Organizational Development for Public Agencies

by Dec 20, 2017Governance, Society

Joseph Barr

Joseph Barr is the Director of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

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Technology is often big and exciting, with lots of possibilities to make operations more efficient, improve customer service, generate more revenue, and deliver more innovative products and services. It’s easy to get distracted by those bright shiny things, and forget what really allows you to successfully implement new technologies: your people and your organization. As I was listening to presentations at the Meeting of the Minds Annual Summit about all the great work happening in cities around the country, it caused me to reflect on the organizational development work we have done over the past year. Although our goals for this work were initially focused on staff development and improving communications (which remain critical overarching goals), the organizational development work that we’ve done is now preparing us to tackle the operational and organizational challenges of implementing new technology initiatives.

People talk a lot about disruptive technology, and it is just that: disruptive (which has only recently been pitched as a good thing). We need to be ready to respond to, learn from, and move beyond that disruption. I’m not really sure if it’s truly possible to “future proof” an organization, but in many ways that’s what we are trying to do: create an organization—and more importantly, a group of people—that is adaptable and resilient, and recognizes that change is constant and that we can either have change, or change can have us. We’re not fully prepared for that future of constant change, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. I thought I would share a few lessons learned from the work that we’re doing to try to get there, and hopefully help other municipal leaders who are trying to move forward with innovation.


Organizational development is critical, but it definitely isn’t sexy.

Spending time on making an organization function more effectively can be really hard work, and it takes time to bear fruit. It requires spending a lot of time really listening to people saying things you need—but may not want—to hear; it surfaces issues that may be difficult and uncomfortable; and it requires leaders to be the best versions of themselves on a daily basis (so check your passive-aggressive behavior at door). And when you first start working on organizational development, it can often feel like two steps forward, one step back (or even one step forward, two steps back). Almost every time that I have started working on organizational issues – from simply gathering information on personnel issues, to reorganizing my entire department – it took at least six months (and often longer) for the changes to bear fruit, and at first it felt like I was making things worse and not better. But if you have a well thought out approach and truly listen to what people are saying, you will start to make positive change and see the differences you are making.


Strategic planning is critical and it doesn’t have to be fancy.

About two years after I started this job, we began developing a strategic plan for the department I run. As I worked on scoping out the plan with our awesome consultant (shout out to Ora Grodsky), it quickly became clear that the main focus of this effort needed to be on the people and the organization; we have plenty of ideas for innovative projects and programs, but we need to make sure that individually and as a group, we are capable of executing those projects and programs effectively. We worked swiftly through an inclusive and transparent process to develop a strategic plan that is built from the ground up, including a staff survey, multiple listening and education sessions with staff groups, and real opportunities for comments and changes to be made. Through these discussions, it became clear how deep—and in some cases painful—organizational challenges are for staff, as well as what some of the most critical goals and initiatives would need to be to address those challenges. Hearing that feedback was not always easy and it took time, but that level of engagement was critical to creating a plan that employees could buy into because they recognize their feedback and ideas when they look at the plan. Now that our strategic plan is in place, the hard work begins; delivering on the goals that are stated, so that this becomes the beginning of a legacy of promises that we keep, rather than promising ideas that we forget.


Don’t pretend that this isn’t the job.

Not long after I started in my current role, I was venting to a friend about a particularly difficult personnel issue and about how I felt that it was distracting me from other work. After listening to my complaints for a little while, her response was simple: “isn’t that your job?” At that moment, I was just looking for a sympathetic ear and confirmation that this was a distraction from more “important” work. But the more I thought about her question, the more I realized she was making a crucial point: dealing with these kinds of personnel and organizational issues is the job—and in many cases, the most important part of what I do. Although there may be parts of my work I enjoy more, I can’t focus on those without having a functional organization that can truly get things done. And I can’t be focusing on new and exciting technology until I know that I have the people and the process in place to make that technology work.


You have to work together as an organization.

It sounds like (and actually is) a cliché, but what Benjamin Franklin said about the Founding Fathers is certainly also true for an organization that is trying to innovate: “We must all hang together, or we shall assuredly all hang separately.” When we went about introducing a mobile payment application for parking, it very quickly became clear that this initiative would involve staff from throughout the department, along with multiple existing vendors (plus Passport, our mobile pay vendor). Like many operationally-focused organizations, we’re pretty good at working within our existing internal silos, which exist in part to ensure accountability and control for critical public safety operations. But when we try to do these types of cross-functional projects, we often have trouble working across the silos, since in a matrix arrangement the person giving you direction on the project may not be within your formal chain of command.

To implement Passport, we recognized that we had to create a regular (in this case weekly) coordination meeting to discuss planning and then implementation of the project. Though this approach is certainly not rocket science, it was amazing to watch as the barriers between units and divisions began to come down and we were able to move the initiative from a longstanding plan to a reality on the ground. And almost more importantly, the collaborative “muscles” that we’ve built as part of this effort are now bearing fruit as we work on implementing other cross-departmental projects, including a set of new separated bicycle lanes we installed this summer.


To make changes, start by understanding the system you’re in and the relationships that system creates.

I’m not the biggest fan of business books, since I find that they are generally focused on a quick fix or a one size fits all approach that will fix everything, and the world is rarely that simple. That said, I recently read Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry (you can learn more on his Power+Systems site) and it really impacted my approach to leadership. The concepts and recommendations in the book are based on many years of observing organizations, and they definitely rang true for me. One of the more important lessons from the book is that whether we like it or not, we all work within systems that tend to follow certain rules or patterns, and that this leads us to fall into fairly standardized roles and relationships, generally in ways that are not healthy for our ability to be productive, fulfilled, and happy. But as you recognize these systems and these roles, you can find ways to fight back against their negative aspects and use Oshry’s insights to turn the system to your advantage. For example, once you recognize that a leadership role often unintentionally pushes you to become isolated and disconnected from the rest of your organization, you can start to take concrete actions to engage with staff at all levels. Building on that, you can work to implement Oshry’s recommendations for becoming a more effective organization, with employees who are more productive and customers who are more satisfied.


In the end, it’s all about the people.

As I hope you’ve gathered, if you want to create an organization that can grow and adapt to innovation, implement new initiatives, and create satisfied and delighted customers, you have to start by focusing on people and their relationships. When I recently had the opportunity to hire a new Technology Project Manager position, it quickly became clear that the best candidate wasn’t going to be the applicant with the best technology skills—not that those aren’t important too—but someone who had the people skills to work together collaboratively across the entire department to bridge gaps between planning, operations, and everything in between. While these softer skills are harder to teach and harder to quantify, they are what make an organization work. More broadly, as we completed our strategic plan, it became clear that our strongest focus needed to be on areas such as employee development and satisfaction, communications, and customer service. The only way we are going to be able to rise to the challenges that confront us is to have staff that are well trained, happy with their jobs, and given access to the resources they need to complete their work successfully. Reaching that point is not easy, it’s not always exciting, and it probably won’t win you any awards. But if you keep at it, you will actually see change happening, and with that change you’ll be on your way to reaching other—possibly more exciting—goals and milestones, with an organization that is ready for whatever the future may bring.


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1 Comment

  1. Joseph, great point on how personnel and organizational issues are a critical part of your job, even if it’s not in the job title. The success of projects and other work are based on the organization and people who comprise it and without that strong foundation, it’s hard to do the rest. That’s a good reminder for anyone working to implement change at any level.

    Listening to people often sounds straight forward or intuitive but, as you point out, it takes time and can be hard, especially when people say things you may not want to hear. Have you used or otherwise encountered any specific methods or processes to ensure those with issues can share them openly, and that the listener is taking it in? Were the strategic planning listening and education sessions and weekly cross-functional coordination meetings the core aspects of this or were there other, perhaps less formal, processes for authentic engagement with your colleagues?


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