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The Public Manager’s Imperative: Learning from the Dissimilar

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization, or the views of the Boston Red Sox as a baseball club.

By Robert Behn
June 15, 2018

It’s spring. The sun is shining. The baseball season is in full swing. And, the Boston Red Sox have won more games than any other major-league team.

Everything is right in the firmament.

You, however, may wonder: “How can this fortuitous alignment of the stars shining down on the Red Sox help me manage my public agency?”

After all, when people want to learn, they look for similarities. Who is managing an organization that is just like mine? Who has managerial responsibilities that are just like mine? Who is trying to produce results that are just like mine?

Such searches are futile. On our planet, there is no public manager who has an organization just like yours, who has responsibilities just like yours, who is trying to produce results just like yours.

This creates the “learning dilemma”: From whom can I learn? Indeed: How can I possibly learn?

The consequence of this learning dilemma is that every public manager has to learn from people who have very different managerial responsibilities, people who manage very different organizations, people who are trying to produce very different results.

Indeed, every public manager has to learn from the dissimilar. This creates a learning challenge — moreover a thinking challenge.

For, unfortunately, learning requires thinking. No manager can just “copy ‘n paste.” For every proven management strategy—even a strategy that has produced results in a variety of circumstances—each manager will need to adapt it to his or her specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, this adaptation requires managerial judgment, human judgment. Again, it requires thinking.

To adapt a proven strategy to solve a different problem in a different organization with different purposes and different constraints requires a manager—an experienced manager—who can figure out what specific features of the strategy need to be modified while maintaining the essence of the core, causal components of the strategy. Only with this kind of subtle adaptation will the strategy be effective in this different organization seeking to achieve a different purpose.

Thus, public managers need to be eclectic in their search for successes from which to learn. In their quest for operational insights, strategically curious managers need not be constrained by their policy area. They can—indeed should—look for lessons in fields different from their own. A manager in a state environmental agency might be able to learn from a manager in the U.S. Department of Defense, or in another state’s Department of Mental Health, or in a county welfare agency, or in a municipal fire department.

Or even from a manager of a major-league baseball team.

Indeed, if the manager of a baseball team has already solved a significant problem, a public manager might benefit from learning how this baseball manager did it. For example, suppose the public manager is plagued by the behavior of a prima donna employee. Maybe a baseball manager has solved this problem. After all, most baseball managers have needed to deal with a prima donna — perhaps multiple prima donnas. And maybe some have crafted some useful strategies.

Naturally, the details of the two situations differ in obvious ways:

  • The baseball manager’s prima donna, may be paid more than the manager, may get much more press coverage than the manager, may have more fans than the manager.
  • The public manager’s prima donna, may be unknown to the general public — maybe even to the organization’s key stakeholders. But this prima donna may have long-established personal connections with the elected chief executive (they went to college together), and the chair of the Ways and Means Committee (both attend the local Rotary Club’s weekly meetings).

But the details of the situation may be less important than the underlying cause-and-effect mechanism of the baseball manager’s approach.

Still, this causal mechanism will not work precisely the same way in the two situations. More thinking is required. Any manager who seeks to adapt a strategy that worked in a different situation (even if the policy field is almost identical) needs to separate out the strategy’s more visible features from its underlying causal mechanism.

A veteran public manager—who, during three decades of producing significant results, has never confronted a prima donna—needs to learn from someone who has. And, if none of the managerial colleagues who get together to trade strategies over lunch have ever faced a prima donna, the manager needs to find someone who has. And the details of this manager’s agency will be less important than the relevance of this manager’s strategy.

Tony Bovaird and Elke Löffler of Governance International in the United Kingdom seek to help public managers improve performance by learning from the strategies that other public managers have successfully employed. Unfortunately, Bovaird and Löffler are often told: “We can only learn from places that are just like us.”

In reality, the opposite is true. To be effective, public managers have to learn from managers, situations, and strategies that are very, very different.

Author: Robert D. Behn, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, chairs its executive‑education program Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results. He also writes the on‑line monthly Bob Behn’s Performance Leadership Report.

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