The majestic sequoia is a species of redwoods that is among the world’s largest and most enduring organisms. It can grow to a height of 100 metres, weigh 1,000,000 kilograms, and live for 3,000 years. But it owes much of its size and longevity to what lies beneath the surface. A deep matting of roots spread over an acre of earth firmly anchors its towering height and astonishing weight.
Sometimes we are too involved in the surface details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole. A forest is full of beautiful trees to behold. But when we become so engrossed in looking at the individual trees, we may forget that each tree is one of millions in the forest. We lose sight of the big picture.
The imagery of Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux inspires a holistic view:
“… I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”
Collaborating for results
A whole-of-government approach harnesses the ingenuity and capacity of a unified public service that spans organizational, sectoral, and jurisdictional boundaries. Governments are steadily displacing hierarchical bureaucracies with coordinated, cross-cutting collaboration. The aim is to leverage better results by combining forces, competencies, innovations, and platforms on tough issues.
Collaboration, whether driven by shared or substantive interests, is generally regarded as positive. But it also carries a cost. It is time-consuming and requires humility to respond to needs. Collaborating in multi-partite networks involving citizens and complex problems is not easy. Coexisting hierarchical and networked realities must be bridged. Working in concert, networks and hierarchies push one another to help organizations amplify their potential.
Learning teamwork at the intersection of hierarchical and networked government is a pragmatic way of managing transitions. Teamwork is made more difficult when managers rely too much upon remote rather than first-hand exchanges. Messages can get miscommunicated and misinterpreted. What is meant as respectful comes across as hostile. Civility becomes a casualty of strained relations. People are alienated, undermining harmony, cooperation, and results. The sound of silence is deafening.
Good managers persevere because they know the effort invested in teamwork produces superior outcomes. They also know the value of nurturing a culture that empowers networking, delegation, and agility. The responsible thing for public servants to do is to assume humility and courage in reaching out to others for the greater good. Success may depend upon modelling heroic behaviour.
Network management skills are in demand in horizontal government that is structured vertically. It is commonplace for middle managers to collaborate with a range of independent partners to address complex policy challenges by brokering shared understanding, solutions, and implementation. Communication, trust, and commitment are the mutual funds of networked management.
Working laterally presents network challenges for mid-level leaders, who do most of the coordination in government. They need to coordinate work on time and within budget through capable people. They also need to cultivate strategic thinking through relationships with partners and mentors. It comes full circle when they groom future work, teambuilding, and career prospects through these relationships.
Like the giant sequoia, horizontal public management is rooted deeply. Collaborative leadership values include:
- Passion – unbridled enthusiasm for the project or task;
- Inspiration – ability to motivate others;
- Confidence – unswerving commitment to the mission;
- Resilience – patience and responsiveness to opposition;
- Pragmatism – practical, balanced grip on reality;
- Diligence – willingness to work hard and selflessly; and
- Discipline – persistence to finish the job.
Are you a public manager of influence, or are you someone who is being influenced? You are both, of course. But are you aware of and intentional about both? Are you giving your utmost and playing it smart to add public value? The upcoming series of articles examines the tricks of the trade that enable middle managers to ‘live long and prosper.’