Organizational Expert Supports VA by Enhancing People's Strengths

May 2016
Barb Alag
Barb Alag

It might sound simple, but it's not: When you're working on a major project, organizational functioning is just as important as technical functioning. It's about making sure people know why they're doing what they are doing, what they are doing and with whom, and know the necessary skills they need to get things done.

Ensuring people are an integral part of complex transformational initiatives is Barb Alag's strength. She has worked from her first day at MITRE within the Center for Veterans Enterprise Transformation (CVET), a component of the Center for Enterprise Modernization, the federally funded research and development center operated by MITRE and co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Alag's background in organizational development enables her to approach projects from a big-picture perspective. In her involvement with departmental integration of VA, she always looks at situations from an enterprise-wide perspective.

"I'm not an IT, mechanical, or data engineer," Alag says. "I work from the people side. The organization is constructed of people who possess knowledge and try to accomplish tasks together. I ask, 'What is the organization doing? Is it aligned to their strengths?' I specialize in 'positive organizational development.' It's essentially about improving and enhancing an organization based on the strengths of the people."

Alag is also a certified leadership coach, which she says benefits her current work. "A well-placed question can result in increased personal awareness, or that of a specific topic, or a honing in on the root cause of a problem."

During her more than five years at MITRE, Alag has witnessed the growth of CVET and the changes within VA. "When I started, the VA functioned as a group of separate entities. Now there is very tangible dialogue about enterprise integration that has strengthened over time. Better collaboration between the VA components who manage veterans' health, benefits, and cemeteries will help ensure the best experience for our nation's veterans."

(Video) Barb Alag supports Veterans’ Affairs by helping them develop strategic mindsets.

Change from the Ground Up

"When there is an emphasis on empowerment at the grassroots level—the doctors, nurses, and case reviewers who work with veterans on a daily basis—they can more easily solve problems that they see in their environment every day," Alag says. "We begin to see large cultural change when people are empowered."

That change could be just over the horizon. Alag's current project at MITRE involves developing a pilot plan to empower front line VA medical center employees to proactively identify and initiate needed changes. "When we get the results of the pilot, we can either help the Veteran’s Health Administration extrapolate it to a larger scale or find what didn't work well and fix it. In either case, the data is valuable and will contribute to advancing their desired culture change."

MITRE's role on this project, she says, is to provide quality requirements, pilot criteria, and objective execution observations to help develop a successful pilot.

Crucial Skills for Organizational Management

Alag's expertise in positive organizational development and leadership management have directly influenced her work for the VA. Two things are absolutely necessary, she says.

"The first is diverse thinking. We must have diverse thinking on a project team and approach solutions from several different angles. Where there is healthy discourse, we'll find the best solution."

The second is a framework to organize people's thinking about the problem. She calls it "Why-what-who-how," and it identifies the causal relationship between the problem and different levels of the solution. "First you ask why you're doing something, then determine what you will do. Next you find who is most suited to do it, and finally how they are going to do it."

Alag analogizes the process to a pyramid—you can't start at the top and expect support underneath. The cause—the "why"—must be identified first.

"If we have a team of people working on a task for our sponsors, they are subject-matter experts in different domains. If we can put their knowledge through that why-what-who-how process, we can organize what the SMEs know about each level of potential solutions and identify where there are gaps in the team’s thinking. That's when we can really start to work."

—by Emily Ready

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