Former Google executive Steve Grove, from Northfield via Silicon Valley, earlier this year was put in charge of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED. One reason to recruit somebody like Grove is that he might bring a good idea or two from Google with him.
“Why doesn’t government act more like business?” is a durable complaint, although it’s always tempting to shoot back that there’s enough logrolling and bureaucracy in state government already. But, of course, there are business-management notions that could help in government.
And at the end of last week, DEED was rolling out a new strategic plan that has at least one very good idea from Google baked into it.
A state agency can’t be run like a competitive business, of course, and one big difference Grove surely figured out before his first day is that he doesn’t have all that much latitude. Every day DEED does what the Legislature has asked it to do.
That still leaves room, though, to decide how to approach the task.
“It is not a strategic plan that the Legislature hands you, or a set of goals focused on the exact impact metrics,” Grove said. “So I sort of looked around for that.”
Although DEED staff provided a lot of thoughtful responses, he didn’t hear one clear answer to the question of how DEED measures success. A lot of what got measured there were activities, like how many workforce development workshops were held.
Grove knew where to look for a better way, a framework he knew at Google called objectives and key results, or OKR.
The approach isn’t unique to Google, by the way, as OKR is used by a lot of organizations. It’s long been associated with Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr.
How OKR works is maybe best understood by imagining a middle-aged guy who has rarely left the couch and finally decides to get physically fit. That’s a great objective, but how’s his fitness going to be measured? If it’s not a specific number, he has no way of knowing if he’s really made it.
So he writes it down. He’ll have reached his objective when he can run 2 miles without stopping.
Bringing that approach into an organization sounds easier to implement than it often is.
Good sales managers have to answer to the CEO about the monthly sales number, yet they realize there’s no point in trying to “manage” monthly sales. What they need to spend most of their time on is managing what their sales reps are doing.
Have they booked enough meetings? Have enough new proposals gone out?
Tracking new proposals might look like tracking activities, but a sales rep sending out five of them every month rather than four is valuable only if it produces progress toward an objective.
As Grove described it, the best key results need to feel like a stretch, and a win might be getting 60 or 70% of the way there. Just writing down what you’ve routinely achieved before accomplishes nothing.
No private business would ever share objectives and key results publicly, Grove said, but as a state agency DEED’s plan is now being broadly shared — mostly. There are a couple of objectives he wasn’t eager to talk through.
One is related to the culture of the agency, which he more or less described as a family matter. And the objective of improving the reputation of the agency is also not easy to talk about, in part because it would be so easy to misconstrue as some sort of spin campaign for the commissioner or the governor.
All Grove means, he said, is that he hopes to improve the way DEED is thought of by the people most important to the agency, like Minnesota jobseekers and business owners.
Developing the workforce has long been part of the state’s set of objectives, and that’s particularly so now, Grove said. There are three key results in the new plan, all measurable as you would expect. One is to increase the number of jobseekers using DEED’s CareerForce program by 10%.
Another is to increase the job-placement rate, because if more Minnesotans aren’t getting jobs after going through a DEED program, why should the Legislature fund it?
“We want to be more business-focused,” Grove said. “So employers, I do think they look at the state workforce system as not the first place they’d run to find workers, if we are candid with ourselves. What if we increased the number of employers who do use the state’s workforce systems by 20 percent?”
Another objective is to reduce the different experiences that various groups of Minnesotans face in the employment market. One key result is to increase the average starting wage for people of color whom DEED helps by $2 per hour. Grove said this might be the most ambitious key result in the whole plan.
DEED’s final new objective is to make our state an acknowledged national leader in innovation, and there are key results written down for this, too. One is getting Minnesota ranked in the top five for what’s called “innovation ecosystem,” as determined by third parties such as the Milken Institute or the National Science Foundation.
This isn’t just PR, Grove said, because one of the ways a state gets a more vibrant startup and innovation sector is to become known for having one, attracting jobseekers, entrepreneurs and capital.
Grove is happy with the rollout of the plan inside the agency so far this summer. He is also aware of the challenge for any appointed leader in getting buy-in from staff, who have the option of giving halfhearted support as they start looking ahead to the next commissioner.
A plan is just that, he added, with a lot of room left for staff to fill in what needs to be done based on what they do every day. One of the ideas they’re kicking around is an agencywide hackathon to figure out the 50 easiest rules to kill.
“We are clear to say this is a start,” Grove said, of his new plan. “So let’s engage.”