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Alliance for Innovation - Innovation Edge:
Creating a Healthy Organization to Make Life Better in Las Vegas, NV
by Maggie Plaster, Assistant to the City Manager, Las Vegas, NV

After the recession hit in 2008, Las Vegas, along with the rest of the nation, was hit hard with a serious economic crisis. With a sudden spike in unemployment, businesses were tanking, and banks were barely surviving. In the past five years however, among most other local governments, Las Vegas found the silver lining in the clouds, and the recovery period has proven to be a much-needed time for reorganization. Las Vegas City Manager Elizabeth (Betsy) Fretwell enlisted the services of The Table Group, a consulting firm. Through the help of the firm, the city management team was able to completely redesign the way their city was run, and has so far given them a much more positive outlook.

Organizations succeed because they are smart and healthy. Even with all of the turmoil from the recession, we were still a very "smart" organization. City employees were technically competent in a number of areas, such as budgeting, sustainability, redeveloping downtown, building parks and maintaining streets. However, we couldn't claim that our organization was healthy, due to minimal office politics, minimal confusion and high morale. We needed to do more to make our organization healthier so that we could leverage our "smart" side.

We made a conscious decision to focus on the four disciplines of a healthy organization.

The first discipline is building a cohesive leadership team. Our team spent two days with our Table Group consultant talking about how we could operate better as a team. We found that we needed to do a better job in the area of accountability by pointing out one another's unproductive behaviors and ensuring that poorer performers feel pressure and the expectation to improve. Over the past year, we have seen improvement in these areas. Our ultimate purpose is focusing our attention on the collective good of the organization. One of the most valuable things we learned was how to have more productive meetings where we commit to clear decisions and agree on next steps.

The second discipline is creating clarity. We created clarity by answering five critical questions and by keeping it simple:

  • First, we had to answer, "Why do we exist?" We decided that our core purpose is "building community to make life better," which is much more memorable than our 31-word mission statement, or 22-word vision statement. "Building community to make life better" is the true reason for our existence. It is simple, idealistic, inspiring and aspirational. We come to work every day to make our residents' lives better. We want to build a stronger community, and we want every department and employee to know that they have an important role in building community to make life better.

  • The second question is "What do we do?" Since the city is involved in many lines of business, we had to make this clear and straightforward. Our business definition is "We run the city." Every employee at the city plays a role in "running the city," no matter the job.

  • The third question that must be answered to create clarity for the organization is "How do we behave?" These are our core values and spell ACTION - achievement, creativity, teamwork, integrity, ownership, now. These values define our personality and tell us what is true about our best employees and untrue about our worst employees. We aspire to be like one of our best downtown partners,, where values define their culture. Our goal is for all employees to know our values and live them every day. Our ACTION values should be the basis for our organization's culture of building community to make life better.

  • The fourth question is "How do we succeed?" Any time we make a decision at the city of Las Vegas, we check to see that it aligns to our strategic anchors of sustainable, iconic and service value. Our strategic anchors help us be consistent and intentional, ensuring that new programs will have a lasting impact on our community, will be perceived as iconic and world-class to match the city we live in and provide the best service at the greatest possible value.

  • The fifth question is deciding on a thematic goal by answering "What is most important right now?" We decided that the most important goal for the city would be to increase revenues by $25 million, or about five percent, which would allow us to be in full recovery from the recession. Identifying a revenue goal rather than an expense reduction goal was big relief to the entire organization and was something that everyone could support. We were all ready to move away from budget cutting and towards being masters of our own destiny.

The third discipline is over-communicating clarity. Our hope was that the more we communicated to our employees, the less confusion there would be. We would all be focused on the same things. Our city management team communicated clarity by giving presentations to groups of employees throughout the city, and our city manager regularly wrote about org health on her blog, which even included videos. Since it was important that everyone know the answers to the five questions, we also did "quizzes" and convened focus groups to see if our communication efforts were working. In January we communicated clarity by hosting a three-day employee conference where our speakers incorporated organizational health into their presentations.

The fourth discipline is reinforcing clarity through our systems from recruitment all the way to termination. Local governments are notorious for hiring people based on their technical competence while not placing as much emphasis on the "healthy" side of the equation. When city departments are making hiring decisions and sense that the candidate doesn't believe in our core values, they've been told to consider other candidates. All of our new employees are educated on organizational health, and all current employees are expected to know our core purpose, business definition, values, strategic anchors and thematic goal. Some departments have come up with their own creative ways to create clarity, like the IT department's BEE Happy Committee or Administrative Services' director or deputy director one-on-one org health discussions with each department employee. We have created value-based recognition programs and aligned values to our performance evaluations and training programs.

Over the past year, we've focused on building a cohesive leadership team, creating clarity for our entire organization, over-communicating that clarity, and reinforcing it through various HR systems. And in the end, our hope is that our employees come to work every day, thinking about what they can do individually and as part of their respective teams to build community, to make life better.

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