Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Conceptual Strategy for Leading an Interagency Group

            Leadership is about dealing with people. Leadership in the interagency is about dealing with people, and the institutions behind the people. Interagency leaders should arm themselves with a strategy to handle the people and their parent organizations. When agencies combine to form a group, the resulting admixture grows complicated. Managing this complexity does not occur by happenstance. Leading in the interagency requires a strategy to assess, guide, evaluate, and adjust the group toward a common objective. This process is continual. Each step comprises various elements. Applied together, they provide a framework for managing the complex nature of the interagency.

Assess the Organization

            The first strategy step is to understand the multifaceted organization of which one will lead. This includes the culture, accountability demands, and the value of inputs. The Joint Interagency Task Force - West (JIATF-W) is a useful example for reference. It contains the U.S. military, U.S. Customs, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and police from Australia and New Zealand.[1] Each organization represents unique sets of beliefs. Interagency leadership tries to gain consensus on shared beliefs. Doing so creates a culture of cultures within the interagency group.[2] This sets the stage for dealing with challenges as a group. It also exposes what Edgar Schein refers to as those issues requiring external adaptation and internal integration.[3]
            The interagency also includes layers of accountability that must be negotiated. On the one hand, a leader will face expectations much like what Beryl Radin identifies: policy demands, political responsibilities, and variant processes.[4] One must determine to whom each independent agency is accountable, and what interests parent agencies seek. On the other hand, an interagency leader faces additional internal and external accountability expectations. Debra Romzek and Melvin Dubnick illustrate a quadrant of those expectations as formal accountability areas.[5] Parent agencies juggle those expectations separately. An interagency leader needs to juggle a compounded set of expectations calculated by the following: P3n + A4n = C. P is the policy, politics, process expectation. A is the internal and external expectation; n is the total number of organizations. C is the measure of competing interests.[6] The greater C is, the more complicated leading the interagency will be. An example of this relationship is depicted in Figure 1 below. Consequently the value of C is directly proportional to the output potential, i.e. success.
Figure 1

            The complexity of an interagency organization seems daunting, but there is great value in the inputs that come from the diversity of contributing members. A leader should understand what individual agencies contribute. Jim Collins uses the analogy of a hedgehog to suggest that an organization can be great by doing one thing and doing it well.[7] The interagency is really a collaboration of agency experts. The leader, therefore, must herd hedgehogs finding value in their collective contributions. The reverse is also true. A leader should understand what agencies cannot contribute based on cultural, external, and parent agency rules.
            The organization's value is further intensified by the diversity of the group. By design the interagency is organizationally diversified. One should expect to find diversity of people too. This may present potential friction points especially as the group incorporates newcomers.[8] The group's culture will indicate a level of maturity based on its ability to integrate new members from diverse backgrounds.[9] This friction may present some challenges later on when fundamental assumptions need to adjust. These cultural factors define the nature of the organization. By assessing the nature of the interagency, a leader can understanding what internal dynamics and external demands will impact decisions. The point is to know how best to lead.

Guide the group

            The next step is to determine a leadership approach that will best stimulate productivity. An interagency leader is a relative peer among equals. Each member contributes as an expert from their particular agency. The collective efforts of the group lead to accomplishing objectives. Therefore, to lead an interagency is to lead indirectly within a domain of similarly-minded individuals. Howard Gardner identifies a continuum of leadership whereby the extent to which a domain is influenced suits either indirect or direct leadership.[10] Within the interagency, the domain is contained. Influence comes from the indirect exchange of ideas. However, the leader also needs to go beyond the interagency domain into respective parent agencies and those areas of external demands depicted in Figure 1. Along Howard's continuum this means applying a more direct approach outside the interagency to communicate messages.
            With regard to indirect leadership, the question becomes one of approach. Indirect leadership will work best by modeling discipline among relative equals. This means modeling a certain amount of disciplined thought.[11] The intended effect is an informal accountability system that relies more on the strength of relationships than on one's position. Gardner says that, "When an individual provides leadership for a group of experts in his chosen domain, he typically does so by virtue of the work that he executes - thereby exemplifying indirect leadership."[12] Given the extent to which competing interests challenge the interagency, a leader modeling disciplined thought will position him or herself to confront challenges. The goal is to assimilate with authority. The leader should foster collaboration in this setting so as to steer the cumulative efforts of individual hedgehogs.
            The implication for the leader is to understand how to communicate messages. Gardner offers a good measure of audience sophistication in his categorization of the five-year old, ten-year old, and adolescent mind.[13] The leader can package messages for different audiences by assessing the nature of the interagency group. The content of one's message should match the level of the audience, thereby relating to them.[14]
            Relating to the various audiences is key to conveying a message. Within the interagency there are the members themselves. Initially one should communicate to them collectively through the "five-year old mind."[15] The point here is not that the group lacks sophistication but that messages should be uniform across the group at the simplest level. As the leader evaluates the group, they may find that various sub-groups exist and warrant different levels of communication. Schein speaks about sub-cultures evolving within the organization's overall culture.[16] Within the JIATF-W example we recognize the possibility for a defense sub-culture versus a law enforcement sub-culture. And even within those possible sub-cultures we see varying degrees of difference, for instance between Department of Justice agencies (FBI & DEA) and Department of Homeland Security agencies (Customs). Communicating to these various entities requires an understanding of both individual schools of mind and the collective school of mind.   
            One needs to apply a similar analysis when communicating outside the interagency group. Here the sophistication level does matter because external organizations only have a certain level of  familiarity with the interagency objectives. In the case of JIATF-W, one would communicate differently about resourcing needs to the U.S. Customs than they would to the New Zealand police. The idea behind understanding the audience and communicating at the appropriate level is to effectively promote the interagency objectives and to set conditions for encouraging positive change.  


            The third step is to evaluate the organization. This includes evaluating the leader's own role, the development of the group's culture and potential areas for change. Doing so is a process much like what Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe as "getting to the balcony."[17] The interagency leader will be involved in the work by virtue of representing their own parent agency's interests. However, the leader must also step back periodically to observe the bigger picture of all the agencies working together. He or she should observe the progress toward objectives, and the level of cooperation between agencies. And, they should observe the impact of leader decisions on the organization.
            Heifetz and Linsky point out that leaders faces inherent dangers to their position. Although Collins would argue that leading in the level-five realm involves a high level of humility, there is a certain self-preservation that a leader should consider.[18] From the balcony one should be alert to potential leadership challenges. This also means paying attention to where a leader's efforts have been focused. Considering Romzek and Dubnick's accountability expectations, leaders must shift weight toward expectation areas based on the value of their demand. Figure 1 attempts to capture this uneven gravitational pull. During evaluation, a leader ought to recalculate the competing interests using the complexity formula, measuring the variables based on demand priorities associated with individual agencies and external factors.
            The leader identifies areas that need adjustment during this step. This should be done with careful consideration of the group's overall culture and emerging sub-cultures. Change areas can fall within what Schein refers to as cultural levels: visible artifacts, underlying values, and fundamental assumptions.[19] Leaders need to carefully pick the battles worth waging based on the impact to the cultural level. Heifetz and Linsky say that, "Most problems come bundled with both technical and adaptive aspects."[20] How a leader assesses the technical or adaptive change required will determine how the message should be communicated. Technical fixes for instance speak to the five-year old mind, whereas adaptive fixes speak to a higher level.[21] Therefore, technical fixes require less effort and only temporarily solve artifact problems. Adaptive fixes take considerably more effort because they address fundamental assumptions. This evaluation step helps isolate those critical areas worth changing which in turn should be addressed with an appropriate change strategy.

Adjust and Fine Tune

            The final step is to make changes. While there are numerous strategies for implementing change, an interagency leader needs to orchestrate them through a methodology while remaining patient.  Changes may not come easily, and reactions may be severe. Heifetz and Linsky characterize the orchestration as controlling a thermostat, raising and lowering the temperature as needed.[22] Adaptive changes will require more heat because basic assumptions will be threatened. This implies constantly taking the temperature of the group to measure the tolerance. As the temperature rises, members will become uncomfortable. Schein's concept of psychological safety helps members protect against the heat, by reducing anxiety.[23] This four step leadership strategy is continual, so a leader should measure the change by again assessing, guiding, evaluating, then fine-tuning the change requirements.
            The entire process of change takes time. Managing this evolution requires patience, and that patience needs to be communicated within the context of the aforementioned relevant audiences. The recent repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy is an example of patient temperature gauging.  After almost twenty years of fluctuation, the social temperature was finally right for the military to repeal it and more importantly transition smoothly away from the DADT policy.[24] The DADT Implementation Plan notes that leadership was and will be the driving force behind this major change in the military's cultural assumptions.[25] Change within the interagency will be the most challenging aspect of leadership. This is especially true when accounting for the value of C, the complexity of competing interests.


            An interagency group is complex, and competing interests place significant demands on leaders of these groups. A comprehensive strategy for leadership provides a framework for managing the complexity. By continually assessing, guiding, evaluating, and adjusting the group, an interagency leader will better manage the members of the interagency, their parent organizations' expectations, and other external factors affecting the group.

Chetkovich, Carol. Real Heat Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Collins, Jim. "Good to Great and the Social Sectors." A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great. 2005.
Gardner, Howard. Leading Minds An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Heifetz, Ronald A., and Marty Linsky. Leadership on the Line. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002.
Radin, Beryl A. The Accountable Juggler. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2002.
Romzek, Barbara S., and Melvin J. Dubnick. "Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy." Public Administration Review 47, no. 3 (May-June 1987): 227-238.
Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. Fourth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
United States Department of Defense. Support Plan for Implementation: Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, 2010.
United States Pacific Command: Joint Interagency Task Force West. 2011. (accessed October 2, 2011).


[1] JIATF-W is an interagency task force within Pacific Command (PACOM) that combats drug-related crime organizations throughout the Asian-Pacific region. For more information about the command structure, mission and interagency and intergovernmental partnership of JIATF-W see, United States Pacific Command:Joint Interagency Task Force West. 2011. (accessed October 2, 2011).
[2] Culture here is defined by Edgar Schein as, "a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems." See Schein, p. 18.
[3] See Schein, chapters 5 & 6 for detailed explanations of external adaptation in internal integration.
[4] See Radin, pp. 5-6. Radin characterizes the difficulty of managing these three dimensions analogous to juggling them simultaneously.
[5] Romzek and Dubnick depict an accountability quadrant of  hierarchical, professional, legal, and political expectations. A leader must be able to negotiate the four simultaneously and understand when to weigh one more than another. See Romzek and Dubnick, pp. 228-229.
[6] This sum represents the nature of complexity the leader will need to understand in order to apply guidance and direct policies. This formula is primarily illustrative; however adjusting the variable for P, A, and n illustrate to degree to which the organization changes. It's also helpful to identify potential priorities regarding areas of expectation.
[7] See Collins, pp. 17-19.
[8] For further research on the experience of newcomers from diverse backgrounds, see Chetkovich's case study of female firefighters in the Oakland Fire Department.
[9] See Schein, pp. 289-291 for an explanation of how organizations become mature making them more resistant to external changes.
[10] See Gardner, p. 6.
[11] See Collins, pp. 34-35 for an explanation of how organizations transition from good to great through four stages: discipline people, disciplined though, disciplined action, building greatness to last. In this interagency model, greatness is not necessarily the end goal.
[12] See Gardner, p. 28.
[13] See Gardner, ch. 3 for a detailed explanation of the stages of developmental sophistication, the 5, 10, adolescent, and adult minds. These schools of mind represent a certain ability to comprehend simple to sophisticated issues. Gardner refers to this as the "unschooled mind" in a matter of fact sense rather than a pejorative sense.
[14] This theme of speaking to the 5/10/15 year old mind is consistent throughout Gardner's book. The main idea is to simplify the message to the level that will be best received and understood.
[15] See Gardner for more on the five-year old mind.
[16] See Schein, ch. 4 for the various macro, sub, and micro cultures.
[17] See Heifetz and Linksy, Ch 3 for a full explanation of the concept of getting to the balcony. It entails going back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor as a leader is involved with yet apart from their organization.
[18] Collins refers to five levels of leadeship. Level five is the highest and is a "blend of personal humility and professional will." For more see Collins p. 12.
[19] See Schein, ch. 2 for details on the three levels of culture.
[20] Technical fixes provide immediate visible results but may never solve fundamental challenges. Adaptive fixes require greater effort in changing behavior and therefore are much harder to do. For more see Heifetz and Linsky, pp. 55-62.
[21] Again refer to Howard Gardner's five, ten, adolescent, and adult minds for varying degrees of sophistication and capacity to handle issues.
[22] See Heifetz and Linsky, ch. 5 for further explanation of raising and lowering the temperature.
[23] See Schein, pp. 305-307 for an eight activities that help assuage the anxiety associated with change.
[24] See Support Plan for Implementation for details on how DoD postured itself to transition away from DADT. On September 20, 2011 the repeal occurred with generally mild reverberations.
[25] The DADT Support Plan repeatedly places the responsibility for change on professional leadership. This policy repeal directly targets what Schein would refer to as a fundamental assumption. That assumption was that in order to serve one's country, one's sexual orientation mattered. This change effectively says sexual orientation does not matter. See also Schein's definition of assumptions on pp. 27-32.

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