Making the Most of Critical Conversations

Difficult Convos

We’ve all found ourselves dreading going into the office on days we know we are going to have an uncomfortable conversation. Whether it’s asking for a raise, disciplining a subordinate, or requesting that your boss stop micromanaging you, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, easy way to have these difficult conversations. Should I start with a strong lead or work my way into the conversation? How do I make sure that all the points I want to cover are covered? How do I go about ending the conversation?

Fortunately, we’re taking the guesswork out of preparing for these conversations by offering some do’s and don’ts for having critical conversations.


  • Have a plan but not a script. Have an outline of the points you definitely want to hit before going into the conversation. Avoid scripting, however, because often times these conversations don’t always go according to plan. By having a bulleted outline, you can ensure that you can make all of your points even if the person you are talking to goes off script. Go into the conversation with a mindset of flexibility and you’ll leave feeling accomplished.
  • Practice active listening. Even though you may be the one initiating the conversation, it is still imperative that you listen to what your counterpart is saying back to your points instead of rushing to get all your points out there. Give the conversation your undivided attention and show that you are listening by responding substantively to what your conversation partner is saying. Make sure your body language shows you are listening too by using gestures to convey your attention and avoid fiddling with your phone or things around you.
  • Reflect and learn. Regardless of if you felt the conversation went well or poorly, take some time after to debrief and reflect on what went right and wrong. Think about how you reacted to certain parts of the conversation and contemplate what you could have done differently. Once you know how you engage in critical conversations you can practice the parts you are good at and work on areas you are lacking in, making each subsequent conversation much easier to have.


  • Start the conversation with content. Rather than diving into the content of the conversation, start with intent and why you are having the conversation in the first place. Establish mutual purpose and respect and lay out what your intentions for the discussion are. By establishing that the conversation is taking place in a safe space before diving into the meat of the discussion allows your counterpart to open up and have a more productive conversation.
  • Forget the facts. Critical conversations are often emotionally charged and it can be easy to base the discussion in your feelings about the topic instead of the facts. Presenting the facts makes the conversation less controversial and more persuasive and also gives you an opportunity to ask the other party for their facts. After you discuss the facts about the topic at hand, you can then turn and examine your feelings on the situation and start moving towards a conclusion.
  • Let the conversation end by dwindling off. After you go through the main points of what you wanted to get through in the conversation, you may find yourself at a loss at where to end it. Instead of letting the discussion dwindle off awkwardly, recognize when a critical conversation is coming to a close and end it with clarity. This means both parties know that the conversation is over and there is a clear outline of who is doing what and when follow up conversations will take place. Having a necessary critical conversation is a good start but it will be much more worth it if the outcomes of the discussion are clear and there is a path to meet the goals set through the conversation.

Want more career development resources? The NextGen Leadership Development Program could be for you. Learn more about what you can get out of the program here.

Source: GovLoop


Project Management for the Rest of Us

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For many individuals thrust or drafted into the role of initiative or project leader without a formal background in project management, expect a steep learning curve and bumpy ride.

In spite of the popularity of project management training and the growth in the number of certified professionals, most projects in organizations are led by functional or technical experts tapped to pull a team together and make the magic happen. The magic, in this case, is successfully completing the initiative on time, under budget and at the right level of quality.

Experienced project managers everywhere are smiling externally while secretly writing your project obituary in their minds. Yes, the road ahead is rocky. In this article, I frame the challenges and offer some getting started ideas and resources.

Understanding 5 Big Challenges

While some might suggest that I am cynical starting out by describing barriers and headaches, I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic. Forewarned is forearmed. And we’ll offer solutions to each of these obstacles in subsequent posts.

1. The words, “I want you to lead this project” are the beginning of a quest for success that may at times feel like Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece of mythology.

You are right to be excited about the opportunity—it is a vote of confidence in you and your abilities and a fantastic opportunity to show your firm’s managers what you are capable of doing with a big initiative. And then, you should be scared. Or at least a little nervous about the realities of making this work.

The early steps you take in establishing a strong foundation for your project, including crystallizing the scope of the work; assessing the needs/issues/obstacles of the people touched by the project (stakeholders) and getting started properly with your project team and sponsor are critical. You get one chance to start this out properly. My advice is to secure a great resource to give you some context for your work and consume it quickly. My recommendation is the non-text I use in teaching my MBA courses in project management: “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” by Eric Verzuh, 5th edition. It grows larger with each edition; however, Verzuh’s great content is distilled for mere mortals operating without project management experience and certification.

2. Your success is dependent upon a group of people who are already overworked and overstressed. You know that excitement you have for this new project? No one else feels the same way. Your new team members may very well groan out loud when they learn they’ve been assigned to your project team. For some, it may well be the second or third project team they’ve recently been “invited” to join.

You will be competing for minds, hearts and time with all of the other priorities your new team members are struggling to navigate. Success is 99.9 percent about your ability to form a productive team out of a group of frazzled, reluctant contributors. We will spend a great deal of time on the topic of developing and leading a team. I wrote: “Leadership Caffeine for the Project Manager—and anyone else responsible for leading teams, groups, or committees,” just for this purpose.

3. Your biggest ally is your executive sponsor—if you have one. And in cases where your organization offers this valuable resources, know that your executive sponsor likely has little real understanding of what this role is supposed to do. And let’s not discount the fact that you don’t have any experience in working with and managing executive sponsors.

If you don’t have an executive sponsor, you need to get one. If you have one, you need to quickly define roles, accountabilities, communication protocol and identify the initial steps the sponsor can take to improve your odds of surviving the first month. Run, don’t walk to my podcast (with transcript): How to Survive and Thrive with Your Executive Sponsor.

4. Your hastily assembled project team will want to jump into the work within the first 20-minutes of your first team meeting. After all, everyone is busy, and this is just another item on their list.

Measure twice, cut once. Part of the foundation for project success is in the upfront project planning and team development process. You and the team have some work to do before you jump into the detailed work. It’s time to work on scope, stakeholders and work definition, who’s going to do what and how the work will be coordinated.

5. Your skills as a diplomat will be severely tested. The people project managers reference as stakeholders—anyone impacted by your initiative—can be some of your biggest supporters and fiercest adversaries. Others will be passive obstacles. You will need to move beyond your noble view to your initiative and actively engage friend and foe alike. Skip this step, and you will die the project death of 1,000 slights.

Yes, this is the dirty sounding issue of power and politics in the world of projects. You have little choice but to enter and play. The trick is learning to play while not compromising your principles.

These are just a few of the challenges you will encounter, but get these right at the start of your initiative and your odds of success rise dramatically. And don’t let all of the talk of potential doom around every corner dampen your enthusiasm for this work. Even your project manager friends understand this work—while incredibly challenging—is genuinely exhilarating.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

Original article link:

Why Big Data is a Big Deal for Government Leaders



Professor Alfred Ho, at the University of Kansas, recently surveyed 65 mid-size and large cities to learn what is going on, on the frontline, with the use of big data. He found that it has made it possible to “change the time span of a decision-making cycle by allowing real-time analysis of data to instantly inform decision-making.” This decision-making occurs in areas as diverse as program management, strategic planning, budgeting, performance reporting, and citizen engagement.

So just what is big data?  According to Ho: “Big data refers to the use of a massive amount of data to conduct analyses so that the data patterns and relationships can be used for classification, clustering, anomaly detection, prediction and other needs in decision making.”  Information sources increasingly include mobile devices, digital cameras, RFID tags, and embedded sensors.

Ho says that while the sources are important, the key is how these data are collected, organized, analyzed and used. He outlines a two-part framework detailing both the data cycle and the decision-making cycle. He writes: “The framework for big data initiatives challenges the departmental silos of data ownership and processing so that a more integrated and holistic perspective is used to gain new insights.” In addition: “There should be two-way communication between the data cycle and the decision-making cycle.” This helps ensure that policymakers’ priorities inform the priorities of the data and analytics team.

Natural Repositories of Data

Cities are already repositories of rich amounts of data that can be potentially integrated and analyzed for policy and program management purposes. These include data from public safety, education, health and social services, environment and energy, culture and recreation, and community and business development. This includes both structured data (e.g., financial and tax transactions) and unstructured data (e.g., recorded sounds from gun shots, videos of pedestrian movement patterns, and social media data that assess citizen sentiments during an emergency situation). Based on these repositories, Ho notes: “One of the fundamental building blocks of a big data system in local government is the organization’s ability to collect and integrate many forms of data from multiple sources.”

Ho says that “user patterns can provide useful information about what services the public wants most, who wants the services, and where and when those services are used or needed.” He found that a number of local governments are using website traffic data to identify public priorities and concerns. Albuquerque, Dallas and Nashville examine patterns of how citizens use municipal websites and then use the analyses to inform departments about which services are most popular. Other cities, such as Kansas City, puts these kinds of results on their public website so citizens can also see use patterns.

Cities have an affinity for mobile phone users. For example, Boston residents use a phone app to measure road quality and can send real-time data to the city about needs for specific street fixes and to plan longer-term investments. And New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities have mobile apps that allow users to check the schedules of subway trains and buses.  Detroit has an app that allows users to report maintenance issues for water main breaks, potholes, damaged street signs, etc.

“Among the 65 cities examined in this report,” Ho writes, “49 have some form of data analytics initiatives or projects, 30 have established a multi-departmental team structure to do strategic planning for these data initiatives, and 28 have worked with Code for America to launch some pilot analytics programs.”

He found that 75 percent of cities in the survey reported having some form of initiative around the use of data analytics. Most were led by the cities’ IT departments, but in some cities, their initiatives were led out of the mayor’s office or via existing performance management units. Almost a quarter of the 65 cities had designated chief data officers to lead their initiatives. More than half of the cities with active initiatives had established multi-departmental coordinating committees. Interestingly, more than half of the cities with active initiatives also partnered with Code for America to jumpstart their initiatives.

How Cities Are Using Big Data in Decision-Making

In the course of his research, Ho identified a series of cases where cities told him they were using big data in making operational decisions:

  • Chicago developed partnerships with universities, non-profits, foundations, state and federal agencies, and other local governments. “It has used analytics to examine citizen complaints from its 311 center and various services at the neighborhood level . . . It has also deployed predictive analytics to analyze resident complaints of rodent problems over 12 years, and it found that rodent problems are significantly related to trash overflow and cases of food poisoning in restaurants. This prompted the city in 2015 to deploy special sanitation teams more strategically and cost- effectively.”
  • Kansas City “has partnered with different university researchers to analyze crime data, nuisance complaint data, quarterly resident survey data, and census population and housing data.” This has helped local officials “understand how local resident perceptions of public safety and quality of life are related to service outcomes” and other city initiatives. These insights, in turn, help improve the planning and delivery of city services.
  • Los Angeles is a proponent of CompStat, a data-intensive crime-tracking program first pioneered in New York City. It has since adapted the “Stat” model to apply the use of big data in other initiatives, such as its “Clean Streets Initiative,” which uses multiple sources of data to develop a “street-by-street cleanliness assessment system.” These data are used to more effectively deploy resources by the city’s Bureau of Sanitation.

Based on these and other cases, Ho observes that most cities’ analytics initiatives are organized on a project by project basis. One way cities first engaged in the use of analytics was by tapping into issues that affect quality of life in a city, such as illegal dumping, abandoned houses, potholes. The key was that, while these were specific issues, many required multi-departmental collaborations to address them effectively.

Developing a Larger Vision

Ho concludes that: “Big Data initiatives provide a new platform for policymakers, key stakeholders, and individual citizens to use data to understand these problems more holistically.” He says that these data can lead to dialogs that cut across school district, city, county, business, nonprofit sector boundaries. But, in the longer term, he sees that: “Cities need to develop a larger vision of Big Data and see data analytics as part of a smart city movement, not just as data management and statistical programming.” To this end, his report offers 10 recommendations to city political and career leaders based on the promising practices that he observed during his survey and interviews. These recommendations can help those interested in launching big data initiatives as well as help those with existing initiatives to create that broader vision that Ho offers.

7 Values Transforming Today’s Workplace

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From Dannielle Blumenthal, Government Executive:

Empowerment versus authority: The individual and the small team make decisions rather than having decisions dictated to them from on high.

Disclosure versus concealment: Telling what’s going on, the earlier the better, leads to forgiveness whereas hiding the truth is unforgivable. The cover-up is worse than the crime.

Frailty versus bluster: People are respected for admitting their faults, and projects are similarly honored as bold attempts even if they do not fully succeed. Those who brag, but have little or nothing to show for it, are quickly outed and mocked.

Insight versus information: The numbers themselves no longer tell the story. People who understand the numbers and can offer useful insight based on studying them in context are prized.

Truth versus loyalty: The public today simply wants to know the truth. Whereas in the past, keeping secrets out of loyalty to the organization was a mark of pride (you would “throw somebody under the bus” so that they could “take one for the team”). Today, this would be considered disgusting.

Advancing a cause versus promoting yourself: In the recent past, it was fashionable to use work as a platform for Brand Me. Today, employees and customers alike expect organizations to be giving something back. Meaning is a primary value; selfishness is not.

Sharing versus hoarding: The notion of a sharing economy extends to workplace spaces, assignments, and distribution of wealth associated with project success. Put simply, people expect to co-work and receive a share of the profits, and they enjoy being part of this kibbutz-like collaborative effort. On the other hand, holding all the money back for oneself, or all the credit, or all the power, is loathsome, and people will take great pains to distance themselves from such a person.

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3 Steps to Inspire Your Team Without Paying Them (Or Without Paying Them More)

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As a leader of more than a dozen volunteer organizations and a founder of three not-for-profit organizations, I have extensive experience in trying to motivate people who are extremely talented but aren’t financially reimbursed for their time. In addition, as a supervisor in government work, I know the challenges of inspiring employees who are older and more experienced, or younger and may not feel that they have the skills or abilities to tackle a new responsibility.

This year, I’ve written about reward programs to incentivize the performance you want repeated, and I’ve covered using authentic compliments to build closer relationships with your team. But what about when you simply need to get a job done today? You don’t have time to create an employee recognition program or build that relationship with an employee whose nose you need on the metaphorical grindstone. The job needs to be done now and you may have to work with limited resources who are constrained by other work obligations. How can you do it?

First: Perform A “Sanity Check”

Before you step out of your office, perform a quick “sanity check” on the plan you want to put into action. I always recommend using S.M.A.R.T. goals, which helps to ensure that you’re giving someone a task they can accomplish. S.M.A.R.T. is a classic business acronym which stands for:

– Specific: The goal must be detailed and focused, not vague or too broad.
– Measurable: The goal must have targets that can identify under performance and over performance.
– Attainable/Achievable: The goal must be able to be accomplished with the time, budget and resources available.
– Relevant (Some use Realistic): The goal must meet the mission of the organization.
– Timely: The goal must have a deadline for completion.

When you perform this quick analysis, you can be confident that you have created a goal worth pursuing, and that will help you in the next phase.

Next, Get “I’ve Had Way Too Much Coffee!” Enthusiastic

Remember, at this point, your goal is exactly that; yours. You need to build enthusiasm and support for this solo mission to become a team effort, and this starts from within. Make sure you are aware and confident of the importance of this project to the agency, and that will be conveyed when you begin promoting it to your team. After all, how many times have you had to watch your manager try to push senior leadership’s “mission statement” on you? You can tell if they believe in it or if they’re just toeing the company line because they have to. You must be convinced that this is a mission-critical task that will make or break the organization. Make sure you communicate this with all of the answers you developed in making your goal S.M.A.R.T., so the team member knows exactly what is expected and when it is due.

Finally, Follow-up With Your Full Support

Don’t forget, you are delegating this task because the resource has the talent you need to successfully meet the objective. Ensure they have the resources and time commitment (especially if this is a multiple department or inter-agency project) to be successful. Check in with them at a frequency they designate, and do so in-person (do not send an email), to see how they are progressing. Ask how other teams are cooperating, or if they need additional support to accomplish the task. Most importantly ask; “are you still as excited about this task as I am?” And follow up with authentic compliments to help recognize the individual’s work and build professional rapport as the project progresses.

This Technique May Work Better Than You Expect

Recently, I needed a member of another team (who is brilliant, and is constantly tasked with more than his fair share of work) to help me out by developing an API (computer code that let’s one system talk to another) that was very important for my team’s success. It involved partnering with a third department in our agency to create a real-time link with our phone systems to ensure my disaster recovery alerting system always had the latest contact information to reach employees. After checking with another department supervisor to make sure my goal was S.M.A.R.T., I approached the employee with the task and explained how amazing it would be for our organization to have this information available at the touch of a fingertip. Before I could even complete my sales pitch, he was already telling me how excited he was to work on this project, and how the information could be used in other areas of government business. I’ve pledged him my full support and I will be checking in with him on a weekly basis (his requested follow-up period) to find out how I can help clear the way for this project.

How can you apply this method at your agency?

Daniel Hanttula is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Want to make a difference in the lives of those in need?

In very rare circumstances, a disaster of extraordinary size (such as September 11 and Katrina) may occur that would require DHS departmental components and other federal agencies to augment FEMA’s workforce. In exceptional circumstances such as these, we will need a volunteer employee force, known as the Surge Capacity Force (SCF), that is willing to be deployed to a disaster location to help FEMA with response and recovery support.

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The SCF program is seeking volunteers who want to help when the need is greatest in support of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, including catastrophic incidents. The SCF program is currently being rolled out throughout the department and will then be rolled out government-wide. All volunteers will be trained and utilized in three FEMA program support elements — National Processing Service Centers, Cadre Support, & Community Support. The cadre support element offers opportunities for members to consider that may be in-line with current job series, skills and abilities.

This site provides answers to frequently asked questions, training requirements for the program and links to training courses, how you might be deployed, and much more. To complete your enrollment, you will need to provide your home address, email, and emergency contact information to be entered into FEMA’s Deployment Tracking System and complete a 2-hour responder orientation webinar. This data will be protected with the highest level of security. Please contact your agency POC for more information.

With your help, we can be ready to respond to any event or to simultaneous events, no matter how large the impact.

Submit questions to or call the Surge Capacity Call Center at 855-377-3362

Read stories from SCF volunteers, as they share their experience supporting Sandy operations.

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