Future-Proofing Your Agency

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Like other organizations, government agencies operate in an increasingly fast-paced, complex, and interconnected world. On top of this, however, they must also deliver on their missions while operating under constraints and limitations specific to government—constraints such as the imperative to do more with less, an uncertain fiscal environment and changing senior leadership, and the increase in public awareness and attention fostered by the ease of information flow in today’s world.

Within this environment, agencies must still plan for the future. One aspect of planning—ensuring continuity of knowledge and expertise—is becoming increasingly worrisome as large numbers of the experienced workforce prepare to retire. How can agencies maintain continuity, retain institutional knowledge, and continue to function effectively?

To answer this question, one might think, “We need to improve our knowledge management systems,” or, “We need to de-silo and improve cross-functional collaboration.” Some suggested strategies might be cross-training, offboarding and knowledge transfer processes, or reorganization.

Here’s the problem: These solutions are good ideas, but they are all behavior-based solutions. And behavioral solutions alone will not suffice. Why? Because behavior drives results, but mindset drives behavior. Without a change in the underlying mindset, new knowledge management systems may go unused. Cross-training may be put on the back burner. Offboarding processes may never be developed.

By contrast, a change in mindset in combination with behavioral solutions will build the dynamic, responsive, forward-thinking workforce that government agencies need.

What Is Mindset?

Put simply, mindset is how we see. It is the lens through which we see our work, our relationships, and our world. It is at the foundation of all that we do and shapes how we do it. Arbinger’s research indicates that people operate at any given time from one of two mindsets: an inward mindset or an outward mindset.

Inward Mindset

From an inward mindset, we focus only on our own personal goals and objectives, without consideration for our impact on others. With this self-focused inward mindset, we see others not as people with their own needs, challenges, and objectives, but as objects. We see them as:

  • vehicles to achieve our own objectives and results
  • obstacles that are in our way or causing problems
  • irrelevancies that can be ignored.

With an inward mindset, we are blind to what others need and therefore can frustrate others or create conflict. We might blame others for our frustrations or failures. Focused only on our own objectives, we might even hamper our organization’s effectiveness or results while thinking we’re doing a good job!

Outward Mindset

With an outward mindset, however, we see others as people who matter like we do. We take into account their needs, challenges, and objectives. And we focus on collective results. We feel responsible to do our jobs and do them well, but also to do them in a way that supports others in doing their jobs—because we know their jobs contribute to the organization’s results just like ours do.

When we have an outward mindset—when others matter to us—we naturally want to be helpful to them. Consequently, we adjust our own efforts to make their work easier however we can. Rather than blaming others for our frustrations or feeling like victims of our circumstances, we begin to see new possibilities and solutions to our most vexing or long-standing problems.


What Kind of Mindset Change Is Needed?

You guessed it—most organizations need to change from an inward mindset to an outward mindset.

Organizations can only resolve internal problems and achieve breakthrough results by maximizing the extent to which their employees work with an outward mindset, taking into account their impact on others and focusing on the needs of the organization as a whole.

Shifting to an outward mindset is the one change that most dramatically improves performance, sparks collaboration, and accelerates innovation. By implementing an outward mindset across the organization, governmental agencies can set themselves up to develop far more innovative solutions to their most challenging problems.

How Can an Outward Mindset Help Government?

A key challenge for federal agencies is that they must retain institutional knowledge and continue functioning effectively even as large percentages of highly experienced workers disappear. Fortunately, an outward mindset can help with continuity planning.

With an inward mindset, organizations and the individuals in them may think only about their needs, challenges, and objectives relative to this problem. Agencies may become more siloed—and more conflict-prone—as departments and offices focus on solving their piece of the puzzle. They might try to protect the resources they currently have, even at the expense of agency interests. They might blame leadership or the bureaucracy for their inability to construct a knowledge-continuity strategy; they might say they’re waiting on guidance from the top.

And even if they don’t—even if they continue functioning just as usual—they will not be able to effectively tackle such a widespread, multifaceted, unprecedented problem on their own.

With an outward mindset, though, agencies and individuals focus on collective results. They could have difficult conversations about resource allocation, roles, and responsibilities without feeling the need to protect their silos, defend their decisions, or appear in certain ways. They might frame the problem differently, allowing them to see new possibilities for solutions and new directions for problem solving.

The innovation of an outward mindset applies at all levels, even offices and individual contributors. With an inward mindset, office directors and employees may avoid retirement-planning conversations because they’re uncomfortable, potentially contentious, or simply too far in the future to worry about.

With an outward mindset, these conversations take on a new light. They are important for the success of the team and the organization. With this framing, perhaps a team could work out a collective retirement strategy—voluntarily staggering retirement dates, for example—that allows each retiree to effectively transfer their expertise to the team. The range of possible solutions expands dramatically with an outward mindset

We encourage government officials at all levels to experiment with an outward mindset. What would it look like to really see your leaders, co-workers, customers, and direct reports as people? What would it mean to account for their needs, challenges, and objectives? And how could you apply this new mindset to the problem of continuity planning?

Learn More

To learn more about mindset change and implementing an outward mindset, join Arbinger’s upcoming webinar, “Future-Proofing Your Organization,” on December 12, 2017. Participants will learn:

  • frameworks to deepen self-awareness and identify an inward, self-focused mindset
  • tools to shift, and help others shift, to an outward mindset and implement outward practices in day-to-day work
  • an approach to work that sparks innovation in delivering impact toward customers, managers, co-workers, and reports.
About the Author
Heather Adams is director of marketing at the Arbinger Institute, a training and consulting firm that helps individuals, teams, and organizations move from the default self-focus of an inward mindset to the results-focus of an outward mindset. With programs and methodology based on 45 years of research in the psychology of human behavior and more than 35 years of practical experience working with organizations worldwide, Arbinger enables organizations and their people to achieve results that are only possible with an outward mindset. Heather brings to Arbinger an abiding passion for personal and organizational transformation. Trained in international peacebuilding and cross-cultural communication, Heather has years of experience working with the federal government and the private sector to enhance organizational performance by shifting the mindsets that underlie behaviors. Prior to joining Arbinger, Heather was an engagement manager, consultant, and facilitator with a boutique consulting firm that helped organizations transform their cultures in support of business objectives. She also worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where she partnered with senior executives to improve strategic alignment, processes and operations. In prior lives, Heather was a peace and security researcher in Hamburg, Germany, an English teacher in China and, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado. She holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University. She and her husband Matt live in the Salt Lake City metro area with their dog, Langley.  Learn more about the Arbinger Institute:
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