At ThinkNow we have the privilege of being able to work in both the public and private sectors, often on similar types of projects, and have noticed key differences in how they operate. Government agencies tend to be more procedural, with a clear chain of command, while private companies tend to lean into a more collaborative approach. Those differences are often necessary to the efficient operation of the organization or department but not always. The challenge for both is to break out of old mindsets and habits that hinder effectiveness.

Oftentimes things are done a certain way because “they’ve always been done that way.” Some US government agencies were created in the late 1700s so “always” in some cases can be a pretty long time. There are many high performing government agencies that the private sector would do well to copy but private companies are usually afforded more room to experiment than the public sector. This experimentation sometimes uncovers useful practices that get adopted by other companies and government agencies. Here are some private-sector practices we feel government agencies could adopt to improve their operations.

Communicate the Why

Research into human motivation shows that people need to understand why they’re doing something before we can fully engage. Yet, often, employees are underwhelmed by the work they do. Many organizations invest heavily in developing Vision and Mission statements only to have them relegated to wall decoration or webpages. The key messages rarely funnel down to employees thus failing to motivate constituents. Each individual needs to understand how his or her work contributes to the success of the organization and how it ties into the mission.

Once the why is successfully communicated the how becomes much easier. Successful corporations often communicate the desired result and invite employees to be a part of the solution. These corporations understand that jobs are more than an exchange of time for money. Intrinsic motivation is required to achieve peak performance. Steve Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple, articulates this point when he said, “if somebody is motivated and wants to do something… that person is probably going to go out and find a way to actually get it done.”

Establish Objectives and Key Results

But motivation will only get you so far. You need to isolate and tabulate. Activities that get measured tend to respond to that attention. However, the things usually being measured are not always strongly correlated to desired outcomes. An excellent way to establish what to measure and who is responsible for each task is to use Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, a management system presented by John Doerr in his book, Measure What Matters. Some of the world’s largest organizations like Google, Amazon, and Netflix use OKRs.

Well-written objectives will resonate with an organization’s mission statement. Microsoft’s original mission statement was to have “a computer on every desk and in every home.”  Objectives that resonate with that mission might be to reduce the size of hard drives or to make components less expensive so that there can be “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Everything everyone does must tie into the organization’s mission.

Once clear objectives are set, key results should be established. Key results are specific, time-bound, and measurable. For example, if the aim is to make hard drives smaller, key results might be to “reduce the size of internal disks by 50% by X date” and “develop a more efficient way to encode data on the discs by X date.” Establishing objectives and key results at the organizational, departmental, and employee levels make accountability more transparent and easier to maintain.

Get Buy-in from Staff

OKRs are most effective when developed in collaboration with staff. Getting the team together in a conference room and unleashing OKRs without employee buy-in can cause stress, anxiety, and confusion about how the new objectives and KPIs support existing workloads and projects (if they fit at all). Building a culture steeped in physiological safety gives employees a voice without the fear of retaliation. We’ll dig into that a later.

High-preforming organizations like Walmart have built a culture of inclusion in which employees are encouraged to share their ideas with management. Store managers regularly have meetings with front-line employees to hear concerns and talk through suggestions for improvement. Pulling in employees to help develop OKRs increases morale and makes it more likely that goals will be met. The ability to elicit employee contributions to create “ownership” of the tasks being done is universally useful.

Make Room for Failure

According to the Harvard Business Review, IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr., once said: “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” Failure is a crucial ingredient of progress. Space X failed several times before it successfully landed and retrieved its reusable rocket engines. Organizations that make room for failure tend to operate at higher levels than their peers. The trick lies in managing potential failures by building in defined exits should a project not yield desired results or to set up small, inexpensive experiments with the expectation that most will fail but the benefits from successes will outweigh costs.

Create Psychological Safety

No one wants to look or feel stupid. This fear inhibits progress. Google conducted a study of its internal teams and discovered that psychological safety – the ability to express ideas and take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed – was a key factor in determining top team performance. Amy Edmondson explores this idea in her book The Fearless Organization. A key component of creating psychological safety is for managers to acknowledge they don’t always have all the answers, and they’re learning and growing along with their staff. Even the super-smart and motivated employees at Google require a psychologically safe workplace to perform. Allowing for silly ideas and questions creates room for good ideas to emerge. An added benefit is that employees who don’t fear ridicule may point out and fix problems that could otherwise lead to costly and time-consuming fixes.

Conclusion

Employees don’t check their fears, desires, and motivations at the door when they show up for work. Everyone, even the most accomplished amongst us, has emotional needs that are often met by our jobs. Individual private sector companies are not necessarily better than government agencies at workplace innovation. The creative destruction that exists in the private sector, however, leads to good ideas surviving and changing their organizations. Healthy work practices and cultures can lead to amazing things. Whether we’re employed in the private or public sector, we all can make our lives and those of everyone around us more positive, productive, and fulfilling.


ThinkNow provides full-service market research services to federal government agencies including full data security compliance, nationally representative samples, hard-to-reach/niche audiences, and experience in handling sensitive or confidential topics.