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Federal Diary

The Four Factors That Distinguish 'Robust Organizations'

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page B02

P aul C. Light, a longtime government watcher, proposes that four attributes define "robust organizations" and allow them to maneuver through surprise and disappointment while shaping the future to their liking.

He discusses them in detail in his new book, "The Four Pillars of High Performance: How Robust Organizations Achieve Extraordinary Results," and is scheduled to discuss his findings today at a meeting of the Federal Executive Board, an interagency group, in New York City.

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Light's book comes as the Bush administration is urging federal agencies to become more nimble and flexible. The administration's chief efforts are focused on the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and have stirred much debate inside the government and on Capitol Hill about what it means for vast bureaucracies to transform themselves into faster-moving creatures.

The book grows out of research Light began in 1999 at the Rand Corp., where he drew upon the think tank's partnerships and work with federal agencies, the military and private-sector companies.

In an interview, Light said he looked at what Rand scholars had learned about policy and organizational change and "tried to figure out how it would be helpful to managers" across government. He said he found four traits common to all high-performing organizations.

First, Light contends, robust organizations are alert to changing circumstances, which can make them vulnerable or provide them opportunities, and focus on the future.

Secondly, they respond quickly to signs of change and are able to move people and money where needed quickly.

Next, as the future unfolds, these organizations experiment with new ways of thinking and doing business. In short, they do not stick with their original game plan forever.

The fourth trait, according to Light, is a commitment by organization leaders to keep their eyes on the mission. The leaders communicate constantly, set clear goals for high performance and delegate authority for routine decisions. They monitor what is happening inside their organization.

At recent Capitol Hill hearings, the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, has raised questions about whether Defense and Homeland Security will be able to establish new practices and policies in a timely and credible fashion.

In particular, the congressional hearings have stressed the importance of training managers and employees on their rights and responsibilities under the pending performance-based systems.

By most accounts, the departments have a long way to go in designing those systems, which will alter the way employees are paid, promoted and disciplined. The departments hope that phasing in the systems over several years will give them the leeway to tinker and adjust for any mistakes as the systems unfold.

Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees that much homework is required before large-scale change can be attempted.

"Organizations must know where they are in the present to shape where they want to go in the future," he writes, adding that as they "take leaps of faith" to innovate and adapt they also "should make an effort to learn just how big the leaps will be."

In the interview, Light said Defense and Homeland Security "have elements of robustness," in part because of the urgency of their missions.

He said Homeland Security, however, struggles to be alert -- "Where does it get its intelligence information, and will the new intelligence czar give it any help?" -- and is trying to solve its agility problem by imposing the new personnel system.

Defense has a better handle on its mission but falls short on "getting the workforce arranged so that it is responsive," Light said. "Defense is spending most of its time on agility, and I don't think that is a bad thing."

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E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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