Government in Crisis: Safety or Services, Opportunity or Threat

How is your organization doing in the pandemic? Thriving? Treading water? Or pulled back, furloughing staff, with plans on hold? Companies, nonprofits and public sector organizations are all in jeopardy. Sobering, especially where the pandemic only accelerated continuing trends towards volatility and complexity.

Exaggerated? Provocative? Consider Bea. She is capping a long career in public service as Executive Director of a state park system in crisis. Years of budget pressures left them poorly positioned for the pandemic. Still, she has been proud how her folks responded: an immediate lockdown followed by careful re-openings. They seem to be managing the triple threats of public safety, heightened demand for outdoor spaces, and limited resources.

Until the evening her daughter stormed in from an outing with friends in a huff. “Mom, we waited in line at Riverbend Park for four hours! There is no registration, no online information, no credit card payment, all paper forms, and not enough staff to even keep the office open. We tried two natural areas further out and they were worse. You’ve got to do something!” Inquiries the next day confirmed her worst fears and found subordinates hesitant to deliver bad news.

Many organizations have failed in the pandemic, while others like Bea’s are in deep trouble. However, those that are successfully adapting offer us important lessons. They were already in action on changes that allowed them to flexibly navigate these stormy waters and continue to thrive instead of retrenching. There are four key lessons emerging that distinguish these organizations.

Lesson #1: AGILITY. These enterprises saw exponential increases in complexity and volatility not as a threat, but rather an opportunity to rethink their operating environment as an interdependent system. They developed capabilities in agile sensing and responding rather than dismissing the whole “agile” thing as a fad, an HR or Training initiative, or worse, redrawing the organization chart and telling people “be more responsive”. They now sense changes in the environment and respond with adaptive approaches in weeks and months rather than years. They mirror the natural world. Amoebas don’t anguish over decisions…they sense and respond…or they perish.

Lesson #2: DNA. Agility must be built into the very DNA of an organization’s components. Leadership is distributed with a focus on the critical core work of delivering customer value in new digital ways customers expect. People are selected and trained with an eye on the needed competencies. Supporting systems adaptively enable collaborative teams to address changing customer needs. Structures shift from reporting chains of command to networks that support and reinforce each other in building the above components.

Lesson #3: SYNERGY. Results are more than the sum of the parts. Recent findings in human dynamics shows that well-functioning self-directed work teams create an atmosphere of trust and creativity that amplifies the productivity of an entire facility. This must start as they build agility into the DNA. The current crisis is an opportunity to do this. Hierarchical managers who cling to command-and-control for fear that employees will run amok must come to realize the power of rigorous accountability supported by digital or physical transparency. As they let go and let their work teams flourish, a deeply rooted order and collective accountability emerges.

Lesson #4: TAILORING. Agile looks different in different environments. Google’s interlocking teams may not work as well in Exxon-Mobil’s refineries’ standardized processes. Expedia’s simulation training may not fit as well into Best Buy’s massive chain of retail outlets. Agility in leadership, decision-making and operations must be tailored to each company’s unique business context and then adapted through its operating model. It must start with an approach that the current culture can tolerate and move via agile practices towards a more agile one.

While Bea’s park service is not out of danger, they are making progress. Groups of employees are talking, and Bea and her managers are listening. We are helping her plan a prototyping workshop to move things along.

Intrigued? Want to learn more? Stay tuned for future blogs as we explore in more depth how to build agility into your organization. And consider registering for our live online certification program: 

About the Author  

Dr. Richard Thayer is Lead Instructor for the “Mastering Agile Organizational Design Certification” Program. Dr. Thayer is managing director at Syngineering Solutions, a management consultancy headquartered in Baltimore, MD. He and his partners have written Syngineering: Building Agility into Any Organization through John Hunt Publishing, coming out this spring. This step-by-step guide helps practitioners at all experience levels introduce agility and responsiveness into their organization, very useful in todays’ volatile and uncertain times.

About the Program


Developed in collaboration with the George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Leadership is located in the College of Professional Studies, the “Mastering Agile Organizational Design Certification” gives professionals the tools to push their organizations to be more agile, adaptive and responsive.

Over six (6) half-day sessions of live-online interactive instruction including breakout groups and application exercises, program participants learn how to anticipate and overcome changing landscapes and unforeseen obstacles by leveraging innovation, collaboration, and systems integration with continuous feedback loops.

CLICK HERE to Learn More about the Mastering Organizational Design certification program

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Leadership.
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Richard Thayer (Syngineering Solutions)