Archive for May, 2011

Budget Cuts: Why Fire Departments and Police Departments Need to Change the Question

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

As city, county, and state budgets are being discussed and finalized around the country, one thing is clear: those who allocate resources are asking the wrong questions. As a result, recipients of government services are being short-changed because resources are being misallocated.

During city/county/state budget negotiations, the primary questions generally are:

    1. How much must we cut so that our city/county/state has a balanced budget?
    2. How much must each agency cut so we can achieve this outcome?

The problem is that these are the wrong questions. Instead of focusing on money, politicians and administrators need to begin with the end in mind – i.e., the services to be provided. Here are the questions they should be asking instead:

    1. Is this service something that (city/county/state) government should provide?
    (If it is not, stop it!)
    2. If it is, what level of service do we (decision-makers) choose to provide?
    3. What is the best way to provide this service?
    4. How much are people willing to pay for it?

Using public safety (i.e., fire departments and police departments) as an example, here are the questions decision-makers should be asking:

    1. Should the government provide public safety services?
    2. What level of public safety do decision-makers choose to provide?
    3. What is the best way to provide this service?
    4. How much are people willing to pay for it?

When the conversation is all about cutting the budget, then guess what becomes the #1 priority? (You are correct if you said “cutting the budget.”) Focusing on cutting the budget can lead to dysfunctional behaviors (e.g., proportional sharing) and outcomes (e.g., ineffective resource allocation). (Elsewhere I explained why the tactic of proportional sharing as a budget cutting tactic is an ineffective way to allocate resources.) As a result, the public loses. In terms of public safety, for example, there may be fewer fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, and police officers available to respond to calls. Fewer civilian staff as well as outdated equipment and infrastructure also are consequences of cuts to public safety budgets. Together these results mean longer response times in situations in which seconds or minutes matter. Are longer response times okay with the public? If so, then there’s no need to change the question. But if public safety has taken a hit because of misdirected questions and stakeholders are not okay with longer response times, then it’s time to insist that decision-makers stop asking and answering the wrong questions.

The bottom line: if you want different answers, you have to change the questions you ask. If the public is at greater risk due to budget cuts and the heads of fire departments and police departments are not okay with that, it’s time for them to re-direct the conversation by changing the questions. While re-focusing the discussion won’t change the reality of scarce resources, it can ensure a much more effective resource allocation process.

What are you waiting for?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Reality Check: How to Stop Trying to Square a Circle

Friday, May 27th, 2011

The world has changed in major ways in the last few years, with important implications for organizations. Despite the resulting upheaval in virtually all major areas of life and business, many people continue to cling to the notion that things will return to “normal” if they can just weather the current storm, so they resolutely keep doing what they have been doing for years – i.e., they are trying to square a circle. Here is the truth: change is the new “normal.” This means that the things that made organizations successful in the past are unlikely to be the key to future achievements. The playing field has changed, and organizations whose leaders who fail to adjust to the new reality are engaging in a form of organizational insanity. As a result, their organizations cannot possibly be successful.

How can leaders stop trying to square a circle and face their situations realistically? In no particular order, here are six suggestions to begin that process:

1. Realize that assumptions have expiration dates.
Since the environment has changed, it’s safe to say that the bases on which leaders made decisions in the past have changed. This is a great time to take a close look at what your organization is doing, why it’s doing those things, and how it’s doing them.

2. Recognize that the things that enabled the organization to be successful in the past won’t necessarily work now or in the future.
Begin by taking a step back and defining “success” for your organization and painting a clear picture of what it looks like. Then find new, viable ways to achieve that success.

3. Stop putting your head in the sand in the belief that ignoring reality will keep it at bay.
Having a strategy to guide the organization is one thing; sticking tenaciously to it in the face of major change is another. Living in denial about changes that are occurring all around you does NOT make them disappear. Make sure your strategy is realistic in light of the current environment.

4. Develop multiple contingency plans.

Situational agility is key to success in this world of permanent “white water” conditions where the only certainty is change. In this age of global interdependence, the sources and types of change can come from anywhere. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.” Look beyond the immediate environment for other points at which change may derail your organization’s success.

5. Embed accountability processes into the organization.

One reason why people cling stubbornly to the past even when it doesn’t serve them well any more is that there is little or no accountability for mediocre or even poor performance. When situations and environments change, there must be mechanisms in place that demand appropriate adjustments to keep the organization on track for success.

6. Have a strategy in place and implement it.

Although situational agility is important, there must be an overall framework that provides the boundaries within which it operates. Developing a strategy that requires leaders to articulate a clear “big picture,” identifying the measures of progress and success, and adjusting the plan as necessary puts the leaders at the helm of the organizational ship rather than leaving its fate to the vagaries of the storms that it encounters.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Is a Business Partnership in Your Future?

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Are you thinking about entering into a business partnership? If so, you might want to do your homework! I recently was interviewed about what entrepreneurs should consider before taking such a big step. I invite you to read the resulting article, “6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Business Partner.” Let me know what you think!

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

8 Obstacles to Public Sector Success

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

In my experience, public sector agencies and government entities (i.e., cities, counties, states) face eight common obstacles to their success. See how many of these issues you have experienced, either as a provider or a user of public services.

1. Lack of a common “big picture.”

The biggest obstacle to success for any organization is the failure of leaders to articulate and/or communicate the “big picture” – i.e., the value that the organization provides. Without this information, it’s impossible to set effective priorities, which means that one person’s claim on resources is just as valid as another’s. How can leaders allocate resources effectively when there is no overall direction to guide them?

2. Leaders’ inability or unwillingness to establish and enforce priorities.

One of the critical responsibilities of all leaders is to set and enforce priorities. In the public sector, setting priorities often is challenging because of the complexity and variety of stakeholders whose interests conflict with each other, and sometimes are diametrically opposed. In some cases, leaders simply don’t know how to set priorities – a serious deficiency, but one that can be remedied. In other cases, public sector leaders are unwilling to set and/or to enforce priorities because they know that some stakeholder group(s) will be unhappy with them. Too often, for example, we see scenarios in which politicians demand “proportional sharing,” or equal budget cuts across agencies. Or they identify some priorities, only to change them when confronted by stakeholders who wanted a different outcome. How can an organization be successful when its leaders shirk one of their most important responsibilities?

3. A dearth of courageous leaders.

I define courageous leaders as people who focus relentlessly on the big picture, even when they pay a personal price for doing so. Although such leaders are a critical success factor in all organizations, public sector agencies and units in particular desperately need individuals who are willing to focus on the greater good, setting priorities that serve the big picture, and allocating resources in ways that support those priorities. While it’s easy to point fingers at public sector leaders and label them as self-serving individuals who are only looking for ways to be elected to their next jobs (or to keep their current jobs) – and there are many who fit this description – let’s not forget that the public also bears responsibility for the lack of courageous leaders. Specifically, accepting mediocre or poor performance or results enables the behavior that caused it in the first place. We are setting organizations up for failure when we don’t support and nurture courageous leaders.

4. Ineffective resource allocation.

Successful organizations use their resources wisely. The ability to allocate scarce resources effectively requires these critical success factors: (a) a clearly articulated and communicated big picture, (b) specific priorities that support achievement of the big picture, and (c) courageous leaders. In short, the things that need to be in place for effective resource allocation are precisely those that public sector organizations often lack.

5. Inexperience in questioning assumptions.

Because assumptions have expiration dates, it’s good business practice periodically to assess the assumptions that serve as the foundation for decisions and practices. Yet public sector leaders often fail to do this. My experience is that they tend to layer things on top of each other, seldom taking the time to ask whether what’s underneath still is necessary for the success of the organization.

6. Willingness to settle for mediocrity.

Acceptance of mediocrity runs rampant in the public sector – e.g., mediocrity of service levels, of employee performance, of politicians’ decisions and actions. For years, the public has looked down upon those who work in the public sector, decrying the mediocrity – yet accepting it. Having worked as an employee and as a consultant for years in public (and private) sector organizations, I know that this embrace of mediocrity is not limited to outsiders: it’s all too common within organizations as well. When mediocrity is the standard by which performance is gauged, how can organizations possibly be successful?

7. Accountability run amok.

Imagine that accountability is a continuum, with “no accountability whatsoever” at one end and “extreme micromanagement” at the other. Now imagine situations in which you have stakeholders who reside at or near the “no accountability” end, and public sector leaders who work mostly at or near the “extreme micromanagement” end. What you have is a recipe for mediocrity at best, and failure at worse.

8. Bureaucracies that block organizational success.

The words “government” and “bureaucracy” often are used interchangeably. One result of layering things (e.g., regulations, programs, processes) on top of each other without considering whether any have outlived their usefulness is dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. For example, RFPs (requests for proposals) from government agencies and entities tend to be hefty documents that can run well over one hundred pages. Whatever the size, my experience is that the actual description of the project is dwarfed by the blizzard of forms that document the myriad of requirements with which successful bidders must comply. (My favorite “You’ve got to be kidding me!” example of such a compliance issue is the City of Los Angeles’ insistence that contractors sign a document attesting to the fact that neither they nor any of their ancestors ever owned slaves.) How many stakeholder interests are being served poorly or not at all because of irrelevant restrictions and rules? And let’s not get started on how many people are required to process all this paperwork – before any real work can begin. Bureaucracy is a death knoll for success.

How many of these issues resonate with you? What will you do to address them? In a future post I will share some of my own suggestions about how to minimize these obstacles.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Assumptions Have Expiration Dates

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Last month I was a judge for the International Collegiate Business Strategy Competition, which required graduate and undergraduate students to compete against each other in starting and running a business using a sophisticated computer program. One of the most important lessons learned was articulated by members of an MBA team whose seemingly effective strategy went down in flames at the very end: assumptions have expiration dates. That is, leaders must constantly check to be sure that the bases on which they make decisions remain sound and have a specific purpose that continues to serve the organization well.

How many of us question our own assumptions, and those of organizational leaders? How do we even know whether our assumptions are still effective? Here are three ways to determine whether any given assumption remains viable or whether it has reached the end of its useful life and must go:

    1. The answer to the question, “How’s that XYZ (i.e.,
    position/concept/process/system/program) working for you?” is negative.

    2. No one can remember the purpose of, or reason for, doing XYZ.

    3. If you stop doing XYZ, there are no adverse consequences. Things may even improve!

And by the way: the phrase “We’ve always done it this way” is a dead giveaway that inertia is at work, which means that assumptions definitely need to be re-visited.

I invite you to put your assumptions to any one of the above “tests.” If they pass, the assumptions probably continue to serve your organization well. If they don’t, it’s time to toss them, as they have outlived their usefulness.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

How to Create an Effective Bonus Program

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Will including a bonus program in your compensation system help your organization achieve its goals? If so, how do you structure the program so it is most effective? Recently I was interviewed about this subject; I invite you to read the resulting article, 4 Tips for Creating an Effective Bonus Structure, by Katie Morell. And let me know what you think!

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

How Public Safety Professionals Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

When the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported recently that Long Beach’s Chief of Police had vowed that the police would “get the job done” regardless of what they were tasked with doing in the face of drastically reduced resources, I had two immediate and contradictory reactions. As a Long Beach resident and business owner, I felt relieved to hear that the police still plan to provide “…the best possible service for the people who are accustomed to that service.” As an expert in resource allocation, however, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!” By publicly promising to maintain the normal level of safety no matter what, the Chief essentially gave the City Council the green light to take resources away from the Police Department and give them to other agencies. In short, he metaphorically shot his department in the foot – unless the Police department has been greatly over-funded, and recent budget cuts merely reduced its budget to an appropriate level. Somehow I doubt this is the case.

I’m not picking on the Long Beach Police Chief; he just happened to be a local example of what I’m hearing and seeing in law enforcement and fire service agencies. In both these professions, members tend to downplay the significance of their roles in keeping people safe while routinely putting themselves in danger. “It’s just my job,” they often protest when grateful recipients of their services try to express their thanks. As a result, over time the public began to believe them, and subsequently was lulled into a false sense of security because these public servants make what they do seem almost easy. Few people stop to think about what is required to keep our law enforcement and fire service protectors at the top of their respective games so they can perform at high levels at a moment’s notice. Thus when City Council members or other decision-makers adopt deeply flawed policies like proportional sharing instead of stepping up to the plate and making the tough decisions they were elected or hired to make, there is relatively little resistance from the public about whether the resources are being prioritized appropriately. As a result, we witness scenarios like the one in which a Los Angeles City Council member vowed to save the jobs of the City’s calligraphers (employees whose job is to produce the pretty certificates that Council members like to hand out to constituents) at all costs – even though “essential” jobs such as those of teacher, police officer, and fire fighter were on the chopping block.

The fact is that when law enforcement and fire service leaders continue to assure the public that all is, and will remain, well despite fewer and fewer resources each year, they are doing a serious disservice to the public and to their own employees. While service levels may be maintained in the short-term, they are not sustainable over time: employees get burned out due to overwhelming work loads, and critical, life and death decisions are made by people who are tired and stressed out. When equipment malfunctions, when (or even if) it can be repaired will depend on factors such as when overworked mechanics can get to it, and/or how long it takes for the parts to arrive after someone realizes that no one ordered them since the clerical personnel who handled the ordering were laid off, and/or whether the money to pay for the parts can be found somehow.

In short, the “things will continue to be normal” mantra is a charade that must stop. Decision-makers and the public need to be educated about the trade-offs that result from allocating fewer resources than required to maintain service levels.

Here’s my advice to leaders in law enforcement and the fire service, and to public sector decision-makers: stop it! More specifically:

    1. Leaders in the fire service and law enforcement: I’m sure you believe you’re doing the right thing by assuring the public that you will keep us safe. And I think you are sincere when you say you will do everything possible to make sure that happens. But the truth is that you can’t, at least not beyond the very short term. And in your heart of hearts, you know it too. So please: stop sending the message that everything is fine, and begin to educate the public about what the trade-offs will be when you have fewer resources with which to work.

    2. Public sector decision-makers: stop hiding behind the appearance of doing your jobs (e.g., by implementing ineffective policies like proportional sharing), and start making the tough decisions required to deal with current and future conditions. A good place to start, for example, is by setting priorities and allocating resources based on what is needed to achieve the relevant government entity’s “big picture” (e.g., a city’s vision or mission) rather than on what groups have complained the loudest most recently.

Public sector entities are having a tough time right now, and everyone is suffering as a result. Let’s not compound the existing challenges by setting unrealistic expectations about public safety, and then burning out good people trying to achieve them.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.