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Going ROWE: The Guinea Pigs in the Basement

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This is the second in a series of weekly dispatches from the District of Columbia’s information technology department, which is transforming into a “results-only work environment” where employees can work where they want, when they want—so long as they meet predefined goals.

Washington’s 35-year-old Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak predicts a radical results-only culture will boost worker productivity by 30 percent and enhance employee morale at a time of hiring freezes and budget cuts. Sivak has agreed to let CAP’s Doing What Works project attend internal meetings and planning sessions as his 550-person agency tries by January 2011 to become the first government department in the country of its size to “Go ROWE.”

Week 2: Making metrics

Thursday, October 14, 2010: A driving rain draws large afternoon crowds into the District of Columbia’s flagship library downtown. People queue up for Internet terminals in the lobby. High schoolers hide out in the glassed-in “Teen Space” on the second floor. The homeless hide out in the men’s rooms.

Even the library basement is full, though the 40 software developers, business analysts, database administrators, and project managers gathered in a windowless room aren’t here to escape the weather. These employees of D.C.’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer are plotting their permanent escape from the 9-to-5 grind.

“We are the guinea pigs,” Peter Olle, deputy chief technology officer in charge of applications, tells his assembled workers. They are among the first of the agency’s 550 employees selected to transition in coming weeks to a “results-only work environment.”

Today’s topic: metrics. In a results-only world where workers may not be visibly on the job, managers need precise ways of measuring whether subordinates are in fact getting work done.

Olle’s department of about 80 full-time workers will be the first to “migrate” to the results-only system. That’s because unlike their hardware-focused colleagues who must be in physical contact with servers and such, the software folks have inherently more flexible positions. Among this group’s responsibilities are teams that develop and maintain applications like the city’s payroll and procurement systems, and the dc.gov website.

Leaving Las Vegas

One of the workers assembled in the library basement is Tarek Mousa, 43, a project and operations manager with the citywide data warehouse group. “ROWE could help me a lot,” says Mousa, the single parent of a 5-year-old boy, in an interview after the meeting. “It will allow me to be able to work from home sometimes and be able to take care of my son when he is not at school.”

Mousa, a recent transplant from Las Vegas who lives in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood, estimates that he works about 50 hours a week managing various projects and operations, including the Data Catalog and TrackDC websites that allow businesses and residents to track government agency data.

He says his colleagues at OCTO, as the technology agency is called, are greeting the prospect of a results-only workplace with both anticipation and concern. “There are concerns about fairness because nobody understands how this will be done,” he says. “How are you really going to measure all these different people?”

Defining “individual deliverables,” as Sivak calls them, is a central challenge to migrating to a results-only world. “My biggest concern about all of this,” he told a group of managers last week, “is that in order for this to work, every manager in this organization needs to very specifically define the deliverables of every one of their reports. And then measure it. That’s going to be one of the hardest things to do.”

Wild and wacky

Back in the basement, Bill Zybach, the senior manager in charge of orchestrating the result-only transition, takes the floor. “This is going to be wild and wacky,” he announces. With that warning, Zybach launches into more than two hours of group activities with titles like “storyboarding” and estimating “unitless units,” all in the name of brainstorming performance metrics. These metrics will be used not only for ROWE, but also for other management “methodologies” Sivak is simultaneously launching, with New-Agey names like “Agile” and “Holocracy.”

Agile is a software-development technique that emphasizes short development cycles, daily team meetings, and a willingness to constantly reassess goals. Holacracy is a neologism and business management style that eschews rigid hierarchies for a more democratic governance structure, with the aim of encouraging innovative thinking.

Some of these concepts are still new to the software experts gathered in the basement, and the cumulative effect of so many buzzwords (“sense and response,” “burn-rate,” “velocity”) flying around appears at first to belie the very purpose of this meeting, which, according to Zybach, is “clarity.”

A week ago during a leadership meeting, Olle admitted to having concerns about whether OCTO can easily swallow the cocktail of initiatives Sivak is introducing. “My fear is that we’re taking on too much and trying to change too many things and diluting the opportunity to be successful,” Olle said.

Today, the bearded deputy CTO stands to the side, looking somewhat tentative, as Zybach guides the group through a series of role-playing exercises designed to get them to distill their work into measurable pieces, first for project teams, and then for individuals. (Olle later admits to being disappointed that not all the application solutions people showed up to the meeting, which was, in the ROWE spirit, entirely voluntary.)

A couple of hours later, all of the project groups have managed to come up with performance metrics that relate to their work. The team in charge of creating a Districtwide driving ticket and fee system team, for example, has decided it wants to be judged by statistics like ticket processing time and the number of adjudications completed. About half of the groups, however, have struggled to distinguish between group metrics and those that relate to individuals. The latter will be key for ROWE.

When it’s Mousa’s turn, he rattles off projectwide metrics for TrackDC (“visualizations to the database, the number of times datasets are reused, the efficiency of data uses”). But when it comes to how people on the team will be individually measured, his only suggestion is the number of projects delivered on time and on budget.

“When you do the individual metrics, you want to focus on the individual roles,” Zybach reminds Mousa, in a refrain he will repeat throughout the afternoon.

As the hour nears 5:00 p.m., it’s time for a “synthesis round” to summarize the day’s work. Olle asks for general reactions. “Are you confused? Are you lost? Are you having fun?” he says. “Any reaction to what we’re trying to do in general?”

There’s no response from the troops.

“I think we’re running into end-of-work tiredness,” Zybach quickly says, rising to adjourn the session. On their way out, most of the attendees rate the meeting “great” in a flip-chart exit poll positioned by the door.

More leadership, less management

Mousa is re-energized by the following afternoon. He says the data warehouse team has decided to continue refining individual performance metrics. “At first it will be difficult, but everyone will be an active participant,” he says. “It’s going to end up being a good thing.”

Like Zybach, Mousa says he is unworried that the ROWE transformation may be, like this week’s meeting, at times overwhelming.

“I want more leadership and less management,” he says. “And there seems to be a lot of that here. Other places where I’ve been, middle management are the people who tend to stifle efforts like these. That doesn’t seem like it will happen here.”

NEXT WEEK: The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs conducts a “baseline survey” of OCTO employees in preparation for a study to determine a results-only workplace’s effects on productivity and morale.

Gadi Dechter is Associate Director of Government Reform at American Progress. Please send comments, feedback, tips, and suggestions about this series to gdechter@americanprogress.org.

More articles in the "Going ROWE" series can be found here.

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This is part of a special series: Going ROWE

For more from this series, click here