RECAP- Building Blocks For An Antifragile Organization
An invite-only, virtual roundtable for public sector leaders.
Learn how antifragility can empower you to leverage your jurisdiction’s strengths and opportunities and actively shape the road ahead for your community.
The idea of antifragility builds on the notion that organizations—rather than merely reacting to and recovering from crises—can position themselves to grow stronger and smarter in the face of adversity. In essence, those organizations show resilience but also adaptive capacity and true progress. Building antifragility is key for local governments which have no choice but to continuously adapt and evolve as they must address crises, navigate impacts of societal and political trends, ensure continuity of vital services, and work with communities toward a better future.
But local governments today also face daunting internal challenges such as staffing shortages and difficulties in effectively engaging residents. City and county agencies operate with systems and processes that are oftentimes outpaced by growing demands on service delivery and complex issues like homelessness, climate change or public health.
How can local government leaders cultivate and lead antifragile organizations?
No small task when jurisdictions need to remain centered on their mission, while at the same time, transform how they recruit and manage staff, drive organizational learning and performance and effectively meet the needs of their constituents.
See the recap below on the roundtable discussion, which convened a curated group of local government executives who explored ways public sector managers can create and lead an antifragile organization. We examined tools and strategies leaders can use to help their government or agency to gain clarity and focus on mission; become more integrated into the community; operate with fewer people and a better equipped staff; empower organizational learning and innovation; and manage finances sustainably.
1. Data is crucial to show us what’s working and what needs improvement, but humans are the key to change. Jamilah Stephens, Director of Budget & Performance, shared insights from the City of Atlanta, GA, about how her team is using data to inculcate in the organizational fabric a mindset of process improvement and innovation, with the Mayor’s leadership ensuring focus on the mission across city departments. Through the use of data and dashboards, Atlanta has been able to collect input and invite participation from its agencies and different stakeholders to not only evaluate operational and financial performance but also improve collaboration and use the metrics to cultivate champions for change among staff and community partners.
2. Process and people must be at the core of technology transformation. “I’ve seen many transformations go sideways, because people think about it backwards: Get the new tech …then let’s figure out how to use it,” said Hughey Newsome, CFO of Wayne County, MI. His recommendation: As you’re figuring out which tech is best, ask “What process does it emulate and how will that work for my organization? Are you just going through the motions of updating technology or actively using technology to aid the process?” You may find that many operational challenges may have relational problems at their core, but those must be properly understood before tech can help solve them. A playbook we published earlier this year discusses ways public sector organizations can harness new technologies to make government work better for employees and constituents.
3. There are many dimensions to antifragility: organizational, individual, operational, intellectual, administrative and political… Berke Attila, Baltimore’s Director of General Services, likened this to the organization’s functional range of motion: “If you don’t move you become stiff, you’re not agile, you become fragile.” He discussed how organizations – especially big bureaucracies – can counteract the tendency to get settled in old ways by finding opportunities to fail forward, to iterate, and get ideas to quick implementation. That sort of culture change in traditionally risk-averse environments must be modeled by leadership. Managers can build teams that support outside of the box approaches, and governments can engage residents to explain their rationale behind new initiatives. “You’re operating under a microscope, but you can also help the community understand that failure can be good, if we use it to help us grow,” noted Amy Hendrix, City Manager of Geneva, NY. Having champions among the public is crucial, agreed Mark Scott, Interim City Manager of Downey, CA: It can help you get buy-in from the community and elected leaders, and city managers focused on technocratic rules and processes sometimes forget the importance of governance and relationships.
Recommended reading: How to Improve Efficiencies in Emergency Funding Management
4. Investing in people must go beyond compensation and benefits, emphasized LaShon Ross, HR Director of Plano, TX. Organizations must look at their employees in more holistic ways to understand how our actions, words, and interactions are impacting people. To recruit, train and retain a workforce that can withstand challenges and grow through them, we need people to bring their full potential, so we must treat them as whole persons, not just employees. Managers should create opportunities to listen and connect and be open to identifying and addressing challenges before they escalate. It’s important to take a more networked (rather than hierarchical) approach to allow for those connections and conversations to happen and avoid the trap of cognitive laziness, even if it’s tempting sometimes to “just coast.”
5. Managing finances sustainably: Ensuring resources can meet current needs and evolving challenges requires financial managers to look beyond balance sheets and line items. Glen Lee, CFO of Washington D.C., described the importance of financial forecasting and scenario-planning to anticipate and assess economic, demographic and other trends and their potential impact on revenue streams as well as service demands. Implementing an ERP and other tools that allow you to standardize and streamline processes and identify efficiencies can empower organizations to take a more proactive, long-range view on fiscal planning and reallocate resources to meet changing priorities.
Recommended reading: Scenario Modeling for Budgets in Uncertain Times and Driving Your Business Through the Financial Management Cycle
Roundtable participants included:
- Berke Attila, Director, General Services, Baltimore, MD
- Ian Cole, County Administrator, Livingston County, NY
- Brian Cunningham, Director of Employee Engagement, Lucas County, OH
- Charlie Francis, Senior Consultant, Questica, retired municipal CFO
- Glen Lee, CFO, Washington D.C.
- Maureen Maier, Chief of Staff, Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity, Philadelphia, PA
- John J. Metro, Business Administrator, City of Jersey City
- Heather McDougall, Head of Strategy & Innovation, Raleigh, NC
- Merril Oliver, EVP, eCivis, former Director, Maryland Governor’s Grants Office
- LaShon Ross, HR Director, Plano, TX
- Mark Scott, Interim City Manager, Downey, CA