Crossing Boundaries is a change program at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). At first glance it looks like a typical town hall, but is remarkably different and a hundred times more effective at making change.
The program started when LTG Maples came to the Agency three years ago. In reviewing the latest human capital survey he learned that employees felt they had no ability to provide input into issues, they couldn’t push things up. With the help of the Knowledge Lab (the part of the organization I contract with) he created Crossing Boundaries to address that issue.
Crossing Boundaries takes place in the largest auditorium at DIA, and in typical fashion, LTG Maples is up in front – and there the resemblance to a town hall ends. The meeting starts with Adrian (Zeke) Wolfberg, who heads the Knowledge Lab, putting up a chart to show how many ideas have been offered and how many have resulted in change. By the November 2008 meeting there had been 352 total ideas submitted, 167 ideas had resulted in change (47%); 59 ideas were in progress (17%) and 54 ideas have been withdrawn (15%). A remarkable achievement!
As soon as the accounting is over, employees from across DIA stand up, one at a time, and offer LTG Maples solutions, not problems. And they only offer solutions THEY are willing to take personal responsibility for implementing. LTG Maples listens to the ideas, responds to each one, sometimes with questions, sometimes with comments. There are from 5 – 20 solutions offered at each monthly meeting.
Immediately following the meeting, a group of Knowledge Lab coaches gets in touch with each of the idea submitters to assist them, that is, to help write a business case, open doors, connect to others with a similar idea.
There have been remarkable ideas submitted and equally remarkable changes made by the idea submitters. Many of course are classified, but here are a few of the unclassified examples:
- One idea submitter created a new civilian intelligence reserve where former employees could volunteer to return in support of high priority, ad hoc missions (e.g. crisis response).
- Another employee created a regular communication of “News You Can Use” to the broad agency via an internal Web page that would publicize new analytical tools available to analysts. He gathered a number of volunteers to serve on an editorial board and assess the tools.
- Yet a third employee created a tool linked to badge readers to accurately account for employees known to be in the facility during emergence evacuations.
I asked LTG Maples what makes Crossing Boundaries work as a change program and he suggested three elements (his words in quotes):
- “First we make the results from Crossing Boundaries visible” That happens not only by the tally each meeting starts with, but by employees periodically standing up in the meeting and talking about a project they have completed. Some of the successes are written up for the DIA internal publication. In other words, this is not a suggestion program where ideas disappear into a void never to be heard of again.
- “The Knowledge Lab coaches that provide the help the idea submitter needs.” Idea submitters are not on their own, rather the program builds a support system around them and the coaches track the ideas so they don’t fall off the radar.
- LTG Maples’ himself has a remarkable ability to hear the kernel of the idea in what is sometimes a disorganized statement of the solution being offered. Often he paraphrases the idea to check if he has understood - demonstrating greater interest in clearly understanding the employee, than in his own response. The message this sends is subtle but vital to producing the change DIA is trying to achieve. LTG Maples typically expresses appreciation for the idea being offered and for the willingness to help the agency, even when the idea being offered necessarily has harsh criticisms embedded in it. His appreciative language sets a tone in the meeting that encourages a kind of honesty and frankness rarely seen in organizations.
- The insistence that employees only offer solutions that they are willing to make happen themselves. It is this that sends the critical change message - that YOU can change what happens at DIA.
Third is the leadership piece, LTG Maples says, “I always try to be there. I see it as my program - a way for me to demonstrate my personal involvement.”
I would add two more to his list of what makes it work:
Crossing Boundaries has indeed brought change to DIA, not only the 150 some ideas that have been implemented, but more importantly, the growing belief among employee ranks that it is possible for them to change the agency – that DIA is open to change.