Mapping Fresh Leadership Approaches for Changing Times

April 2022
Topics: Organizational Development, Government Agency Operations, Systems Modernization
Operating with agility is often a challenge for government agencies. MITRE experts have authored a guide to help leaders manage effectively to serve the public better even during turbulent times—like global pandemics.
Sarah Miller and Shelley Kirkpatrick hold their book on organizational agility.

MITRE authors Sarah Miller and Shelley Kirkpatrick have produced a guide to help government agencies become more agile.

For years, many federal agencies have struggled to become more agile. Change doesn’t come easily within bureaucratic structures. An especially complex challenge, like the global pandemic, makes the job even harder.

A new playbook can make a difference. The Government Leader’s Field Guide to Organizational Agility: How to Navigate Complex and Turbulent Times, by MITRE’s Sarah Miller and Shelley Kirkpatrick, was published in September 2021. The guide provides government leaders at all levels with evidence-based, hands-on advice for transforming their organizations, enabling them to better serve the public.

“We started out trying to address this problem about five years ago, pre-pandemic,” says Kirkpatrick. “Agencies were recognizing that older ways of working weren’t working, and they needed to think about work in a different way.”

Here’s an example: A particular team was unwilling to make even minor decisions about how to adapt their work for changing circumstances. It turns out, the workers didn’t feel empowered to implement changes. They had proposed their own ideas with previous managers and consistently had been overruled.

“We worked with their new leader to have him clarify his team’s authority and to persist in his efforts to enhance his team’s psychological safety, which would allow the leader time for strategic planning as well as sensing and responding to new situations” she says.

Though tailored to federal agency management, the guide helps leaders across industries weather the storm of constant change to realize their missions and serve the public interest.

"We wanted the book to be structured so people could use it to reflect individually or to guide conversations with their team,” Miller says.

Taking Agility from Mission Statement to Organizational Practice

Though many agency mission statements contain the word “agility,” few can translate that concept into action. Kirkpatrick and Miller set out to change that.

In 2017, with the support of MITRE's independent research program, they designed the Government Organizational Agility Assessment to measure different areas of agility. Soon thereafter, they developed the MARS Serious Game for Organizational Agility – a boardgame that lets players try out agility behaviors in a simulated organization. Though participant feedback was positive, they kept hearing the same thing—the assessment and game were great, but not enough.

A breakthrough came in October 2019 at the Organization Development Network’s annual conference, where Miller and Kirkpatrick were speakers. “After our presentation, an editor came up to talk to us and mentioned that she had been scoping the program and saw our session,” Miller says. “She thought that there might be a book in it and asked if we would be interested in writing a proposal for [independent business publisher] Berrett-Koehler.”

Miller and Kirkpatrick quickly got to work, developing a high-level outline. Just weeks later, when the pandemic hit, they too had to become agile and figure out how to collaborate remotely. Together, they scanned the range of organizational agility books on the market and identified a major gap in resources tailored to the government. Their book proposal took aim at filling that gap—and Berrett-Koehler accepted it.

Six months after publication, the book demonstrates MITRE’s value as a thought partner, working collaboratively to deliver innovation that our sponsors can use.

For example, Kirkpatrick describes a recurring problem: Government agencies tend to over-respond to customer needs because they don’t fully understand them. This guide helps them combat that urge.

“We’ve helped our sponsors find ways of paying more attention to when significant changes might happen. Even when they can’t control an event, they can better prepare and subsequently have more time to develop a response.”

Government agencies are continually asked to do much more with much less, Kirkpatrick notes. “We must find a different way of helping them lead their teams while keeping up with the changing landscape. Today, that’s an even easier argument to make, given the pace and complexity of change. It will make their jobs less demanding—and deliver better results for the public.”

The Government Leader’s Field Guide to Organizational Agility: How to Navigate Complex and Turbulent Times is available for purchase on Amazon, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, and book stores across the country.

by Rachel Loussaert


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