What I learned at the BHA is true of every executive position: your job is to build the capacity of the organization to help it achieve its mission. It’s not to be a smart manager. So my work style is to be constantly focused on building and developing the capacity or infrastructure of the Trial Court, to enable it to accomplish its mission, now and in the future, long after my term is over.
As a result, I tend to delegate a good deal, because people need the freedom to exercise their discretion and judgment effectively. I’m very much a believer that while everybody hates to be an object of change, everyone loves to be an agent of change. The task of a leader is to engage and empower people to be agents of their own destiny, to pursue the mission of the organization. It’s called a distributed strategy approach, versus a more traditional top-down management approach. With distributed strategy, everyone is a strategist. Each individual should figure out how to use the resources at their disposal to best accomplish the organizational mission and do their job. It empowers workers to exercise a wider degree of discretion and strategy.
The challenge in achieving a distributed strategy at the Trial Court is that historically we have been a very hierarchical and yet also loosely coupled organization, where the different departments operate in relative autonomy—a built-in contradiction. The formal authority or chain of command is not as sharply defined as it is in many organizations. There’s no simple, linear, hierarchical organizational chart. Instead there are elements of autonomy scattered throughout the organization. It’s simultaneously got a deferential and hierarchical culture with deeply siloed elements that contradict that loosely coupled culture. So the task is: how to ramp up capacity in the court and encourage effective coordination within and across the silos. That way everyone can more efficiently and effectively use the resources of the organization, while preserving the organization’s fundamental values of commitment to justice, service to community, and the other important values that are such powerful supports to the work of the organization.
You are often described as a change agent, someone who specializes in engineering turnarounds for troubled organizations. How did your past experiences prepare you for this role?
People ask me if there are generic management skills that you can transport from one organization to another. The answer is yes, but only if those skills are harnessed to a profound respect for the craft of the organization you’re working with. In our case, the craft is the delivery of justice. It’s really important to both learn and have a deep respect for how the craft of any particular organization functions. I know I have a profound respect for what people do here – judges, clerks, probation officers, court officers, the facilities team – for all the jobs that people at the Trial Court do every day to make the place run smoothly. And I hope very much that all the work we’re doing around change is grounded in that same deep respect across the organization. It’s also worth noting that we should draw on people’s deep institutional knowledge for their portion of the work to make their part of the operation more efficient and effective.
As a Receiver for the Boston Housing Authority under the late Judge Paul Garrity in the 1980s, I learned something about the ways in which courts operate and think. That experience has helped me here.
My most recent job on the faculty at Harvard is also a useful background for working here. Like the Trial Court, universities are also loosely coupled organizations with silos. In addition, I’ve worked in unionized environments and as a public servant. I’ve spent 35 years of my 40-year career working in Massachusetts, so I’m very familiar with the state’s political culture and how the legislature and executive branch operate. My familiarity with the Commonwealth’s institutional and political complexities has been very valuable in my current role.
You are half-way through your 5-year term. What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for the Trial Court over the next two-and-a-half years?
I had expected that the judiciary would be the most resistant to change of any institution I’ve encountered – in fact the exact opposite has been true. I think part of that stems from the financial crisis, when the institution stopped and realized: we can’t keep operating the same way we always have, given the dramatically reduced resources that we face. But that open and honest reaction is very interesting in retrospect, because it’s often the case that the more desperate people get, the more they cling to the old ways of doing things. Here that was not the case. People realized they had to embrace change and find new ways to do the business in order to continue to achieve our mission in the future.
As far as challenges go, it is breaking down the interdepartmental silos and developing effective decision-making in circumstances where the infrastructure for effective decision-making often did not exist. Many decisions were based on consensus, which works when there’s any easy consensus, but otherwise can easily bog down.
For consensus-based decision making to work, everyone must dig into the problem, acknowledge their differences and disagreements, and work towards an effective compromise that’s meritorious. The pitfall is that the political nature of consensus-building can cloud timely and good decision-making. The politics of developing a consensus can slow things down or enable the wrong decision to emerge, because the solution may work politically but not on the merits. So trying to help the organization develop effective decision-making in those situations is a challenge.
Going forward, the opportunity is the tremendous momentum for change and improvement that we’ve developed over the last two-and-a-half years. There is a sense of excitement that problems which many people felt were insoluble can be effectively addressed. The huge increase in the availability of data is another tremendous opportunity for the court.
Challenges include: continued resource constraints, creating ways to marshal data effectively, and to develop the capacity at every level of the organization to use that data successfully to improve the delivery of justice. We’re about to test an idea in the Fiscal Department to see if we can address this particular challenge by using the distributed strategy approach that I mentioned earlier. The department will create teams to determine what kinds of measures should determine each person’s outputs, and from those outcomes they can change their work processes to work more efficiently. The data will tell if their ideas have merit and if they’re right. The goal is that in the near future, every Trial Court staff member will have access to the data they need and can use it to engage in continuous improvement.
You’re the first individual appointed to this recently-created position. How would you describe your role, and the type of person best suited for it?
The Court Administrator role should be filled by a civilian not a judge, so the contribution of the person in this role should be to bring broad organizational experience to the most senior decision-makers in this organization. The Court Administrator should have deep knowledge and experience in management and organizational dynamics. The person should have extensive experience and understanding of the management of large organizations, combined however with a willingness to share authority. They must be secure enough to share authority with others, be they judges, clerks, department heads, and so on. Most importantly, the person must form a trusting and ego-less partnership with the Chief Justice of the Trial Court.
You often refer to Chief Justice Carey as your “partner in justice.” Describe your working relationship with the Chief.
We’re different but also similar in certain ways. There are three great things in particular that I admire about our Chief: first, she is totally mission-driven, rather than being driven by her own aggrandizement. Second, Chief Carey has a tremendous sense of humor, something essential for any good working relationship. Third, from her work with the Probate & Family Court Department, the Chief has a profound appreciation for the fundamentals of management, which are very much about human impacts and relationships. She sees the big picture – she’s always thinking of human impact.
What is your agenda for the future? What’s left that you’d like to accomplish?
Several things: that we accomplish pervasive technological change throughout the organization, so that we are once again sufficiently staffed to accomplish our mission. That we learn to use data in ways that have never been possible before, which will enable each of us to achieve the outcomes we intend. Finally, that every one of the organization’s 6,500 employees feels they have the information, the support, the resources, and the authorization to constantly improve how they contribute to the delivery of justice.
What advice would you give to someone who is a new employee to the Trial Court?
The judiciary is going through a very large and important change in its fundamental culture, a change from silos to collaboration; from hierarchical to participatory; from pencil and paper to computer and internet; from anecdote to data, qualitative to quantitative. Be aware that these are seismic cultural shifts and understand that both sets of values, the old and the new, co-exist in the organization. I would say to do everything you can to support the organization in achieving these seismic shifts.