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Cross-silo communication: All talk and no action?

Bill Adams
Bill Adams is a Senior Faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC, who specializes in developing leadership in the federal government.

Through sheer luck and the brave actions of passengers, the U.S. narrowly averted ar terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. In President Obama's words, the U.S. government failed to "connect the dots" in its pursuit of Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab, and he nearly brought down Northwest Flight 253 as a result.

The problem was not a lack of information. It was instead an inability to stitch intelligence together into a coherent pattern. More than eight years after the September 11 attacks, it exposed systemic weaknesses that still plague the federal government's efforts to track and stop terrorists. The problem is a persistent one: an inability to cross organizational boundaries.

Had they collaborated more effectively, federal government arms had sufficient information to identify and stop the bomber before he ever boarded a plane. Even Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria of his son's radical ties. This information was passed to analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center, but his name was never placed on the "no-fly" list. Additionally, the CIA monitored radio intercepts in Yemen that identified "Umar Farouk" by name, indicating that al-Qaeda was planning an attack on U.S. interests on Christmas Day.

Even after the attack luckily failed, a lack of collaboration continued to mar the U.S. government's response. The FBI in Detroit apprehended and questioned Abdulmutallab and read him his Miranda rights. But the new federal High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group was not notified of Abdulmutallab's capture and had no chance to question him before he requested a lawyer and stopped talking.

The intelligence community is not the only federal government arena to suffer communication breakdown. A post-Hurricane Katrina analysis showed the failure of federal agencies to work across boundaries was an important factor in the inadequate response to an unprecedented natural disaster. The report cited the term "interagency" 78 times and recommended "a career development process that mandates interagency and intergovernmental assignments as well as professional education." Yet, more than three years after the report's release, we are unable to find any of the professional education programs or the interagency rotational assignments it recommends.

Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently testified before the Senate that there is greatly improved integration and cooperation between and across agencies that was "unheard of five years ago." They cited recent arrests of terror suspects and the creation of Intellipedia, an intelligence community version of Wikipedia, as evidence of increased collaboration on the intelligence front. But much remains to be done to foster collaboration across all government agencies -- and few leaders in government or elsewhere are trained to make that happen.

Recent research by the Center for Creative Leadership found that nearly nine out of ten senior executives surveyed worldwide felt it was "extremely important" for them to work collaboratively across boundaries. Fewer than one out of ten, however, felt they had the skills to do so effectively. This gap in leadership skills is especially prevalent in federal government, where managers have learned to work vertically using a command-and-control leadership model. They work upward with senior colleagues and downward with direct reports. But they typically do not work across organizational silos.

To connect the dots and avert future attempts at terrorism, our government leaders must develop the boundary-spanning skills to lead a complex national security structure composed of many different agencies and departments with varied missions. These boundary-spanning behaviors can only be developed through intentional professional development and interagency assignments and practice.

At CCL, we will pilot an Interagency Leadership Program later this year designed to bring together leaders from across the federal government and better prepare them to work together effectively. Our work has shown that several leadership skills are particularly crucial for fostering effective collaboration:

"Slow down to power up." As my colleague John McGuire has found, when leaders and teams slow down action, conversation, and decision-making at critical times, they can address challenges at the root level. Instead of focusing on speed, the focus is on learning. Multiple right answers and better solutions are offered. Paradoxically, slowing down at first saves time over the long run as missteps due to poor communications and faulty assumptions are reduced.

Change your organizational culture. Political appointees and top senior executives must understand their agencies' leadership culture. Is it open and receptive to outside influence and collaboration or is it closed and insular? Agencies may need to change their leadership culture - the self-reinforcing web of individual and collective beliefs and practices. Be sure to foster an environment of learning in which questioning is not only allowed but expected. Establish and encourage dialogue that asks questions focusing on "why" and "what if" in order to get to root causes and generate more alternatives to systemic problems.

Cultivate leadership talent. Government agencies must intentionally design and implement the strategies, culture, systems, and processes needed to sustain talent. Development planning is a critical component of an effective succession management strategy and should include a strong talent review process. Be sure to include highly skilled technical roles as well as managerial roles. Agencies' political appointees and senior executives in top leadership positions must be involved in succession management planning if it is to be effective.

Cultivating these skills alone, of course, will not instantly perfect our ability to connect those crucial dots in the battle against terrorism. But they will make a major difference - and recent history reminds us we don't have any time to waste.

By Bill Adams

 |  February 18, 2010; 5:35 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Instead of elaborate new structures, personnel in Federal management need to utilize the considerable tools they already have. For example, in the case of the so-called 20th hijacker, the Minneapolis FBI office- after facing obstruction from their headquarters about using the FISA court- could have used the regular Federal district court instead to obtain a search warrant. They could have quietly briefed the local judge, enlisted his/her cooperation, and held an open court session at 2 am, away from nosy reporters and various other court hangers-on. This judge could have then given the authorization to search Moussaoui's laptop, which might have prevented at least a part of the 9/11 tragedy from occuring.

New tools and procedures are not needed. What is needed are personnel who are willing to "think outside the box" on occasion to do what needs to be done, irrespective of established administrative procedures or regulations unless those procedures or regulations are required by statute with criminal penalties attached. That's what will break-down administrative "silos", not cross-agency assignments.

Posted by: stillaliberal | February 18, 2010 10:48 PM

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