Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Leading in the public and private sectors - challenges


I had a very interesting (and serendipitious) conversation with a colleague of a friend/colleague on the way to the train station today. After a few other topics, we got to talking about the importance of vision vs. execution in the public sector which got us talking about the importance of results-driven leadership in the public sector. Moreover, he was commenting on how sometimes what it takes is to keep your eye on the goal and even drop a few "screw you"s if you have to and just get something done.

Over the course of the conversation he triggered in my mind a fairly interesting model for what leaders/organizations have to go through with any decision they make.  It's simple, but that's a good thing.

Step 1 - Visioning: here you have to decide what the organization is going to do and why
Step 2 - Scoping: here, you figure out who in the organization (or country) is going to do it and/or buy-into it
Step 3 - Executing: here, you have to decide how to get people to actually act on the vision


So, I think there are some interesting observations here and implications for business and public/social sector organizations - 

Visioning - this is hard no matter what. In the public sector it's especially hard because the vision involves large, large numbers of unique people. In the private sector it's hard because your vision has to turn a profit. These are very different problems, but both are compelling.

Scoping - this becomes easier if you can limit the scope of people that are included in the issue because you can cut people out of the benefits or decision making process. It's kind of "Jobs-ian" view as my friend said...you can say "screw you" to people who just don't get things done and cut those people out of the rewards. Unfortunately, in the public sector/social sector it's hard to do this because the cost of excluding people from the activity / reward has real human costs and moral implications.

Executing - things "get done" voluntarily or involuntarily. In the public sector almost nothing is fully involuntarily. Even taxes are something you can avoid for awhile. In the private sector many organizations have the luxury of getting people to do things involuntarily, in the public sector a lot more inspiration and persuasion is required. The tough part for private sector is, the ability to force people to do things is corroding - eventually (and this is happening already) probably all employees (or at least a whole heap of them) will have leverage over their employers.  As a result, "force" won't really work because those employees (e.g., members of the creative class) will just go elsewhere. (Credit where credit is due, John Hagel, John Seeley Brown, Lang Davison and others publish about...the original idea is not mine).

Now, what are the implications?

1. I think this framework helps to understand why leadership in the public/social sector is so hard: each step (visioning, scoping, and executing) involves a lot of people that the leader doesn't really have control over.

2. If it's getting harder and harder to "force" people to do things, the private sector will probably have to learn how to get people to do things without forcing them. That's hard.

3. I sometimes struggle to see the "visioning" of public sector organizations, namely government. It seems like that a lot of the time politicans focus on policy outcomes (a la execution phase) rather than the broader vision of what we're doing and why. Maybe that's why our outcomes often seem to go awry...they're not informed by the dynamics which occur at the system level, which is to say they're not informed by a comprehensive vision.

4. There are three real competencies here that leaders and organizations seem like they need to master, especially in a world where it's hard to force people to do stuff: crafting an insipring vision which people want to buy into, how to really connect with large and diverse groups of people to understand their needs, and figuring out how to get people to do stuff without being able to use force.

5. In addition to number four, you actually have to communicate this stuff, too, so that's a fourth competency.

Anyway, just some musings. Anyone have any thoughts? Am I whack? Is this helpful?

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com