations a framework to embrace.

1.    Define the three most important parts of your mission.

Most teams do have a mission statement…somewhere in the office. Take 90 minutes each week for three weeks and as a team whiteboard what the three most important things we do to support our customers, our communities and the most challenged of our clients. Develop three mission critical bullet points, each no longer than a sentence, framing what is crucial to delivery. Brevity is important, it provides focus and clarifies touchstones for team members.

2.    Define the yardstick of execution.

Utilizing the mission critical statements ask yourself — Are we meeting these top priorities? If not, why not, dividing the list into controllable and uncontrollable reasons. Struggling teams, the group repeatedly feeling most under fire, will find an extensive list of the uncontrollable, a symptom of “losing our way.” Even in the most frustrating situations with limited resources and pivoting policy direction, there are significant components of our execution that are controllable. It may take two to three 90-minute sessions, but teams must tease out the manageable and focus on those areas for targeted improvement.

3.    Build a plan to triage priorities.

Teams struggling under the burden of unclear strategy often spend a good deal of time cycling through work without ever considering a path to improvement. It is just too hard to lift your head out of the demands of today to see into the future of change. The requirements of change can seem even more insurmountable as time away to focus on improvement “only puts us further behind.” Team leaders must use the mission critical statements to triage time and commitments to support progress, recognizing that some work of a lower priority will fall behind to improve. Providing direction through uncertainty is the crucible of leadership in an under resourced, lack of policy world, effective leadership means working with your team to frame execution decisions based on priority, not just reaction.

Government leaders can’t kid themselves that it is easy or that resources will change dramatically, that policy will somehow become crystal clear, it is hard. Leaders may feel the most burdened by this challenge, trying to manage in an uncertain environment while seeking to lead and motivate a dispirited team. As a government leader take on the challenge of providing of vision and goals for your team in a fluid world. First, identify the core mission, define controllable outcomes, then triage efforts to drive the strategy forward. Both you as a leader and the team you lead will benefit from the clarity.


Author: Keith Reester is the President of Reester & Associates. Keith engages with government, private and non-profit organizations driving analysis, performance innovation and leadership improvements. Keith has extensive experience as a local government leader in multiple cities across the country. Currently, Keith is serving as the Acting Public Works Director for the City of Littleton, Colorado. Reester is also the author of the top selling book Define. Measure. Create – Inspiring a Leadership Journey. Keith Reester can be reached at [email protected] or www.reesterassoc.com

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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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