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Breaking down communication barriers

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

The news that a terrorist came close to detonating a bomb on a flight in U.S. airspace was shocking, but perhaps more disturbing was news that information about the purported bomber was known to a number of national security agencies that did not act on this information.

As many experts pointed out, failure to transfer information among these agencies was eerily similar to the communication breakdowns that occurred in the months leading to September 2001. For years careers in government were built on information gained from one source but withheld from rival agencies or rivals within agencies. A key recommendation of the panel that investigated the 9/11 tragedy was to facilitate a freer flow of communications among agencies responsible for ensuring national security. Clearly there is more work to do.

Failure to ensure the free flow of information is not a communication problem; it is a failure of execution. Early reporting on the investigation into the attempted bombing indicates that employees closest to the information were passing it along to counterparts in other agencies. But somewhere in hand-offs among the State Department, FBI, CIA, NSA and Homeland Security information and momentum were lost.

Anyone who has worked in a large organization and sought to coordinate information from department to department knows the frustration of what happens when important data gets "lost in the system." For most of us, this is an annoyance; for those working in national security, this could be catastrophic.

Information was not passed along in a timely fashion because people in positions of authority allowed it to happen. Their attention was diverted elsewhere. That is not an uncommon problem, in part because many senior executives do not engage themselves in execution. To a degree this is good; we don't need senior leaders peering over everyone's shoulders. But they need to supervise outcomes and therefore remain engaged with how things are getting done. When they do not, problems occur. One way to ensure more senior level engagement is to hold executives accountable.

The first step to accountability is understanding. And here is where New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is ahead of the curve. Borrowing from an idea implemented at Bloomberg LP,
the mayor is asking deputies of city agencies to spend a three-week rotation in other agencies. This will, as Bloomberg explained in his third inaugural address, "break down bureaucratic barriers that all too often impede innovation, compromise customer services, and cost taxpayers money."

Perhaps President Obama should consider a similar approach. Imagine FBI deputies spending three weeks at CIA and in turn CIA deputy directors doing the same at the FBI. Or NSA deputies spending time at the State Department and vice versa. When executives from one agency spending time getting to know the issues facing other agencies they will have the opportunity to learn the culture and the obstacles that thwart information sharing. This can lead to improved information sharing as well as shared perspectives on common problems. Going further, the president should:

One, insist that every agency director embrace a common value: ensuring national security means that senior directors cooperate not obfuscate.

Two, hold directors accountable for coordinating and sharing information. They must meet regularly with each other as well as with the President.

Three, document how the information is shared. They must show how they are sharing information, not simply talk about what they are doing.

Four, follow up on the flow of information. This step is critical because here is where a true problem lies. Senior officials tune out of execution because it is not exciting work. Nothing is more important than their personal and immediate insistence that information sharing will occur.

Five, repeat this cycle regularly.

These action steps must be tempered with the understanding that men and women in charge of our agencies are well-intentioned. They are seeking to do the right thing, but when they allow bureaucratic maneuvering to super cede national security, they are culpable.

And it is useful to remember, as many have pointed out, that the alleged terrorist who sought to bring down an airliner was not thwarted by a system; he was prevented from detonating his bomb by passengers who acted, or as we might say, executed to the best of their abilities.

By John Baldoni  |  January 4, 2010; 4:50 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Sounds like an information management problem, not one of people failing to execute their jobs.

Today various departments and agencies have their own separate IT systems. This is not a bad thing if these databases are holding different kinds of information. But for national security, we need a single database of bad guys. Relying on personnel to update all these databases manually is not a robust solution.

The various agencies need a single conceptual database where people can be tracked, and at various points of contact at the border and airports, personnel need to be able to read and update this database directly.

This is a not an easy problem, but it's not impossible to solve. We should have made progress on it during the last 8 years.

Posted by: MarkLai2 | January 6, 2010 6:02 PM

In your discussion of accountability you fail to mention the most obvious solution:
Fire those who failed at their jobs.

We are talking about national security here.

Posted by: gmcdonald | January 6, 2010 11:01 AM

Rotation in other agencies is a promising way to begin to break down the bureaucratic barriers. I suspect that trust is the big issue for all of the national security agencies. They are competing for money,responsibility,authority, and respect; they have a win-lose mentality regarding cooperation. This culture has to change. The agencies have to be confident that by cooperating they will gain, not lose, rewards and recognition. This is an internal agency problem but also a federal government-wide problem. Until it gets fixed, we are not safe.

Posted by: SJGill | January 5, 2010 8:54 PM

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