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Career Compass No. 87: Do Something!

In this issue of Career Compass, Dr. Benest offers encouragement to get started, despite the obstacles.

I’m the city’s community development director and I report to the city manager. My mid-sized city has a homelessness challenge that is growing. Exacerbating the problem, we are being sued because the city and state highway department took down a make-shift encampment of tents and cardboard shelters under a state highway overpass in the city.

As a response to the homelessness crisis, homeless advocates, with the support of faith-based groups, are urging the city council to fund and build a village of tiny homes under the overpass where the encampment was located.  A few city councilmembers are supportive and others on the council are noncommittal.  In response to the advocates, the city council did authorize a council subcommittee to explore appropriate city action.

The city manager is being very cautious. She worries that the tiny homes village is too big an investment; it’s an imperfect solution; it won’t solve the crisis; and therefore, the proposal is too risky. The city manager is also concerned about the city operating and maintaining the village if it is constructed.

I am energized about the possibility of ameliorating the homeless problem. We do have some potential resources. The city has collected a fair amount of affordable housing monies from developer fees and the state does own the land under the highway overpass. The city also owns some vacant lots. However, I am hesitant because I don’t have a lot of expertise in dealing with this kind of challenge and of course any significant response would be controversial. 

How do I figure out how to proceed?


Dr. Frank Benest writes:

I congratulate you for trying to figure out this messy and volatile situation.  The homelessness crisis is a classic adaptive (not technical) challenge:

  • It’s complex.
  • There is no right or wrong solution.
  • Uncertainty abounds.
  • Any action is risky and will be criticized.

Why do you need to act?

You are dealing with a messy and complex issue with uncertain outcomes. In such a situation, we not only tend to be cautious, we also overthink the problem and opportunity.  We seek clarity amid the complexity.  However, the only way to get clarity is to do something. As Dan Rockwell suggests, “the path emerges as you move forward, not before.” Leadership Freak blog, “Making Decisions When the Path Is Uncertain and Confusing,” Jan 1, 2020.)

By taking action, you can achieve some clarity about what works, what doesn’t work, and how you can modify what you are doing in order to continue to move forward.

Action (not thinking) also helps you learn in the real world.  You can’t learn much about tiny homes before you go.  You can only learn as you go.

Furthermore, taking action also invites more action by yourself and others.  (Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak blog, “7 Questions that Confront Paralysis,” Oct 4, 2014.)

To address the big adaptive challenges facing local government, we must innovate.  Developing a successful tiny homes project would certainly be an innovative response to the homelessness crisis.  Innovation requires action coupled with reflection.  We act, make some mistakes, reflect, and apply what we learn.  Innovation does not happen without learning from mistakes.

Finally, action reduces some of our fears.  We often do not take action because we fear that

  • People won’t like us.
  • We may fall on our face.
  • Others won’t follow us.
  • We don’t have the leadership skills to pull something off.
  • We’ll get fired.

Most of these fears are unlikely to occur.  (See Career Compass No. 58: Overcoming Deep-Seated Fears.)  By acting, we often discover that our fears are overblown.  “Fear shrinks when you step into it.”  Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak blog, “How to Overcome Overthinking and Get More Done,” Nov 26, 2019.)

How do you deal with so much uncertainty?

To address adaptive challenges like homelessness, local government action should mirror military strategy which requires clarity about direction (eliminate homelessness) and flexibility about how to get there.  If you decide to respond to the homelessness challenge, you must see the process as a journey and thus be open to the twists and turns of the journey.

In taking action, you want to get things “roughly right.”  It’s “ready, fire, aim.”  You want to fix things up as you go.  You cannot know everything before you go.  The key competency for 21st century leaders is “FIO” (figure it out).  (See Career Compass No. 65: FIO.) 

Before acting, you must ask some questions that will produce imperfect information.  And then you must act.

What are some questions to ask before you act?

To decide if and when to act, leaders like you need to ask themselves and others certain questions:

  1. How important is the issue to our organization and community?
  2. Can I make a contribution to help address the problem?
  3. Is this homelessness challenge aligned with my values and passion?  (See Career Compass No. 18: Taking Smart Risks.)
  4. What are the costs of not acting?
  5. Who else can I engage in order to move forward?
  6. Given the lack of commitment to act by others, what are one or two steps forward that I can take with others without formal approval?
  7. Even though some action may not solve the problem or be “perfect,” would some forward steps make the problem better?
  8. What would my best self do? (See Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak blog, “7 Questions That Confront Paralysis,” Oct 5, 2014.)
  9. What do I fear?  How likely is that fear?
  10. If I move forward, what is the possible harm?

What are some concrete ways for you to move forward?

To take a few steps forward with others (which will hopefully lead to more steps forward), you need to decide what you can do within your sphere of influence.  For instance, you could:

  • Identify a few staff from the Community Development Department, and other departments such as the Community Services and Police Departments, who would like to work with you to explore solutions to the homelessness challenge.
  • Invite a few volunteers to join your work team from the faith-based community, homeless advocacy and support organizations, and business and neighborhood groups.
  • Use your work team to conduct a series of one-to-one conversations with homeless folks on the streets (to get a better sense of their reality and what they desire), as well as other stakeholder groups, such as business and neighborhood representatives and police.
  • Visit other tiny home projects and identify best practices and lessons learned.
  • Identify other exemplary responses to the homelessness crisis, such as the use of trailers to provide transitional housing for the homeless.
  • Explore with local nonprofit organizations which agencies could operate and maintain any tiny home village as well as provide supportive services.
  • Identify potential sites for the village, especially those that are publicly owned.
  • Find funding, such as affordable housing fees from developers.
  • Figure out a “minimally viable product” to test out the tiny homes village concept.
  • With ideas from all stakeholders, draft a pilot project proposal with a budget for a pod of 5-7 tiny homes in order to test the viability of a full-fledged village.
  • Keep the city manager and the council subcommittee advised of your research.
  • Present to the subcommittee the proposal with the participation of all the stakeholders.
  • Deal with any reluctance by asking the council subcommittee members “What are several steps forward that you would be willing to try?” and then take the steps forward.

In taking these small actions, you want to use the big picture (i.e., end homelessness in my community) to evaluate options for actions ((i.e., develop tiny homes village).  You want to do something that advances the big picture solution.  (Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak blog, “Making Decisions When the Path Is Uncertain and Confusing,” Jan 21, 2020.)

Think big, act small.

What about patience?

Previously, I have noted that patience is a leadership virtue.  (See Career Compass No. 75: Patience Is a Leadership Virtue.)  A leader does need to let events unfold and issues ripen.  However, while waiting for positive conditions to emerge, a leader can still use the time to do something such as the actions identified above.  For instance, you can engage city staff and outside stakeholders in conversation about the homelessness challenge.  You are not trying to avoid action.  Authentic conversations lead you to action.

Be patient and take a step or two forward.

How do you deal with your discomfort?

You are going to feel discomfort in taking action.  You don’t know the reactions of the city manager, councilmembers, and other stakeholders.  You also don’t know with any certainty the outcomes of your beta test of the tiny homes pod project.

Remember, discomfort is good.  You cannot learn or grow without getting uncomfortable.  You want to be uncomfortable without feeling overwhelmed or distressed.

The “sweet spot” of learning and growth is when you have a 50-70% chance of success.  If you have a 90% chance of success, it is too easy and you don’t learn much or grow.  If you only have a 40% chance of success, it is too difficult and you may feel great distress and withdraw.

If the endeavor is in your sweet spot, you are more likely to be fully engaged and energized and champion the project across the finish line.

What are tips to take action amid uncertainty?

In a messy world, you need to act and take a few steps forward.  Because of the uncertainty, you must take some risks.  There is no pay off without taking risks.

Here are some suggestions for taking “smart risks” in moving forward:

  1. Do something if it is aligned with your values and passion

If a challenge is not aligned with your values and passion, don’t take the risk.  Since you seem to be committed to social justice, you might be willing to act.

  1. Connect with others

To create a state of readiness for any proposed solution, you need to create relationship and connection with others.  Relationship must precede problem-solving.  Stake-holders are more likely to be open to your ideas and leadership if you have built a relationship with them.

  1. Communicate with confidence

You must talk with confidence even without 100% certainty.  Even if you are uncertain about the outcome of taking action, you cannot demonstrate uncertainty or anxiety.  If you show anxiety, you will transmit it to team members or other stakeholders.

Before communicating, take a deep breath and figure out what internal or external stakeholders need to know.  Ask yourself about their interests, concerns, fears, and questions.  The quicker you respond to their questions and concerns, the quicker you can calm their fears.  Once you have responded to their concerns, you can talk about next steps and encourage stakeholders to join you on the journey.

Even if things do not progress exactly as you envision, “people will be more forgiving if they feel like they are part of the process.” (Nancy Duarte as quoted by Allison Shapira, “How to Reassure Your Team When the News Is Scary,” hbr.org, March 5, 2020.)

  1. Actively seek out others who also want to do something positive

As you connect with stakeholders, seek out potential partners.  Finding partners inside and outside the organization allows you to generate diverse ideas, amalgamate resources, and build political support.  Partnering with others also spreads the risk.  It is difficult for opponents to attack you if they must also attack your partners (such as clergy or business leaders).

  1.  Demonstrate humility

Heroic leadership does not solve adaptive problems in the messy world of local government.  Hero leaders assert that they have all the answers, they know the one path forward, and they seek “buy-in” for their ideas.  People don’t gravitate towards heroic and arrogant leaders.  Rather, humble leaders attract support for their ideas because they demonstrate their values, acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, seek out even better ideas, invite others to join, and follow as well as lead.  (See Career Compass No. 76: Humble Leaders Get Results.)

  1. Incorporate the ideas of non-experts

As community development director, you are an expert.  Non-experts do not have your expert assumptions.  Instead of an “expert’s mind” (which is a closed mind), they have a “beginner’s mind” (which is an open mind).  Diverse ideas from non-experts will lead to creative solutions.  (See Career Compass No. 72: How Do We Generate Creative Ideas?)

  1. Get everyone’s “fingerprints” on the proposed action

Given the lack of commitment by some of the councilmembers and the city manager as well as the outright opponents, you must engage everyone in authentic conversations and identify their hopes, concerns, fears, and ideas.  Then you need to demonstrate that you have responded to their ideas and concerns (even though you may not agree with those perspectives or solve all the problems that have been raised.)  With everyone’s “fingerprints” on the pilot project, your idea morphs for the better and becomes “our idea.”

  1. Conduct a “pre-mortem”

To minimize obstacles and missteps that may block your efforts, conduct a “pre-mortem.”  Don’t just jump into action.  Before you start the project, gather all your internal and external partners and ask the group to imagine that the project is 18 months down the road and a lot of things have gone wrong.  Your team then writes down all the negative things on a white board after which your group reengineers the project work plan so that it minimizes the anticipated obstacles or missteps.

  1. Propose a “minimally viable project”

Instead of proposing to build a whole village of tiny homes for homeless people, make a little bet and seek to experiment with a “minimally viable project.”  (See Peter Sims, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, 2011.)  In your case, test out a pod of 5-7 tiny homes or trailers with a shared restroom and showers with supervision and supportive services provided by a nonprofit agency experienced in serving homeless clients.  You can learn from this beta test, fix up problems as they occur, learn as you go, and eventually develop a winnable village solution.

  1. Debrief along the way and be flexible

Assuming you get approval to undertake a pilot project, understand that it gets particularly “messy in the middle.”  Because change projects and other innovative solutions may stall, you must as a leader be open to pivoting. 

To learn as you go and make adjustments, debrief with your partners your ongoing efforts:

  • What is working well?
  • What is not working well?
  • What are we learning?
  • What adjustments do we need to make?

Change for the better is a journey.  You must be open to the twists and turns of the adventure.  Again, you must be clear about the desired end result yet flexible about how to get there.

Amid the adversity and messiness in the middle, you must sustain the effort.  As Winston Churchill advised, “It is the courage to continue that counts.”

  1. Celebrate progress

Since any change project of significance may take a lot to time, your motivation as a leader and the motivation of others may wane over time.  Therefore, leaders must demonstrate progress.  As you achieve certain milestones (i.e., commitment of the land for the pilot project), celebrate progress with followers.  (See Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, 2011.)

12. Get coaching

Informal coaching from savvy peers inside and outside the organization can advise you on how to navigate the uncertainty and messiness of your enterprise.  Every 21st century leader requires coaching.  (Go to ICMA’s “CoachConnect” registry of one-to-one coaches available to all local government professionals.)

All the big challenges are messy.

All the big challenges facing local governments are adaptive in nature.  They include responding to homelessness, traffic congestion, pandemics, the opioid crisis, gangs, unaffordable health care, the move toward technology-enhanced service delivery, community divisiveness, the demands of our changing demographics, and climate protection.

Even though these adaptive challenges are urgent and demand action, it is unclear how to act. . .but leaders must act anyway.  To paraphrase Tom Peters, great leaders have a “bias for action.”  (See Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Search for Excellence—Lessons From America’s Best Run Companies, 1984.)  They do something to move forward, fix things up, and learn as they go.

Amid all the uncertainty and angst, great leaders are compelled to act and do something.


Sponsored by the ICMA Coaching Program, ICMA Career Compass is a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff. Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California. If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail careers@icma.org or contact Frank directly at frank@frankbenest.com. Read past columns at icma.org/careercompass.

Get ICMA Career Compass right in your inbox by subscribing. Select any issue, and look for the blue Feedburner subscription box.

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Nomination Applications Now Open for 2020 Manager of the Year.

IaCMA’s Annual Manager of the Year Award honors chief administrators whose accomplishments and superior work performance represent the best possible application of management principles and who’s creative contributions to professional local government management increases public awareness of the value of professional management to the quality of life in our communities.


  • To be considered for the Manager of the Year Award, the chief administrator must be a full (voting) IaCMA member.
  • Candidate must be employed as the chief appointed administrative officer in a municipality.
  • Candidate must have overall management responsibility and be appointed or confirmed by the legislative body, the elected chief executive and/or the chief appointed administrative officer.

Please include a brief, descriptive narrative.  Complete Sections 1 and 2 of the nomination cover sheet and staple it in front of the narrative.  The narrative should demonstrate how the chief administrator has made significant contributions to the governmental entity served as demonstrated by:

Contributions to the municipality that he/she serves

  • Enacted policies or practices that have enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of their municipality
  • Leadership & Management Skills
  • Personal and Professional Development Activities
  • Professionalism & Integrity
  • Employee Development
  • Community and Civic Service
  • Public Stewardship
  • Self-Management

Contributions to the ICMA/IaCMA

  • Serving as an officer, committee member or volunteer
  • Serving as a workshop presenter or meeting facilitator for training sessions
  • Serving as a mentor
  • Publishing articles
  • Developing survey, studies or reports
  • Achieving professional certifications or designations

The IaCMA Manager of the Year will be awarded during the virtual IaCMA networking session on September 17. The deadline for nomination is September 1, 2020. Nomination forms may be requested from Dylan Mulfinger or from the Iowa League of Cities.

Submitting Your Nomination
Applications of each descriptive narrative along with the nomination form shall be received at the close of business on September 1, 2020.
Attention: IaCMA Awards Committee
Iowa League of Cities
500 SW 7th Street, Suite 101
Des Moines, IA  50309-4111
Nominations can be e-mailed to:  IaCMA’s Professional Awards Committee; Dylan Mulfinger.

The Association’s past award recipients include:
2009       Carol Ann Diekema- Monroe
2010       Jeff Mark- Altoona
2011       Bill Daily- Belle Plaine
2012       Tom Brownlow- Charles City
2013       Jim Ferneau- Burlington
2014       Elizabeth Hansen – Nevada
2015       Jessica Kinser – Clinton
2016       Jeff Pomeranz – Cedar Rapids
2017       Aaron Burnett – Keokuk
2018       Michael Schrock – Oskaloosa
2019       Matt Mardesen – Nevada

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Career Compass No. 83: How Do I Have Energizing Performance Conversations with Direct Reports?

By Frank Benest | Jul 6, 2020

Dear Frank –
     I’m an administrative services manager in a large special district. I have five direct reports who are talented and mostly want to be challenged and grow. Once a year I’m required to complete a performance evaluation for each of my direct reports and then meet individually with them to review the evaluation. What a waste of time! I hate performance evaluations!

     This annual ritual sucks the life out of me as well as my employees. In addition, when I meet with an employee to go over the review, the staff person seems to get defensive even if it is a mostly good performance review.

     I can’t avoid the performance evaluation. However, do you have any suggestions to make it a better and more energizing experience?

For Dr. Benest’s full response and advise on this issue, please click here.

Sponsored by the ICMA Coaching Program, ICMA Career Compass is a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff.
Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California.
If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail careers@icma.org or contact Frank directly at frank@frankbenest.com. Read past columns at icma.org/careercompass. You can also subscribe to ICMA Career Compass by selecting any issue, and look for the blue subscription box.

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IaCMA hosts General Membership Meeting

As you know, the IaCMA Board has determined it is best to postpone the 2020 Summer Conference due to the pandemic. The board has postponed the conference with the hopes of finding dates this fall that will allow us to gather for networking and professional development.

The IaCMA Board will host a General Membership Meeting on Thursday, July 16 at 11:30 am to take action on the annual budget, FY 2019 audit report, and board/officer nominations. The meeting will be conducted on the Zoom platform, the coordinates are below.

Join Zoom Meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87197161582?pwd=SUJOK1dxYWtJckUvenhJUGxJMG11UT09

Meeting ID: 871 9716 1582
Password: 531951
+1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)

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IaCMA Summer Conference Postponed

From recent IaCMA Board action:
submitted by Mickey Shields

The IaCMA Board recently met and determined it is best to postpone the 2020 Summer Conference due to the pandemic. The board has postponed the conference with the hopes of finding dates this fall that will allow us to gather for networking and professional development.

With that in mind, members are encouraged to complete a survey that asks for preferred dates in October that could potentially be used to hold the conference at Honey Creek Resort. Please note that this survey also asks for feedback on the 2021 IMMI as the Board will be looking to schedule that event soon.

IaCMA Conferences Survey

Also, given the circumstances, the Board will hold a virtual General Membership Meeting on Wednesday, July 16 at 11:30 am. This is needed to discuss and take action on the association’s annual budget, FY 2019 audit report and board/officer nominations. These are normally handled at IMMI and the Summer Conference, but we will have to adjust this year. Below are the Zoom meeting details:

Topic: IaCMA General Membership Meeting
Time: Jul 16, 2020 11:30 AM Central Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87197161582?pwd=SUJOK1dxYWtJckUvenhJUGxJMG11UT09
Meeting ID: 871 9716 1582
Password: 531951
+1 312 626 6799 US (Chicago)

Please contact the Mickey Shields or Board President, Jessica Kinser with any questions.


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Career Compass No. 80: To Retain Your Talent, Use Stay Interviews

The churn in my department and throughout the county organization is killing us.  How do we retain our talent?

Mar 24, 2020 | ARTICLE

I am an administrative services director in a mid-sized urban county.  We have already experienced a “retirement wave” and have been hiring a good number of younger, talented professionals.  Generally, these employees are hungry to learn and grow, want to be challenged, and are eager to advance and make a bigger contribution.

The big problem is that we cannot keep the talented employees.  If they don’t move up quickly enough, they get antsy and jump to another organization.   There are only so many promotional opportunities in our organization, and we are constrained in offering more compensation.

The churn in my department and throughout the county organization is killing us.  How do we retain our talent?

To see Dr. Frank Benest’s reply and suggestions to help retain your talent, click here.

Sponsored by the ICMA Coaching Program, Career Compass is a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff. 

Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California. If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail careers@icma.org or contact Frank directly at frank@frankbenest.com. Read past columns at icma.org/careercompass.

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Announcing the 2020 ICMA Free Coaching Webinars

The 2020 Free Coaching Webinars from ICMA are listed below.

Titles link to registration information.

There is no charge to register and all persons interested in local government are welcome. All Webinars take place at the same time 1:30 PM Eastern/12:30 PM Central/11:30 AM Mountain/10:30 AM Pacific.

We encourage you to register even if you are unable to attend the live session so you can receive an automatic notice when the digital recording is available.

Workplace Conduct: How to Deal With Water Cooler Talk

Thursday, April 9 / Topic: Ethics

Managing and Mastering Council-Staff Relationships: The Nuance of Governance

Wednesday, May 21 / Topic: Council Relationships

Lessons in Value-Based Leadership: Leading with Principle

Wednesday, June 18 / Topic: Leadership Development

Managing Hostility in Public Discourse: Living in an Age of Anger

Wednesday, September 9 / Topic: Community Outreach

Charting Your Future: Developing Your Personal Strategic Plan

Thursday, October 22 / Topic: Career Development

Talent Management in the 21st Century: Growing, Attracting, and Retaining Your Best

Thursday, November 12 / Topic: Workplace Development

Sponsored by ICMA-RC, ICMA Premier Level Strategic Partner

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IMMI Registration Open

2020 information on the Iowa Municipal Management Institute, which will be held March 18-20 in Iowa City. The host hotel will again be The Graduate hotel in downtown Iowa City.

Each year the conference promises, and delivers, on its pledge to have a wide variety of educational and networking opportunities.

Registration for the conference is $350 and online registration is available here: 2020 IMMI Online Registration. Please note that a $50 late fee is applied beginning March 6.

Hotel Room Block
A room block has been set up at The Graduate, at a rate of $95/night. Reservations can be made by following this direct link: IMMI 2020 Room Block. You can also call (319) 337-4058 and reference ‘IMMI 2020’ to make your reservation. The room block expires February 28.

Please call Mickey Shields with any questions about IMMI or registration.

See you in Iowa City.

And mark your calendars now for the IaCMA Summer Conference.
July 15-17, 2020 – Honey Creek Resort on Lake Rathbun

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ICMA Credential Designations

Two Iowa Members Recommended to Receive Credential in January

These ICMA members have been recommended by the Credentialing Advisory Board to receive ICMA Credentialed Manager or Candidate status in January 2020.

Dec 5, 2019 | ARTICLE

The ICMA Credentialed Manager (ICMA-CM) designation has become widely respected, frequently requested in recruitment of positions and cited in positive media coverage of public stewardship. Congratulations to the following members, who have been recommended by the Credentialing Advisory Board to receive ICMA Credentialed Manager or Candidate status in January.

ICMA Credentialed Managers are professional local government managers qualified by a combination of education and experience, adherence to high standards of integrity, and an assessed commitment to lifelong learning and professional development. Objections must be filed in writing to the ICMA executive director (via credentialing@icma.org) and received by December 31.

ICMA Credentialed Manager

Amanda Mack, Spencer, IA
Amanda has been the City Manager in Spencer since October 2017.

ICMA Credentialed Manager Candidate

Redmond Jones, West Branch, IA
Redmond has been the City Administrator in West Branch since June 2017.

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Career Compass No 77: Ten Practices to Build a Mini-Culture of Learning

If there is no behavior change or better way of doing things, learning is not real or authentic.

I am a public works operations superintendent in a large special district. I oversee several field divisions (parks, streets, water, public facilities) and supervise these division managers. The district’s board of directors and the general manager want us to focus on environmental sustainability. While our different groups are quite useful in doing their work, I see the need to promote learning and experimentation in all things “green.”

The problem is that there does not seem to be much enthusiasm to learn new things and try out new approaches in our work. People seem to be stuck in doing things the way we’ve always done them. While we encourage staff to attend training workshops, the district as a whole does not actively promote ongoing learning. In fact, we tend to be afraid of making any mistakes.

How do I help create a learning culture, at least in my realm of the organization?

Yes, the world is changing, and we need to adapt. One of my favorite quotes from Gary Hamel is: “Are we changing as fast as the world is changing?” In most case, the answer is “No, we’re not.”

Of course, adapting requires ongoing learning, experimenting, and risk-taking.

What is a learning culture?

Learning is defined in the dictionary as an activity or a process for gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something. I prefer to focus on authentic learning which is defined as real-life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages learners to create a tangible, useful product to be shared with their world or some behavior is changed for the better. (See Steve Revington at www.authenticlearning.weebly.com .)

If there is no behavior change or a better way of doing things, learning is not real or authentic.

Culture is defined as “the way we do things around here.” It is the operating system for the team or unit or organization as a whole. Culture seems like it is a “squishy” notion, but it consists of two elements:

  1. Values and beliefs.
  2. Behaviors.

Therefore, a learning culture consists of values and behaviors that promote learning and new ways of interacting and changing things for the better.

A new or enhanced culture is not created overnight. Instead, it’s built slowly over time, step by step, behavior by behavior. (See Career Compass #51 “Building a World-Class Culture.”)

Where do you begin?

To get started, you need to do a few things:

First, understand that you don’t need to change the whole organization. You can create a mini-culture of learning. Even though the entire district may not encourage robust learning, experimentation, and risk-taking, you can develop a learning mini-culture in your part of the organization. Start in your realm of influence.

Second, you need to start talking about the “big why” and need to promote learning and adaptation. Always start with the “why,” not the “what” or the “how.” (See Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”) Discuss learning and adapting as critical ingredients to the future viability of the organization and PW operations. Share some examples of new environmental efforts that could pay-off.

Third, to create a state of readiness, you can serve as a role model. Modeling is the most potent way that others learn. Are you learning new things? Are you sharing what you’ve learned with your direct reports and their teams? Are you demonstrating that you’ve been uncomfortable as you’ve learned? (I have more to say later on the importance of discomfort.) Are you sharing what you have learned by stumbling around and making a few mistakes?

Finally, you should focus on “learning by doing” coupled with candid and helpful feedback.  There are two elements to promoting authentic learning: 1) taking on stretching job assignments, and 2) receiving honest feedback or coaching.

How do we overcome our blind spots?

We all have cognitive blind spots, especially those of us with technical and professional expertise. The Buddhists say that our “expert’s mind” is a full and closed mind. To promote learning and new ways of doing things, you must encourage your team to confront challenges (such as environmental sustainability) with a “beginner’s mind,” which is an empty and open mind.

To promote cognitive humility, Dan Pink, in his Pinkcast 3.09 (August 13, 2019) suggests several questions from Warren Berger’sThe Book of Beautiful Questions. You can ask yourself and your team:

  1. Do I think more like a soldier (defending territory) or a scout (exploring new territory)?
  2. Would I rather be right, or would I rather understand?
  3. Do I routinely solicit and seek out opposing views?
  4. Do I enjoy the pleasant surprise of discovering that I’m mistaken?

Another way to promote openness to new ideas is to include non-experts from other fields or disciplines when you are brainstorming new solutions. Thus, it would be helpful to include recreation leaders, librarians, police officers, or neighborhood group members who don’t have any expertise in public works operations but will bring diverse experiences and ideas to the discussion. (See Career Compass #72 “How Do We Generate Creative Ideas?”)

What are the key ingredients of powerful learning experiences?

In my leadership development workshops, I often ask participants to share a powerful learning experience and identify key ingredients or conditions that made the experience so powerful. The typical characteristics of powerful learning include:

  • The challenge was important or meaningful to me and/or my organization or community.
  • I had to “stretch” and get uncomfortable.
  • I was given some measure of autonomy to “figure it out.”
  • I learned as I went along.
  • Honest and responsible mistakes were accepted if I was committed to excellence and learned from the missteps.
  • I had informal coaching or support from my boss.
  • My team supported the effort.
  • I was given the time and resources to take on the challenge.
  • I could see progress as I tackled the problem.
  • I was able to share what I learned so that others could benefit.
  • My boss or coach believed in me.
  • Someone showed they cared about my growth and development.

These are the classic “enabling” ingredients or conditions for powerful learning. Any one experience does not have to include all these ingredients; however, for the experience to have a strong learning impact, it must incorporate a lot of these ingredients.

Consequently, if you can provide opportunities to promote learning for individuals and the team based on these enabling conditions, you will encourage robust learning and over time and create a mini-culture of learning and development.

What are 10 practices to promote learning?

Based on my local government management and consulting experience, I have identified 10 practices to promote learning. While it is helpful if the overall organizational culture supports these practices, you can use these suggested approaches with your team without much support or approval from top management.

The 10 practices are:

1. Start each meeting with a learning report. When I was the city manager of Palo Alto, California, we encouraged each unit in our organization to start its staff meeting with a learning report. It could be a summary of an article or report, or what was learned at a recent workshop, or themes from a stakeholder or community meeting, or “what my teen daughter told me at the breakfast table.”

2. Debrief everything. After every experience (for example, key project event, governing board or neighborhood meeting), you can engage the team in a debriefing. Debriefs include three questions: What went well? What did not go so well? What can we learn for our future practice?

Of course, as a leader, you must make it safe for people to provide different views and opinions. (See Career Compass #69 “Psychological Safety—The Key Determinant of Team Effectiveness.”)

When appropriate, it is a good idea to share the key learnings from the project or initiative debrief with other groups so they can learn from your team’s experience.

3. Ensure everyone has an individual learning plan. While it is common for professional and technical staff to develop an annual work plan, you can also require that each staff person incorporate (or draft a separate) learning and development plan. Questions on the individual learning plan template could include:

  • What do you want to learn in the coming year?
  • What are different ways to get the learning?
  • What learning activities do you propose?
  • Why would that learning be valuable to you, the organization, or the community?
  • How could the new learning be applied?
  • What kind of resources (time, money, or other support) would you need?
  • How would you share the learning with other staff or key stakeholders?

4. Provide choices. Everyone wants options and choices. People like to learn in different ways. While learning by doing plus feedback and coaching is the most powerful way to learn, people could secure learning in many ways:

  • Taking on a stretch assignment.
  • Leading a new team.
  • Becoming an interim or acting manager.
  • Taking a course or seminar.
  • Doing research, such as interviewing key informants.
  • Reading some of the literature and identifying best practices.

5. Help people secure the ideal mix of learning. While everyone tends to focus on classroom training, the ideal blend of learning is 70/20/10: 70% of learning for an individual should ideally be learning by doing; 20% should be informal or informal coaching; and 10% should be classroom training or education.

6. Favor “ready, fire, aim.” As managers, we tend to question the ideas of our direct reports and try to make them better. Unless “the barn is on fire” (Dan Rockwell, “Reject Fast Solutions,” Leadership Freak blog, Aug. 26, 2019), we should instead just encourage people to try out their idea. As Dan Pink emphasizes in his book Driveautonomy is a key self-motivator along with purpose.

7. Help people find their “sweet spot” of learning. In giving stretch assignments, you want to help people find their sweet spot of learning. (See Career Compass #73 “How Do I Secure and Benefit from a Stretch Assignment?”) The sweet spot is a stretch assignment where there is a 50-70% chance of success. If there is a 90% chance of success, it’s too easy, and there’s no discomfort, and therefore they won’t learn anything new. If there’s only a 40% chance of success, the effort will cause too much distress, and the person will tend to withdraw or shut down.

8. Take “little bets” and smart risks. To learn by doing and achieve positive outcomes for themselves and others, people must take some risks. Since our local governments tend to be risk-averse, you can help staff minimize the risks of new endeavors by:

  • Making a “little bet” (see Peter Sims’ book Little Bets) by doing a small beta-test and then scaling the solution after you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work.
  • Engaging the internal and external stakeholders as partners in the new endeavor, thereby creating allies and “spreading the risk.”
  • Calling everything an experiment because, of course, there will be mistakes (some things will work and others won’t) with any experiment.
  • Tying your learning effort to a broader agenda (for example, the board’s priority of environmental sustainability) or some other ongoing investment (for example, an IT or capital project).

9. Encourage teaching and mentoring. Some people (like me) learn best by teaching. If someone has acquired new knowledge or learned a new skill, encourage them to give a presentation at a unit meeting or to the larger department at an all-hands meeting. They can also do a demonstration, or you can have others “shadow” or partner with them as they try out a new skill.

10. Celebrate new learning. One of the best ways to build a learning culture is to celebrate new learning. Once someone gets a certificate or learns a new skill, recognize the person with bagels and coffee for all at a staff meeting or department all-hands meeting, as well as highlight their learning achievement in the employee e-newsletter.

Learning is the key to adaptation

All local government organizations are facing tough adaptive challenges (demographic and technological shifts, climate change, homelessness, the opioid epidemic, growing income inequality). There are no right or wrong answers to these problems. Learning and experimentation at all levels of our organizations will be required to adapt to new realities.

Your role as a leader is to promote learning for everyone. To paraphrase David Gable (“How Humble Leadership Really Works,” hbr.org, April 23, 2018), as a leader, you are mere overhead if you’re not helping staff learn and become better at what they do.


Sponsored by the ICMA Coaching Program, Career Compass is a monthly column focused on leadership and career development issues for local government professional staff. Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA’s liaison for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California.  If you have a leadership or career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail careers@icma.org or contact Frank directly at frank@frankbenest.com