An interview with Kitty Wooley
co-author of Boundary Spanning in Practice and
Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning
October 5, 2020 – 47 minutes – Book Review
[Andrew] Hello my name is Andrew Everett and today I am with Kitty Wooley, who is the leader of a group called Senior Fellows and Friends. And she’s the co-author of two publications that the organization has created. The first one is called Boundary Spanning in Practice and the second one is Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning. Hello Kitty.
[Kitty] Hi Andrew. Good to see you.
[Andrew] So why don’t we start out with you explaining how the Senior Fellows and Friends group came about and your background in government that led to that, and start from there.
[Kitty] Okay. Well, Senior Fellows and Friends is a network and that’s really all it is. I was a college financial aid administrator for the first half of my career and then I moved to government in 1994 spent 17 years in Washington after that and at one point my agency sent me through a leadership development program called the Excellence in Government Fellows Program. It’s still running and the Partnership for Public Service runs it now. So the idea is you go through this year of leadership training and at the end then you’re called a “senior fellow” instead of a “fellow” which denotes that you’ve completed the program.
I met a fellow, an executive who was at the IRS at the time, he’s at VA now, who had done some really interesting work with Zenger and Folkman on building on employees strengths. So I thought it would be really nice to have dinner with him if he would do it and find out more about this because I was just on fire when I heard about his enthusiasm and the research he’d done and whatnot. And then I thought, well, I should see if anybody else who just finished the leadership development program wants to come too. So I emailed everybody whose email address I had from that program. We set up a time and a restaurant and 12 people joined us and we had a just great conversation and a good time eating dinner. I really thought that was a one-off but then three or four weeks later somebody emailed me and said hey Kitty when are you going to do that again? So I basically started doing dinners and it wound up being about seven or eight a year in DC. And any time I met someone or talked to someone that seemed like a good fit for that, they were open-minded, they liked to keep learning, they like to talk to people from other agencies, or not necessarily agencies but focused on improving government so it could be contractors, could be public administration associations, whatever. But they could behave and talk and with other people and learn from other people and be open to whoever showed up to talk. So we started doing these things and did them until I retired I moved to Colorado. So we were doing them at night I was working as a fed during the day in DC. Then when I retired and moved to Colorado to take care of my mother I kept doing these things. I’d go back to DC two or three times a year and then I started using Zoom a couple of years ago and then that really took off once the pandemic forced all the baby boomers onto Zoom.
[Andrew] So how many how many years has the Senior Fellows and Friends organization been around now?
[Kitty] We’re in year 17.
[Andrew] Wow, 17 years. And the focus is improving government?
[Kitty] It’s mainly government people. I would say about 85 percent. So there are a few things we’re trying to do there. First of all it’s not exclusive except that it’s exclusive in terms of if you want to learn and talk to each other and share information and be civil. It’s exclusive in that way.
But we’re really talking about tacit knowledge transfer. What do you know even if you’re a young fed. What do you know and how can you share that. We’re talking about showing up with everything you got meaning you’re not sitting there waiting to be called on or feeling intimidated because there’s a major general in the room or something. Because when we start, and the Zoom sessions are very much like the dinners, which hopefully we’ll be able to do again eventually, you park your importance at the door. It’s flat. So then the question is if there are 30 of us or 8 of us whatever in the room you’ve got 1/30th or 1/8th of the responsibility for making it go. So there’s no hiding, but there’s also no requirement to perform if you’re not feeling well.
[Andrew] So these are self-motivated people that join voluntarily and trying to encourage knowledge transfer of, as you said, tacit knowledge. I love that term. It’s knowledge that’s basically in the heads of people.
[Kitty] It tends to be a little older bunch that’s a little more senior hierarchically speaking although the new people, and we’ve had some interns and they get along fine. And they generally come back if we find each other. Because the focus is really on just putting all of the boloney aside and trying not to do excessive ego stroking. But trying to really meet each other as people and appreciate whatever’s on offer during that session. And also to walk away with people that can be contacted again. Could be mentoring. Could be help on a project. A number of connections like that have been made but again nobody’s going to hold your hand you’re going to have to take the initiative to email whoever it was that you want to talk to again and initiate contact further contact with the person. It isn’t going to happen by itself. So what we’re really also doing is working on everyone’s sense of agency or self-efficacy because that’s a continuing project until you die as far as I’m concerned.
[Andrew] Right. So these two publications are on the topic of boundary spanning. So maybe first for people who are watching this just explain what that means and then talk about other the benefits and why you did these publications.
[Kitty] Okay. Well I’ll have to explain how this fits in with the dinners. So I started doing the dinners and then and now the Zoom sessions. The first one was really an experiment. I had no idea if anyone was going to bite. So I basically dangled some bait on a hook in an email to 30 people who in my view are very successful talking to lots of other people about everything and that’s really all we’re talking about here. I mean we’re calling it Boundary Spanning. I’m not using the name networking because people tend to go straight to happy hour cocktails and have a slimy feeling about it. And that’s not really what we’re talking about. Although if you do this well it does help your career. What I did was ask a friend of mine in Reston, Virginia if he would like to host us in his living room for an organizing conversation about an ebook. And because he is a wine expert and does a lot of things in his living room so he said yes. I had sent that email out and said on this date at this time whoever’s interested is going to show up at John’s house and we’re going to talk about what we could do for an hour or two and, interestingly enough, seven other people showed up and of the seven about half of us wound up writing the first ebook.
One of the authors was Adrian Wolfberg, who spent, oh I don’t know, five years running a thing called the Knowledge Lab at Defense Intelligence Agency. I was flabbergasted he drove down from Army War College just for that conversation and then turned around and drove two hours back up to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. So he really wanted to be there and were very flattered. What he did was set up a formal mechanism for people to talk across the silos at DIA.
Like other large hierarchical organizations in government and the private sector, you have silos. And people aren’t always, in fact rarely, feel free to talk across the silos unless they’re told to or invited to. Now, I’ve been talking to everybody about everything for 50 years. So some of us… We’re aware of the silos but we don’t take them really seriously because we know that the mission done to the best of your ability requires talking across silos. You really cannot always be sitting there waiting to be told.
[Andrew] Right. That’s something that was a theme I remember reading through the articles was people taking initiative. The main benefit seems to be exactly what you just said: working across silos, whether they’re intra-agency silos — different departments within an agency — or inter-agency silos. Finding people who are dealing with the same problem or have solved the problem that you’re working on now.
There’s another book that I read that used the term boundary spanning and they it talked about T-shaped people and H-shaped people. The T is a deep level of expertise in your field but H people also have the skill of connecting with other people with deep expertise outside of their immediate work group. Anyway, that came to mind.
[Kitty] I think Tim Brown at IDEO was the first person to use that T-shaped language. I could be wrong about that but he wrote an article about your T-shaped stars and actually I’ve tracked a lot of research in this area. I tend to think of myself as T-shaped. I have links and if you’d like I’ll send them to you for the show notes.
[Andrew] Great. [See links below]
[Kitty] The thing is at this point in history… All of the problems, any big problem, any hairy wicked problem is bigger than any one agency or any corporation. So people have to work together to solve it.
[Andrew] It’s evident from the language you’re using now and also the language you wrote that you’re familiar with systems thinking. Wicked problems. And I think you wrote about stocks and flows in one of your articles. I think an important part of this too is that a lot of people, whatever their specific job function is, view the entire world through that lens and don’t see their piece from a much wider point of view, as to where that fits into things, which is basically what systems thinking is all about. There are systems and subsystems and everything is interconnected and what happens in one system affects another system. So this idea of breaking down the silos reminded me of systems thinking.
[Kitty] It’s really profound. I think it’s really true. OPM, the Office of Personnel Management, did a lot of work for a few years on Line of Sight. Getting employees to realize how their piece of the mission rolled up to their division’s mission and piece of the mission and their component’s piece of the mission and the agency’s piece of the mission and how that fit into the executive branch as a whole. That’s really important, that sense of alignment. Because it also helps direct your efforts. And it can make work more meaningful. The only problem with that is that you kind of need to be cognizant of what’s happening out here too.
One of the things that the Government Accountability Office has reported on year after year is how certain cross-agency goals just never come to fruition. Well partly we think that’s because more people at more levels of the organization need to develop ease at talking to people in other places and in thinking of themselves as people, because they are, who could contribute part of the solution. And this actually is goes back to our name Senior Fellows and Friends. I know a lot of senior fellows who are sitting on their fannies waiting for somebody to come get them to do something important. That’s really not what we need. What we need is to take advantage of the leadership capability that’s showing up all over an organization and to tap that.
[Andrew] Right. You wrote about that. That boundary spanning needs to take place at all levels of the hierarchy. You wrote about employee disengagement as a result of excessive control. I think that ties into what you were just saying. It’s not just the senior people that need to be working with other agencies. It’s something that needs to be happening throughout the organization.
[Kitty] Well and one of the reasons for that is simply that there aren’t that many senior people because you’re in a pyramid. You’re talking almost 2 million federal non-defense employees and the senior executives association has 7 or 8 thousand members. In other words, even if all of the senior executives were comfortable themselves reaching across, there’s way too much work. They can’t possibly do all the work.
So really wouldn’t it be better to encourage everyone to make small boundary spanning experiments and possibly help that by setting up what I’m calling guardrails for young new employees. Basically when someone comes into an organization and they’re like puppies, especially the really young ones. I want to talk to everybody about everything. Not to shut that down because you need that.
[Andrew] Guardrails was a term that came up in the in the writing, as well. What would be an example of a guardrail?
[Kitty] Well, I have to tell you this is a hard sell right now. Because there’s an element of control there. The thing about control and you can see that all the way off the executive branch to the very top. The nice thing about control is there isn’t always as much friction. Things can happen more quickly. The problem with it is that if people aren’t freed up to use their talents on behalf of the mission, again we are not talking about happy hour networking here, then they get discouraged. And that hurts your employee engagement.
In my context I was not in education but I worked at the U.S. Department of Education my entire career in four different very different verticals. I met some people they came in in policy. They loved education policy, did graduate degrees on it, come into the agency and are told the equivalent of, “Okay, sit down shut up and do this work for a couple years and then we’ll talk about it.”
No! You cannot do that! Because what happens is people are discouraged and also they leave because they have other options. Whereas if you were to say as a supervisor — now we’re in the guardrail territory — “I love that you’re this enthusiastic and I want to encourage you to talk to some people and develop relationships and what not. At the same time I need you to not tank everything that we’re doing or get us in hot water because what you’re doing is so out of alignment with what our mission.” This is sort of on hold at the moment because I need more people to think with on this. But it’s not: do these things, It’s: don’t do these things. Which goes to the Dave Gray book.
[Andrew] You had a quote from Dave Gray’s book The Connected Company. “Moving from thou shalt to thou shalt not.”
[Kitty] Right, right. So in other words don’t go over there, that’s quicksand, you’ll die. So you set up some ways so the person has a sandbox to play in and it’s not all just look do your work and then you can play and by the way playing is three years from now which is just baloney. This is one of the reasons government is having, or has had trouble, I don’t know how we’re doing this year, in terms of recruiting younger people. Because who would want to come do that? Whereas there are some really exciting missions in government. I mean all of it can be immensely exciting because what you’re doing, you’re doing on behalf of 318 million people. And a lot of us really felt that and still do feel that. But you can’t wind up working for the bonehead supervisor who says “sit down shut up and, oh by the way, don’t talk to those people over there.” Cannot happen!
[Andrew] Mark Dronfield was one of the contributing writers. He wrote this type of mindset is often considered somewhat counter-cultural in the federal government. Do you think that’s because people are afraid of stepping on toes? Or it’s just easier to stick to your knitting and you don’t have to challenge yourself as much? Or you’re just worried one of your employees is going to go out there and get you in trouble?
[Kitty] Probably a little of all of those things. But this is no different in government than it is in large organizations in the private sector, in the western world at least. Because part of it is power: how the supervisor relates to power, uses power, thinks about power.
The military, and I’m thinking that where I first discovered this was in Army doctrine but I may be wrong, the military thinks about command and Control actually two ways. There’s detailed command control where you’re just telling everybody exactly what to do, and it has to happen this way, and there’s a reason for that. Same way in a fire station. It just depends on what’s happening, but if it’s an emergency or people might die you need to do it exactly.
[Andrew] Follow the protocols.
[Kitty] Then you have this other thing called mission command control. The best demonstration of that actually in my mind is Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams where this tight control actually was getting people killed because it was too slow and information couldn’t go up and come down fast enough.
[Andrew] And there were fiefdoms of intelligence.
[Kitty] Right. And that just cannot stand. So the question is how can we do this intelligently. Part of it is the maturity of the supervisor too. Mark Dronfield is a very good example. He’s a grown-up. He gives his teams a lot of latitude. He understands who’s on his team. He understands their strengths and weaknesses to a great extent. He understands what really gets them up in the morning, what they’re passionate about. And he does his best to match the work that they’re going to be doing to that. And he doesn’t make them come ask him every time before they make a phone call to somebody not in the unit or go see them. He trusts them. And I’m not aware of it, but if he has had some train wrecks I’m sure they’ve been minor and then he has taken the hit as their supervisor and he has explained to them why that can’t happen again and what really happened and why it matters. So in other words, you’re talking about the kind of work that good supervisors do anyway. And there’s a lot been written on that at the moment.
[Andrew] It’s not creating anarchy where there is no structure to the organization. There still are supervisors. Communication seems to be a way to solve that. Keep me informed of your progress. Or let’s stage by stage approve what you want to do. Bring me your recommendations, your initiatives. And just keep me keep me apprised so things don’t get too far off the rails.
[Kitty] Right. Right. By the time I retired I was pretty senior and for the last three years or so I was working for the assistant secretary for management at the U.S. Department of Education and I just didn’t have a lot of guardrails. There were things that we were trying to accomplish. We cross cut the entire organization. And that kind of office at a cabinet agency handles all sorts of things: fleet management, facilities management, personnel, security, all kinds of stuff. Each agency slices a little differently. But basically it was like okay this piece needs to work better.
So it’s like having no formal authority but having influence, having a certain amount of emotional intelligence. (My friends will argue with how much.) A lot of it is just explaining. Going and talking to people and explaining to them what needs to happen and why and how it’s going to benefit them, and how it’s going to benefit the agency, and sort of chucking them under the chin and getting them to do what they should be doing and just lots of little one-off things like that.
Earlier in my career I had quite a bit of experience with data analysis and linking data sets together because systems weren’t talking to each other so I was linking them by hand because I was trying to discover certain things that bore on risk management in the student aid area and was sort of testing some concepts out. So as a result of that I got invited to into several data architecture, data standard meetings that were cross agency. And again it wasn’t because I was big and important. It was because I could help. And my bosses didn’t have me on a tight leash. They weren’t concerned that I was going to go do something that would put the agency on the front page of the Washington Post for a bad reason. They just they trusted me based on my track record up to that point. Okay, I should pause and take a breath.
[Andrew] I would summarize a lot of what you’ve been saying is that, we’ll call it boundary spanning, it’s about having all of the players in the organization where the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.
[Kitty] Exactly. I think it would be harder sell right now in Washington frankly, but this probably fluctuates. So really my thinking on this right now is, whether or not your agency likes silos or is trying to tear them down, you as an individual and especially because of how work is changing, you need to learn how to do this. And it’s not rocket science. You can take baby steps. In fact I’ve worked with someone to take some baby steps as part of a leadership program she was in. But it’s not safe, it’s not sustainable, as an employee in the 21st century to stay in your silo and hope everything is going to be okay.
[Andrew] Take more control of your life.
[Kitty] Right. And at the same time you know things. The 20 year olds know things, and not just the things that are stereotyped in articles. We just hosted a guy last week in one of our sessions who the government came and tapped on the shoulder when he was 15 and wanted him to come work on some stuff with them, some science stuff, and he did, and he was in government a long time. He’s directing the new GeoTech Center at the Atlantic Council.
People know things and you don’t know what they know. And they can do things and you don’t know what all their talents are, especially if you’re the kind of boss who’s going to say “sit down and shut up and do this.”
[Andrew] You’ve had a lot of experience, 17 years with this organization, you’ve met a lot of people and have been thinking about this for a long time. Does a does a success story come to mind that you could share where this really worked really well?
[Kitty] I had to think about that. Yeah, there is one. I will tell you that 95 percent of my experience has been lots of little successes. So more like grease between the wheels.
But there is a big one that I think about once in a while that is actually probably the most fun I ever had while I was in government. And that was when federal student aid was developing the new Pell grant and direct loan system. Those were separate systems for a long time.
And then certain technological things became possible. And there was also a need to make it easier for the colleges. So the way it works in the big picture is colleges draw money down from the treasury through the department and then they send records up justifying the draws. So in other words if New York University draws a million dollars at the beginning of fall semester it sends records that tell you that Jane Smith and Jose Rodriguez got two thousand dollars in Pell. It sends promissory notes if Bill Smith took out a direct loan. So roughly, because there are always timing issues and then there are errors at the school, etc., but roughly the paperwork and the money balance. And years ago this was all done in paper so the department wouldn’t know for a couple of years necessarily if things balanced or if some money had gone someplace or stayed someplace it shouldn’t be. Because the money really is to pay for tuition and fees and approved expenses for students to do college. Basically we’re all working on this big thing because we’re not only merging the systems into a thing called Common Origination and Disbursement, which wreaked havoc on the cultures at the department the subcultures that were very separate. “Pell is what we do; we’re the Pell accountants.”
So it was not only a huge change for them technically it was a huge challenge. We were planning a three-year phase-in and we had some schools and some software vendors that were doing their own coding. The big universities have I.T. staffs. They don’t hire somebody. They do it themselves. The little schools hire a software company. So we had a bunch of people that were going to be the early adopters in the first year. Because we were moving from old fixed-length records to more fluid XML schema and middleware — not to get too technical.
So it was a big deal from any perspective. We got to the January of the year… I think it went live in… Well, it did go live April 29, 2002. So that January I got a tasking. I got called into the project director’s office for this monster thing and my boss is also sitting there and I remember the tasking not lasting longer than 10 minutes. The gist of it was, look, we’ve got some early adopters that aren’t happy because they haven’t been getting enough information and I don’t know who dropped the ball and it doesn’t matter. But your mission is to keep them in the early adopter program and make them feel better about this and make it work better for them between now and April 29.
And that was right up my alley. I’m going, oh boy, because that meant, of course I already sort of could talk to anybody about anything, but that meant I could call up University California at San Diego or Bowling Green University in Kentucky or you know Ivy Tech Community Colleges in Indiana and I could talk to their people I could find out what hadn’t been working well enough for them and deal with it. So what we did was with our modernization partner, which at the time was Accenture, we set up an every two week conference call with a hundred lines. I had never been on a call that big. We basically said, look, we’re going to do these calls every two weeks.You don’t have to come, but if you want to come, and you want to tell us about anything. We’ll give you an update. We’ll also do email updates. But if you want to actually talk to us we’ll be on the line this time every two weeks between now and April. And most of the lines were generally used. We could have our training materials developer in Virginia on once in a while because if the coding changed in the development of the system it meant that they might have to change something in the training materials and it meant that the people in the field have to change something. So you have to keep it all in sync. Because otherwise the people, not only their financial aid directors, but their technical people are going oh my god, this is really scary. Like, is it going to work? Because if you’re a major university you’ve got 30,000 students and most of them you’re dispersing some kind of aid for. So it’s like it has to work.
And so bottom line, nobody dropped out, we had a lot of fun, and the thing went live, and it did phase in over three years. And it was successful.
[Andrew] It sounds like you were cutting through a lot of communication barriers so the people who were experiencing the problems were talking directly to all of the people who would be affected by fixing that problem. Instead of somebody getting a memo to do their one part, they see what the real source problem is and how everybody needs to work together.
[Kitty] Right. And it was also near real time so you were never more than I don’t know, we emailed everybody as soon as anything significant happens. You were never more than two or three days out of date, if that. And that was a frequency that worked for the people who were doing all of the work. They weren’t expecting that we were all like in constant mind-meld for five months. What they were expecting was that we understood what they were dealing with. And when we would work with them, they could trust us. We thought we could trust them. Both parties are right. We’re going to collaborate. We’re going to make this work. And that is really how you can solve big cross-cutting problems.
[Andrew] Excellent point. I think a lot of it comes down to when there’s real people behind things and you have direct dialogue then it’s not just some big bad bureaucracy that’s messing things up. There are people you can talk to. There are people who have to work together and then the trust builds.
[Kitty] Right. And it doesn’t take very long. I read articles that say it takes a long time to build trust. Well, it doesn’t take very long to build enough trust. So you don’t need all trust. You need enough trust to take the next step. And then if you are fortunate enough to work together over time then that grows and then that makes the relationship more resilient in the event that someone screws up, and that will happen because we’re all people. But if you stay talking to each other, there is nothing you can’t fix. There is nothing you can’t do.
[Andrew] Excellent. Well this has been a very interesting conversation and I thank you so much for the time. So the two the two publications again were Boundary Spanning in Practice and Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning. I have done a synopsis of the two merged together on thekeypoint.org which people can find. The source PDFs are of course on the Senior Fellows website. So thank you very much.
[Kitty] Well thank you for your time Andrew. I enjoyed it. And good luck to you.
[Andrew] You as well.