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A cup short on robustness

Powder-keg management is essential in high-hazard organizations. It means identifying potentially explosive problems, preventing them from happening, and defusing and separating the combustible elements into manageable parts.

President Obama has demonstrated effective management in breaking up the hopelessly compromised Minerals Mining Service, which will be divided into two separate agencies. The first will police the oil and minerals industry, while the second will handle leases and royalties. The spit will defuse the powder keg of divided loyalty and lax oversight.

Many federal agencies have found themselves struggling with the aftermath of an exploded powder kegs: the Swine Flu vaccine shortage was front-page news last fall, but was pushed to the back-pages by the Christmas Day bombing plot, which was quickly driven off by the Toyota recall, which was pushed back by the mine disaster, which has been eclipsed by the oil spill.

No one knows what's next, but come it will, in no small measure because the Bush administration and Congress undermined the government's ability to anticipate and act. Laden with enormous regulatory and enforcement responsibilities, these agencies have been ill-equipped to keep the sparks away from the powder.

And powder-kegs are waiting to blow. There are dozens in the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and a host of smaller agencies that are responsible for both enforcing standards and preventing disaster. In the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration seems due for some kind of catastrophe, even as the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency is in repair mode. Knock on wood, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius seems on top of her powder kegs, while Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working hard to rebuild his agencies.

The excellence in these agencies, some of buried beneath layers and layers of needless management, often comes front-and-center in the midst of crisis. The Coast Guard did not wait a nanosecond to move on Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, in part because it is one of the most finely tuned agencies in government. It has long recruited powder-keg leaders such as Admiral James Loy and Thad Allen, who dwarf the senior political appointees at the top of the department.

So what do the leaders of these powder-keg agencies need to be successful? Organizations in all sectors need a strong dose of "robustness," meaning the ability to handle the deep uncertainties that now surround private corporations, government agencies, and nonprofits. True robustness means more than being resilient when a crisis occurs. It means cultivating the kind of leader who can identify and neutralize the powder kegs before the problem develops. Robust leaders have these four qualities:

Alertness: Organizations have little reason to create the infrastructure to hedge against vulnerability and exploit opportunities if they cannot see the changing circumstances ahead. But staying alert means more than collecting piles and piles of data. It also means seeing the early-warning signs of vulnerabilities. The minute one pops up, the organization must move. At Homeland Security, for example, this means adding oil spills to the scenarios that drive planning across the department, followed by quick action at the top, middle, and bottom of the organization.

Agility: Organizations must act quickly when their assumptions break down. Having discovered a potential flaw or collapse rooted in surprise and uncertainty, they must rally and redeploy resources such as personnel, supplies, logistics, and dollars to strengthen or change the foundation of their "load bearing assumptions." As Winston Churchill wrote of Great Britain's victory in the long-forgotten 1899 Sudan River War, "Victory is the beautiful, bright-colored flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed." So, too, for all aspects of organizational life.

Adaptability: Adaptability is not just another synonym for innovation. It is the ability to rapidly adjust tactics and strategies to meet vulnerabilities and opportunities as emerging futures reveal themselves. Sometimes, adaptability will demand true innovation--original, disruptive ideas that challenge the prevailing wisdom in a field; other times, it will involve incremental adjustments to an existing plan. Innovation is a form of adaptability, but not all adaptability involves innovation.

Alignment: Organizations must be aligned as a whole around a clear mission and a readiness for change. Alignment starts at the top with clear decisions and tight metrics about what the organizations values, and incentives for driving the resulting goal downward through the hierarchy to every last person involved in delivering value, whether inside or outside the company.

The federal government is a cup short on robustness these days. Much of its capacity to anticipate the future is buried in the weight of the past--antiquated systems, needless layering, a sluggish hiring process, negligible training budgets, and a persistent inability to "connect the dots" that led to the Christmas Day bombing plot.

At least for now, it is the leader's work to build robustness, whether through the hiring initiatives that the Obama administration launched this week or through the creation of advanced planning units at the top of agencies. The Department of Homeland Security has been planning for 15, count 'em 15 scenarios of disaster, but did not have oil spills on its list. How could it execute a plan that it simply didn't have, and had never "table-topped"?

By Paul Light

 |  May 12, 2010; 9:39 PM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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