The Washington Post

How to do the impossible: Cut through red tape in federal government

“Please be patient. Change takes time. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

How often have you heard leaders utter these words? While meant to bolster employees struggling to implement new programs or processes, such statements often add to the frustration.

Under the current circumstances — declining budgets and staff, and the threat of sequestration— perhaps we should be impatient and accelerate the pace of change.

Easier said than done, right? I would agree, except that I’ve uncovered an old tool that may be perfectly suited to our current circumstances – the “Work-Out.”

GE’s former CEO Jack Welch and his management team developed the Work-Out in the late 1980s in response to employees who said things like, “We have ideas for improving GE, but nobody is listening,” and, “We are so bogged down by paperwork and bureaucratic processes that there is not time to implement ideas.” Sound familiar?

Work-Out is a method of engaging employees in solving problems fast. Large groups of employees and managers from different levels and functions get together for a one-, two- or three-day session to surface problems, brainstorm solutions and develop 90-day implementation plans. That’s right. Any change they propose needs to take place quickly.

Here’s the real kicker. At the end of the day, small teams that have emerged from the sessions present their ideas to senior leaders in a town hall-style meeting, and the leaders make yes or no decisions on the spot. The leaders then assign an owner (whether they volunteer or they’re volunteered) to see the idea through to implementation.

Still skeptical this can work in the federal government? A few innovative agencies have already used this approach, and I’ve seen the results first hand. Beyond solving an immediate problem, it has the added benefit of equipping employees at all levels to break through the red tape to get things done.

While there are books you can read like, “The GE Work-Out” by Dave Ulrich, Steve Kerr and Ron Ashkenas, and “Rapid Results!: How 100-Day Projects Build the Capacity for Large-Scale Change” by Robert Schaffer and Ron Ashkenas, here are a few tips for getting started. 

· Work with your leaders and employees to pick the right problem. This is more art than science, but you’ll want to pick administrative or operational problems that will measurably improve your team’s productivity or satisfaction. One federal executive we’ve worked with actually put the question out to employees and his senior leadership team, then picked from among the problems they nominated.

· Prepare a team to lead the process. Everyone’s busy, but you can appoint a small team of leaders and employees to work with you to prepare an agenda, facilitate the Work-Out session and ensure implementation. Depending on the size of your group, a team of six to 10 folks working part-time on this may be enough.

· Just keep moving. Once you actually begin the process, the desire to spend more time on defining the problem or just venting naturally emerges. Resist the urge and just keep moving. If you receive the feedback that participants felt rushed, you probably did things just right.

· Stay the course. Despite your very best efforts, you may find that implementation plans hit a few speed bumps along the way. Don’t throw up your hands and return to business as usual. Keep pushing forward even if it ends up exceeding your 90-day timeline.

Of course, Work-Out is just one way of accelerating the process of problem-solving and initiating change. If you’ve had some experience getting things done in a hurry, please share your ideas and stories in the comment section below or by emailing me at

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

@post_lead | @thefedcoach | @lily_cunningham

View Photo Gallery: Leadership experts from Warren Bennis to Tom Peters share their picks of the best leadership books to hit shelves this year.

More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
This isn't your daddy's gun club
A look inside the world of Candomblé
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
The rise and fall of baseball cards
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Play Videos
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
The art of tortilla-making
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
How hackers can control your car from miles away
How the new credit card chip makes purchases more secure