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Alignment Solutions Newsletter: Are Your Surveys a Waste of Time?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Are Your Surveys a Waste of Time?

Alignment solution: To ensure your surveys are not a waste of time, write questions that provide accurate, actionable data.

Developed correctly, a survey is a very powerful tool for gathering actionable data for a variety of purposes. Based on my experience, however, most surveys are a waste of time and effort for all involved. Why? Because the resulting data are worthless – i.e., incorrect, skewed, and/or not interpretable. In short, they are not actionable. Not recognizing they are working with bad data, however, people take action based on those results. Then they wonder why the initial problem hasn’t been resolved, or why people’s behaviors haven’t changed.

There are easy, no-cost ways to ensure that your surveys result in accurate, actionable data that you can use with confidence to identify effective ways to address the desired topics or issues. As long as you’ve decided to make the effort to conduct a survey, why not write questions that produce usable findings?

Below are three of the most common mistakes I see people making when developing questions for their surveys, as well as solutions for avoiding them. The good news: it doesn’t cost extra to write items correctly rather than incorrectly. So there’s no reason to let these mistakes derail your improvement efforts.

Mistake #1: Requiring a single response to an item that asks multiple questions

Example: “Our staff were knowledgeable and acted professionally.”

Problem: Demonstrating knowledge and acting professionally are two different behaviors. When your question includes multiple behaviors yet requires people to provide one answer, you have no idea to which of the behaviors they are referring. In this example, there are four possible behavioral combinations: knowledgeable and unprofessional, not knowledgeable and professional, knowledgeable and professional, or not knowledgeable and unprofessional. Because you can’t tell to which set of answers people are referring, you cannot identify an appropriate response.

Solution: Write one item per behavior, trait, or result. Although this may make the survey longer, the results will allow you to target your response.

Mistake #2: Asking only global questions

Example: “How satisfied were you with our customer service?”

Problem: Whether the responses are positive or negative, you can’t tell to what aspect(s) of customer service people are responding. As a result, you don’t know what actions must be taken to stop undesirable behaviors or practices or to reinforce desirable ones.

Solution: Ask questions about specific aspects of an issue – e.g., behaviors of customer service providers or the quality of the outcome. 

Mistake #3: Asking questions that require only “yes” or “no” answers

Example: “Are you satisfied with the quality of the service our staff provided?”

Problem: “Yes/no” response options provide very limited information. They indicate only that there may be a problem, and they fail to suggest the degree of seriousness. That is, how strong or weak is each “yes” and “no?” As a result, you have no idea what action to take, or with what degree of urgency.

Solution: Re-frame the question as a statement, and provide multiple response options along a continuum (e.g., strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree). This change allows you to specify the behavior or outcome you want to target, and it indicates the urgency with which you must act.

To read about other no-cost tips that will ensure that your surveys are not a waste of time, take a look at my article 26 Insider Tips to Dramatically Increase the Effectiveness of Your Surveys.

To find other articles and resources that may be of value to you, I invite you to visit my web site at and my blog at

Alignment Solutions is a concise, bi-weekly newsletter written specifically to help organizational leaders optimize their business results. Your e-mail address is never shared with anyone for any reason. You may unsubscribe by clicking the link on the bottom of this e-mail.

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© 2014 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Alignment Solutions Newsletter: Navigating Organizational Politics: No Bragging or Begging Required

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Navigating Organizational Politics:
No Bragging or Begging Required

Alignment solution: Successfully navigating your organization’s political environment does not require bragging or begging.

As a leader, how often do you feel that you are expected to brag and beg to get the resources needed to be successful in achieving your organization’s mission? How often do your employees feel the same way about their careers and professional success?

Regardless of their type, organizations inherently are political entities. While some, such as those in the public sector, are more overtly political than others, internal and external politics seldom are far from the surface. Consider the politics intrinsic in these common scenarios:

  • A manager can promote only one of several excellent candidates for a job.
  • A local school system wants voters to approve a bond issue to fund repairs.
  • A non-profit organization aspires to operate a halfway house in a residential area.
  • Managers at a service company are at odds with union members over an unpopular work rule.

Despite the fact that success depends heavily on their adeptness at navigating internal and external political processes, few leaders are willing or feel able to embrace that aspect of their jobs. One reason might be that politics in general have a bad reputation. For example, in a recent article, Washington Post columnist George Will quoted an individual who explained his reluctance to run for public office by saying, “Your parents warn you not to brag about yourself or beg, and what you do in politics is brag and beg.”

The fact is that while negotiating the relevant political system(s) effectively is part of an organizational leader’s job, bragging and begging are not necessary. Those who have been successful in navigating their political white waters engage effectively in at least four activities: (1) assiduously cultivating relationships, (2) learning and following the relevant political process(es), (3) demonstrating the value of the anticipated outcome to those affected, and (4) allowing stakeholders to make decisions along the way. Most notably, leaders who can show positive results communicate a powerful message. As St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean famously proclaimed early in 1934 when he predicted that his team would win the World Series that year, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” It turns out he wasn’t bragging.

Navigating the political process successfully without bragging or begging is a skill that can be learned and improved. To read about some time-tested, universal lessons in political acumen accumulated over the years by a fire chief who has been successful in guiding stakeholders through their political white waters, take a look at our article How to Succeed in Public Safety Politics without Bragging or Begging.

Alignment Solutions is a concise, bi-weekly newsletter written specifically to help organizational leaders optimize their business results. Your e-mail address is never shared with anyone for any reason. You may unsubscribe by clicking the link on the bottom of this e-mail.

Click here to Join Our Mailing List!

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© 2014 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.

Process and Outcomes: What’s REALLY Going on in Wisconsin

Monday, February 28th, 2011

There are two separate issues in the Wisconsin battle over public sector unionization: (1) the collective bargaining process, and (2) the outcomes of that process.

The outcomes of the collective bargaining process that are under discussion are the wages and benefits of public sector employees. The unions involved understand that economic conditions require painful cuts in pay and benefits. In fact, they agree that the status quo in unsustainable, and they have expressed their willingness to discuss the details. Their offer to negotiate those changes has been refused by Governor Walker.

Over the last few weeks people have cited numerous studies that either affirm or deny the statement that public sector employees are paid more (including benefits) than their counterparts in the private sector. Those on both sides cite statistics that seem to support their respective positions. Yet that public-private pay differential is not the issue here. The real issue is whether public sector employees in Wisconsin will continue to have a voice in discussions about their pay and benefits.

The process of collective bargaining requires the parties to discuss issues related to pay, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. It does NOT require the parties to agree on terms; it merely requires good faith discussion.

Although private sector regulations related to unionization are federal laws, public sector regulations are governed by state laws, which as you may expect, vary considerably. Wisconsin was the first state to agree to allow public sector employees to bargain collectively, so it is more than a little ironic that it is the first state to try to revoke those rights. Its law governing public sector unionization follows closely the findings of its federal counterpart, the National Labor Relations Act. Here is what the Wisconsin law currently says:

“It is the policy of this state, in order to preserve and promote the interests of the public, the employee and the employer alike, to encourage the practices and procedures of collective bargaining in state employment subject to the requirements of the public service and related laws, rules and policies governing state employment, by establishing standards of fair conduct in state employment relations and by providing a convenient, expeditious and impartial tribunal in which these interests may have their respective rights determined.”

In the name of reducing the state’s deficit, Governor Walker clearly is going beyond addressing the outcomes of previous negotiations (i.e., current pay and benefit levels); instead, he is intent upon abolishing the process of collective bargaining for public sector employees in Wisconsin. In short, the battle that has drawn demonstrators from across the country is not about whether the workers’ pay and benefits will change; it’s about whether those employees have a right to be part of the conversation that determines how their pay and benefits will change.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Remembering the Challenger

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Twenty-five years ago today, millions of lives were in changed in an instant when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger disintegrated moments after liftoff. The seven individuals who lost their lives aboard the spacecraft surely paid the heaviest price of all. The subsequent pain and suffering of their families, friends, and colleagues is unimaginable. Christa McAuliffe’s reported comment on the irony of a history teacher making history took on a totally different, and tragic, meaning than the one she had intended.

Disasters like the Challenger’s tend to be defining moments in our lives. Where we were and what we were doing at the moment we saw or heard the news become etched in our brains, seared in our consciousness, and often change our lives in some way. Today we are reminded of this moment and its aftermath as we hear from, and read about, those who have shared their personal stories about their Challenger-related defining moment. Here is mine.

We were sitting in my Director’s office in Memphis late in the morning, huddled around the speaker phone as we talked with our investment bankers in New York about the logistics of a bond issue that FedEx was about to take to market. The proceeds were to be used to fund the company’s new service called ZapMail, which was a sophisticated pre-cursor of today’s fax machines. Suddenly someone ran into the office and, in a shocked voice, announced, “The Challenger just blew up!” We bolted for the conference room, where our co-workers already were gathering in front of the television there. We stared in stunned disbelief as the TV station played the footage of the tragedy over and over and over again. In denial, I hoped that if we watched long enough, we finally would see a replay with a different, happy ending. There was none.

As fellow human beings and as U.S. citizens proud of our country’s space program, we were devastated by the loss of those seven lives and the impact it would have on people, programs, and things we couldn’t even begin to imagine just then. For my manager, the news was even more heartbreaking than for the rest of us: one of the astronauts on board the Challenger, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, had been a fellow student at MIT.

As we tore ourselves away from the riveting scene that played out on a continuous loop on the TV screen, we knew one thing was clear: there would be no bond issue. FedEx had had a satellite on board the Challenger that was critical to the implementation of its new ZapMail service. When the spacecraft disintegrated, so too did our ability to provide this service.

Where were you on that fateful day? How, if at all, was the Challenger disaster a defining moment in your life? Whatever meaning it had for you, I hope that you take a few minutes to reflect on this event, and to resolve to do something to honor the Challenger crew, ensuring that their lives were not lost in vain.

 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

To Get Different Answers, Change the Question

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Are you asking the wrong questions? As organizations grapple with regrouping in the aftermath of severe budget cuts, massive layoffs, and widespread furloughs, their leaders are searching for ways to thrive in an environment of constant change. Whether they need to re-visit the mission statement, re-organize the structure, re-deploy a decimated workforce, or scale back ambitious programs, leaders seek answers that will help them be successful. Yet many of them unknowingly are creating obstacles to their own success because they are asking the wrong questions. For example, I hear organizational leaders asking questions like these:

    “Can we launch these new programs in light of the economy?
    “Can we afford to keep the lights on this year?”
    “Instead of keeping program X and program Y, which one should we cut?”

These are the wrong questions because they evoke unproductive answers – i.e., those that do not serve the organization well and that create unnecessary barriers to success. They place constraints around the possible responses, and they limit creativity by requiring only yes/no or one-word answers.

In order for organizations to thrive, leaders need to change the questions they ask. In doing so, they will find much different answers – e.g., those that unleash creativity and encourage innovation. For example:

    “How can we launch these new programs?
    “How can we offer the best service possible?”
    “How can we keep both program X AND program Y?”

The new answers will enable leaders to examine their situations from a vastly different perspective, and to find the previously unexplored possibilities for success instead becoming resigned to going down the path of mediocrity (at best) or even of failure.

What questions do leaders in your organization ask?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Tribute to Paul Conrad

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Legendary political cartoonist Paul Conrad died last Saturday. When I read the notice in the paper, I was reminded of my one encounter with him about a dozen years ago when I was an assistant professor at Cal State, Long Beach. When one of my MBA students became engaged, Paul and Kay Conrad hosted an engagement party for her at their home. The connection, I learned, was that they had met this young woman several years earlier during an overseas trip, and when she traveled to California for graduate school, they continued their friendship.

I have to admit that I felt more than a little nervous at the thought of having a conversation with a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner! While I cannot recall what we talked about that afternoon, I do remember being impressed with Mr. Conrad’s graciousness, his interest in his guests, and his sense of humor. So while I entered his house awed at what Paul Conrad the political cartoonist had accomplished, I left it that afternoon with a sense of admiration for Paul Conrad the man. Although I never saw him again, I feel my life was richer for having met him.

© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

An August to Remember

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Did you notice something out of the ordinary this month? August 2010 had five Sundays, five Mondays, and five Tuesdays. How often does that happen? From what I am told (but have not verified), only once every 800 years.

For those who would not have given this answer to my initial question, what would you have said? How will you remember August 2010? Let us know!

© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Where’s the Money Really Coming From?

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

In a recent controversial ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional certain limits on corporate campaign spending. In essence, the justices declared that incorporated groups such as companies, labor unions, and associations have the same right as individuals to freedom of speech when it comes to expressing their political views.

Since that decision was made public, debate about its implications has been raging. Some people feel that corporations will be spending their profits freely to sway politicians’ votes, and that individuals’ voices and interests will be drowned out completely. Others believe that this ruling, which includes labor unions and associations, is a requirement for a truly democratic political system to function properly.

In light of this debate, I was interested to read an article in Time magazine (2/08/10) that included a list of the top ten political donor organizations between 1989 and 2010. Of the ten organizations, only two were corporations (AT&T and Goldman Sachs); the remaining eight were labor unions or associations. If one assumes that the unions’ interests are aligned with those of the employees they represent, one interpretation of these data might be that the interests of unionized workers seem to have been rather well represented during this period of time. The question I would raise is whether the unions’ interests truly are aligned today with those of individuals who have chosen NOT to seek their representation, who collectively make up the lion’s share of the U.S. workforce.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Court’s decision, and whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the impact it will have on politicians’ decisions that affect the work and personal lives of those who live in the U.S., perhaps the lesson here is that well-informed citizens would be well served to pay close attention to the sources of funding for political causes and candidates, particularly in these days of unprecedented partisanship.

© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

How High a Priority are Your Employees This Labor Day?

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Labor Day is a great time to take stock of the workplace, to assess how things are going and people are doing as we approach the last quarter of the year. According to news reports, many people who are working feel lucky they have jobs, especially when they look around and see so many people who do not. Yet underneath that feeling of relative good fortune simmers a stew of negative emotions arising from a sense of unfairness, like anger and resentment. These feelings are especially prevalent when people feel they have been wronged or treated unjustly by employers who have taken advantage of them during the economic downturn by cutting pay and benefits more than necessary. They feel trapped in their jobs, unable to go elsewhere because of the lack of choices in today’s job market.

Here’s my question for employers: when the economy turns around and people again have job and career choices, what will your workplace look like? Will your good performers stay with you, or will they be the first ones out the door? Will the reputation you are building now serve you well, or will it be the cause of your demise? The answer will depend on how you treat your employees now, every day.

The “secret” to any organization’s ability to thrive is to make its employees a high priority. When management goes all out to make employees fully successful, everyone wins: the organization, workers, customers, and stakeholders. Even when times are tough, there are plenty of things employers can do to support their employees.

Don’t let the good news of the upcoming economic recovery be the downfall of your organization because your employees abandon you and your poor reputation doesn’t have replacements beating a path to your door. Make it your mission today to help your employees become fully successful. The future of your business is riding on it.

© 2009 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.