It’s that time of year again—time to reflect and start anew. So much has happened in the last 12 months. In 2020, we were challenged and stretched to the limit. Like the well-known saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” how can we come out of this strong and rebound in 2021?
One popular view is that knowing more about unknowns helps plan in advance and address risks and potential issues. I am sure you have had enough exposure to such topics recently: reimagining the post-pandemic workforce, understanding the evolving community needs, digitalizing services, or the transition from response to recovery for your organization. All of these focus on what has changed or is changing. What is usually missing in these discussions is the importance of clarifying and even strengthening some of what remains unchanged. They are the pivot points for making a turn and the foundation for change. I would like to share a few of my thoughts, as you ponder yours:
1. Stick to the Core
Do you even have time to consider your organizational purpose these days? The urgency to respond in the moment has made it easy to overlook the meaning of our work in the longer term. Does the organizational purpose (mission, vision, and value) captured in your strategic plan stand the test of the crisis? If your answer is no, it’s probably a good time to update them. They are supposed to be the “North Star” that guides people in times of uncertainty and chaos.
What could and should change in your strategic plan is the path (strategies) and milestones (goals)—how you deliver your organizational purpose. It is quite likely that the conditions and assumptions of your strategies and milestones have shifted significantly—finance, as an example—therefore they no longer represent the optimal path forward for your community.
Without a clearly stated and widely understood organizational purpose, people would act in a way that they believe works best for the community. There are risks of inconsistency and incoordination. Here I list a few questions to help you and your organization stick to the core, the purpose of your organization, when you plan upcoming changes in 2021:
• What is the impact of the change to the community?
• How would we know if the work has made a difference or not? (What is the right set of metrics?)
• What is the connection to the organizational purpose?
• Who else needs to be part of the conversation?
2. It’s All About the People
By people, I mean two different groups: the community and the staff. Let’s focus on the first group for a moment. Public organizations are entrusted by the people we serve. In an earlier article,1 I made a point that people’s experience in our services differ, as all of us have unique situations and biological and socio-cultural differences. It is up to the organization to design delivery processes that address the diverse needs.
The pandemic has amplified the urgency to understand and meet those needs. From creating and enforcing new rules, transitioning in-person services to remote and online services, or adding new services, we had to find ways to listen to the community and lessen the impact of the pandemic. This is the second constant: understanding and meeting people’s needs.
The same principle applies to the staff. People bring organizations to life. At the beginning of the pandemic, organizations had to respond right away. Many of the changes we have made would have been considered impossible in that time frame before. Our people made it happen. They run on adrenaline and are torn between work and personal life. This is not sustainable. We must support our staff by understanding and meeting their needs. Even before the pandemic, understanding and meeting employees’ needs is key to employment engagement and building a productive workforce.
Has your organization invested in understanding and meeting people’s needs both within and outside your organization? Here I list a few questions to help you and your organization take better care of your people when you plan upcoming changes in 2021:
• Of the work you do, what matters to your community and your staff?
• How do you know (what proof/data do you have to support it)?
• Who will likely have different needs?
• How can you address the diverse needs accordingly?
3. You Need an Evidence-based Approach
Fighting the pandemic may be the project of the year, or the next few years; a piece of work that happens at a point in time. But change is constant and the need to address change is ongoing. That is why it is necessary to continue to adopt an evidence-based approach.
Take the pandemic as an example. It is important to adjust public health measures according to changing situations. The province of Ontario in Canada has adopted a series of indicators to monitor and assess local public health conditions. When results are improved or worsened, lesser or stronger measures will be triggered.
The defund movement is another example. To operationalize defunding, we have a series of questions to answer: How much police funding are we going to reallocate? To whom? What accountability measures will need to be in place to ensure the success? These are some of the important questions to make defunding work. But none will be possible if the evidence is not in place.
To manage upcoming changes more effectively, here are a few questions to help you and your organization better adopt an evidence-based approach:
• Of the issues you are tackling, what information do you have in place?
• Is the information timely and reliable?
• Does it reflect sound reasoning?
• Are the consequences of the solution clearly defined?
Our experience in 2020 has challenged many of our assumptions about how we work. As Carolyn Dewar, a Mckinsey senior partner, said, “Maybe we can do things without all the preceding conversations we thought were necessary.... Maybe we can collaborate with others in dynamic ways to accelerate progress.” Maybe we don’t need that much office space. Maybe automating or digitalizing services is not as far off or as challenging as we thought.
We know change is constant and we, as public servants, are expected to be adaptive and agile. To manage changes more effectively, you need a strong foundation. I am sure there will be many changes upcoming in 2021. To plan a strong rebound ahead, maybe it is worth discussing and learning those pivot points as you turn. What’s your pivot point?
KEL WANG is corporate performance lead, city of Edmonton, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1 “What We Can Learn from the Movement to Defund Police” Kel Wang, ICMA Blog, September 2020.