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Government transitions are a lot like jazz: Best when you improvise together

By Dave Witkowski

Thousands of new leaders will head to federal agencies this month. While these government transitions are always chaotic, they’ll be even more so this year, with the social and political climate as tumultuous as at any time in history. Nevertheless, the work of government still has to happen. So how can federal leaders help teams that are battered from unprecedented challenges and stressors—from COVID to divisive politics – pull off a harmonious transition that brings everyone along?

New leaders and career officials alike want as positive and seamless a changeover as possible for their teams. As tempting as it is for government leaders to want to conduct their transition like a highly orchestrated symphony, however, this year it just won’t be possible.  

That’s OK. Because high orchestration in government transition really isn’t as desirable as it may appear. Agency leaders that make the most of government transition really need to think more like jazz musicians. There’s structure to jazz. Yet its brilliance lies in how it emphasizes improvising together—allowing individual strengths both to shine and combine in complex and living harmonies for a rich new whole.

You, too, can lead your team through this transition with jazz-like rhythm and harmony. But to create a whole that comes closer to a Jon Batiste masterpiece than to chaotic noise, you need to build and rollout a 100-day government transition plan that emphasizes improvising together:

Rally around the mission priorities.

Incoming federal leaders have been given a gift: a high-performing workforce that has overcome some of the greatest challenges that the government has ever faced. They should take advantage of it. By tapping into the experience, creativity, and commitment to the mission that carried federal workers through the hard times, leaders can effectively build a bulwark against eroding influences.

Remember, people choose government careers because they believe in the mission. So take time to do an initial organizational assessment to clarify and organize your ensemble around mission priorities. Lead your initial communications with the mission priorities and remind your people why they are so important in achieving them. Let them know you expect them to do their part in creating a positive government transition. Without them, there is no music.

Be welcoming.

Brimming with energy and plans, incoming federal leaders surely will want to hit the ground running. The best way to set up secure footing beyond the first 100 days, though, is to include an intentional pause at the beginning of them. In music, deliberate rests sweep out cluttered energy and heighten audience awareness to what comes next. Similarly, government leaders should take a pause to capture your workforce’s attention and engage with them in active listening.

Understand from your team what participating in the mission means to them. Then help them understand what the immediate priorities are and how those priorities align with the mission. When leaders reach out to acknowledge their workforce’s concerns and ideas, they’re setting out an unmistakable welcome mat for their people. Taking time upfront to encourage and value your workers will help get everyone settled and ready to make music.

It’s important to mention this engagement process is every bit as valuable for leaders, too. The natural impulse to want to project confidence can make people uncomfortable revealing what they don’t know themselves. Working through the mission priorities and clarifying everyone’s role is a way to circumvent that problem, because it formalizes opportunities for leaders also to ask questions. 

Provide structure and room.

Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to get your new team on track to think creatively. What skills, processes and technologies do you need to execute on your priorities? It’s your job as a leader to find out and to fill any gaps in each of these areas, to equip your workforce to do what they do best. Put that structure in place, then provide ongoing opportunities for your employees to hash out questions with leadership about customers’ needs, agency priorities, and the sequencing of plans. This principle of providing both structure and thinking room will be key to your successful 100-day transition plan and beyond.

Use agile change management principles to implement an action plan that allows for improvisation.

The most effective leaders recognize that their workforce includes people of widely differing viewpoints and skills and look constantly to leverage those different strengths. To allow for improvisation to take hold and do its thing, shift your focus from managing the plan to mentoring, motivating and inspiring your people.

Solicit ideas and offer opportunities for your team to meaningfully contribute. From a tactical perspective, that may include introducing regular “pulse checks” and longer surveys (which will give valuable data) and leadership “office hours” that give employees the chance to talk about what’s on their minds as the need arises (and in a safe, off-the-record way). It seemed that 2020 threw a curve every week, dramatically underscoring the need for federal agility. Take those lessons to heart. Be iterative. Gather feedback from your team and leadership along the way, so that your transition plan evolves with real-time, practical, input.

The curtain’s rising on a new era. Federal leaders, you’re about to take center stage. Take a deep breath. Then gather your ensemble and get to creating your own improv masterpiece of government transition.