Solving the “Impossible” in the Most Transformative of Ways: A Conversation with Dr. David Bray, CIO of the FCC

david_brayMeet Dr. David Bray.

He currently serves as Senior Executive and Chief Information officer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Prior to his arrival, the FCC had cycled through nine CIOs in less than eight years—a situation David describes as “always a good sign” for a new executive parachuting into the role.

In late 2013, David became the tenth, and the FCC charged him with leading their IT transformation. In less than two and a half years, David updated and consolidated 207 different legacy systems and reduced costs to 1/6th their previous expense.

For David, this was business as usual. His life’s journey had always been about tackling the “near impossible” in transformative ways. His journey started many years ago. It included emergency response to the events of 9/11 and a daunting six months on the ground in Afghanistan, where he put his theories of trust-based leadership to the ultimate “battle field” test.

The Simple Question that Started it All

I first spoke with David when he contributed a response to a special report I produced last year titled “What Top CIOs Most Want from Their Career”.

Asked what they want from their career, most CIOs responded with tactical statements like, “I want to drive value, improve efficiency, and empower the business.” All good things to achieve, but hardly the fire-in-the-belly that gets you up in the morning.

In contrast, David gave me this fire in his transformational response: “I most want to solve the problems others feel are impossible. I enjoy it most when someone tells me something can’t be done, or has never been done before, and that I get to tackle it.”

I had to hear more. This kind of can-do attitude and energy is infectious, and I had a feeling he had more of it to give.

A few weeks later, I met up with David in Washington, D.C., where we shared a longer conversation about his journey, what he’s learned, and what he recommends for aspiring leaders who want to reach their maximum potential.

Tell me about your journey. What was your first full-time job?

Right after college, I went to work full-time at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. There, I led a team that built solutions for laboratory and epidemiological response should a bioterrorism event happen—which extended some of the earlier work I had done on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Our program was sometimes perceived as a “Cold War” relic that didn’t need to still exist. We were small and scrappy, making the best of what we could, given the resources available. Then, everything changed.

On September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to give a 9am brief to the CIA and the FBI on the technologies we would use if a bioterrorism event occurred.  Needless to say, that briefing did not happen. Instead, we piled computers into cars and set up a remote bunker. For the next three weeks we worked around the clock on the response to the attacks, as well as monitoring for a secondary event.

We stood down from heightened alert on October 1. At 9am in the morning on October 3, 2001, I gave my originally scheduled briefing to the Interagency Intelligence Committee on Terrorism (IICT). A day later, the Miami Public Health lab in Florida detected the presence of anthrax in a recently hospitalized patient. We mobilized immediately. In coordinating the response, the CDC had to make constant telephone calls between the Florida Public Health Department, FBI, and the White House.

In the hectic days that followed—despite a lack of agency funding or direction—I opted to initiate construction of an electronic mechanism whereby public health labs could securely log results of suspect test results or receipt of possible anthrax material. On October 14, 2001, the prototype effort was launched. That same day, a letter claiming the presence of anthrax was opened in U.S. Senator Tom Daschle’s office, forcing quarantine.

Aided by the electronic mechanism (primitive as it was), all states began reporting anthrax test results daily, revealing a national surge in testing activity. In two months alone, more than 125,000 environmental tests for the presence of anthrax were logged. This information supported the premise that fear, not mortality, was the primary objective behind bioterrorism.

What insights did you glean from these intense experiences?

When fighting fear, information is one tool that can provide clarity and a potentially calming element. Human nature prompts most individuals to assume that they personally may have been exposed to an unseen agent, often prompting irrational behaviors on a national scale.

With 9/11 and the anthrax events of 2001—as well as subsequent emergency responses to West Nile Virus in 2002, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and monkeypox in 2003, ricin emergencies and other outbreaks—I started to see a pattern in human behavior. That pattern? Organizations confronting disruptive events face significant challenges when they try to connect the dots of knowledge held in the minds of numerous individuals working for different organizational units. Not only is it challenging to discern truth from fiction, but also to put all the pieces of knowledge together to form a complete picture.

I saw that in disruptive environments such as these, top-down organizations will fail because they can’t bring together the knowledge of many different people fast enough to either mitigate negative outcomes or capitalize on positive opportunities.

I saw this again and again. Given these observations, I wanted to produce a more rigorous proof before I relied on this new bottoms-up organizational approach. So I embarked on a three-year PhD at a business school. I studied how organizations of all types work better in disruptive environments when they are bottoms-up— instead of being top-down—and push both autonomy and decision-making to the edge by empowering Positive Change Agents.

Right after this academic experience, I worked again with the defense and intelligence communities. This work included a voluntary six months on the ground in Afghanistan.

You’ve got to tell us the details on that one…

It was late 2008, I had just moved to D.C. with my wife and less than a month later a call came from the Secretary of Defense, saying they were looking for a scientist to travel to Afghanistan to act in a non-partisan role, to help them think differently about military and humanitarian efforts.

I volunteered to be that scientist. Fortunately my wife was very understanding, and I spent the next six months on the ground in early 2009, helping the defense and intelligence communities develop a new perspective on the human-level issues in Afghanistan. Along the way, I learned a lot about communications and leadership.

How did you get from your role in Afghanistan to your current role as CIO of the FCC?

After Afghanistan, I spent five years with the defense and intelligence communities. Along the way, I earned a reputation as someone who could tackle “really hard” challenges that no one else had solved, which involved both people and technology.

My work included a stint as the Executive Director for a bipartisan National Commission reviewing the research and development efforts of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Part of that work included building consensus across sixteen different agencies in the Community, and members of both political parties.

The bipartisan Commission concluded that for certain important global issues, other agencies beyond the community needed to be involved in a more open, public fashion – including the Federal Communications Commission. But before the FCC could contribute, it first had to be brought up-to-speed and offer more modern capabilities.

Prior to my arrival, the FCC had experienced significant turnover in its CIOs. It also was burdened with hundreds of legacy systems that were getting increasingly more expensive to maintain and increasingly more likely to break or fail. Succeeding as CIO of the FCC was a seemingly impossible problem no one had solved before. Naturally, I was excited to take on the challenge, and so far I have been in the role nearly three years.

What major changes have you overseen at the FCC during this time?

When I arrived at the FCC in August, 2013, they had 207 different IT systems, all on premise. At the time there was roughly one system for every nine people. These systems were all maintained on-premise. They were, on average, over 10 years old, and simply maintaining them consumed more than 85% of our budget.

Within the first year we stabilized the infrastructure to “stop the bleeding”. We also showed that we could take a fifteen year old legacy IT system that was estimated at $3.2 million dollars and 18 months to replace, and do in only six months for only $450,000 (one-sixth the price) by going straight to a public cloud Software as a Service (SaaS) solution.

Two years later we now have zero systems on premise; they are now all either public-cloud based or with a commercial service provider.  Most importantly—we reduced our maintenance cost to just 50% of our budget. That’s a significant turn-around story that was done by embracing a bottoms-up approach that empowered positive “change agents” across the FCC.

What other big improvements have you implemented at the FCC?

Our public-facing website is another major area of improvement. It functions as both an information gateway for the public and a service provision portal for our stakeholders.

In 2010, the FCC undertook a major effort to modernize this website, and to bring more information services to the many constituencies we serve. Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as the effort was, it missed the mark for our primary internal stakeholders. The result: a great deal of vocal dissatisfaction directed towards IT and a real block in being able to roll out new web-based services to meet stakeholders’ needs via the website.

That dissatisfaction persisted for multiple years. When I arrived, we had stakeholder trust issues. We had technical and implementation issues. Some people wanted us to “go back” to the website we had in 1999. And it was hard for the IT folks—who had already put in so much hard work and earnest effort—to hear that their work would not be used in the way they hoped. These were big problems that couldn’t just be managed away.

I celebrate that the team was willing to “dig deep” and recognize they needed to renew their stakeholder engagement—both external and internal to the FCC—and recognize—as I like to say—that “there are no IT projects, there are only business mission projects that have IT baked into them.”

Through an intentional effort on the website, we engaged our different stakeholders, and through an “agile” approach we developed and released a website that more than 85% of the visitors now prefer to either the 2010 or 1999 websites.

Most important: one of our external stakeholders sent us a letter thanking the FCC both for the new website, and, in particular, for the new process and model we deployed to engage our stakeholders as we rolled out new services—to me, this process change was one of the most important transformations that’s happened since I arrived.

That’s a lot of rapid change for any organization. How did you pull that off in an environment where the average person had been there for fifteen years and the average private sector contractor had been there for nineteen years?

It all comes down to implementing a leadership approach that empowers workers of all types to get stuff done in a manner that is cognizant of the environment within which they have to operate. In our rapidly changing world that means performing with agility. Professionals need to react quickly. Change is ever present and stakeholders are always ahead of us demanding more things faster.

In my early work years with the bioterrorism preparedness and response program—and later when I did my PhD and was deployed to Afghanistan—I focused on the dynamics necessary for overcoming adversity in highly disruptive environments. By applying these dynamics to the fast-moving IT world, I have come up with a leadership approach of Positive Change Agents.

Why are “Positive Change Agents” needed now more than ever, and how can a leader encourage them?

Since agility is now so important – and because there are no IT projects, there are only business mission projects that have IT baked into them – Positive Change Agents are needed for every organization. Positive Change Agents are able to work across teams, across IT and other mission functions, to break past the status quo when it is moving to slow, to illuminate a better path, and to manage the friction that naturally occurs within such changes.

Positive Change Agents recognizes that top-down, highly structured management systems yield poor results in disruptive, fast-moving situations. The time and cultural latency to bring, diagnose, and respond to critical issues at the top of an organization is too great for effective action to take place. By giving autonomy to Positive Change Agents, a leader recognizes that sensing disruptions in a marketplace or global environment, encouraging organizational responses, and fostering resiliency in the face of turbulence happens most effectively when you empower the people at the edges of the organization—not at the center.

Practically speaking, my Positive Change Agents approach has three core principles.

  1. Cognitive Diversity. Everyone has blind spots. When someone becomes an expert, they also start to see the world a certain—sometimes limited—way. The more centralized and homogeneous an organization is, the more the organization collectively will miss new opportunities and challenges. In contrast, building a highly diverse organization of people who think and see the world different creates a natural correction to cognitive myopia.
  2. Bottoms-Up. While change from the top can be powerful—potentially sending a strong message to the organization—ultimately if the organization does not buy-in—or if the message is out of sync with a changing world—there is no effective change. Building (and constantly refreshing) a bottoms-up cadre of positive change agents at all levels of the organization puts into place response mechanisms to stressful, tense, and disruptive developments.
  3. Decentralize. In place of rigid centralized organizations, modern leaders do better when they favor flexible decentralized organizations that are connected via strong incentives and communications processes. Ants are a great example of a highly decentralized swarm motivated to seek out sources of food and avoid toxic chemicals in their environment. Similarly, teams of change agents can be decentralized, and through a combination of incentives and communication, act in a network with more agility and resiliency than any centralized approach.

With change agents empowered to think and act on the organization’s behalf, an organization dramatically improves its ability to respond quickly and effectively in a crisis, marketplace disruption, or turbulent event.

That philosophy is powerful—and not exactly a mainstream leadership philosophy. It really puts a technology professional in a leadership role. Do you see yourself as a CIO in your next role?

Two thoughts.

First, my path has always been about solving the problems others feel are impossible. I enjoy it most when someone tells me something can’t be done, or has never been done before, and that I get to tackle it. This is my core definition, and notice that it does not hold being an “IT professional”, specifically, within it.

That being said, I’ve been working with technology for most of my life.

In today’s world, you have to be aware of how both human-based approaches, and technology-based approaches, can help solve a mission’s problems faster, better, and more effectively than either the human or technology approach can solve a problem on its own. If you don’t know either the human side, or the technology side, then you’re missing the different dimensions that make modern organizations work. We need more CEOs and Board Members who understand both technology and humans (since they are the “doers” that get stuff done, improve organizational outputs, and deliver results to stakeholders).

So, while I don’t know what my next role will be, I do know it will continue my core definition of solving the problems others feel are impossible—and it will likely continue to combine technology and human approaches to solve these problems.

Second, it’s important to remember that leadership and management are different. Management is about meeting expectations—of your boss, your peers, your reports, the public, the Congress, the President—and we all have to meet expectations to a degree.

However, while management is about meeting expectations, leadership is about stepping outside of expectations. This is vital to keep organizations relevant in our rapidly changing world.

Note: Stepping outside of expectations does create friction. A skilled leader will need strategies to manage this friction to produce positive results and encourage a cadre of positive change agents.

How does leadership differ in the public sector, than in the private sector

Leadership doesn’t differ much whether you are a leader in the public or private sector.

Sometimes I hear folks say that government is slower than the private sector – I say it’s the same kind of people, just designed differently. No private sector company would have their budgets and funding approved in three-year cycles by a completely separate organization, however we do that for the U.S. federal government because we value checks-and-balances. We don’t want any one person getting too much power. This means you have to work across organizations and teams much more actively than you ever would have to do so in the private sector.

But regardless of whether you are in the public or private sector—in disruptive environments, you can’t be top-down. If you’re top-down, you can’t keep in touch with all the different changes and problems occurring at the different edges. You’ll always either fall behind, or arrive at solutions disconnected from the reality of those living the problem.

Clearly this leadership vision requires your people to step up to the responsibilities you have in mind. What do you tell your people? What guidance do you give them, to help them act as positive change agents within your organization?

I tell me people a few things:

  • “Look at your current job description as the bare minimum of things they have to do”. From there, I ask them to think about what they can do to go “above and beyond” their job description.
  • “Find brings you joy”. This helps me understand what they particularly enjoy at work, and what intrinsically motivates them.
  • “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do.” Instead, I ask them to look for opportunities outside of their job description, where they can step outside of expectations, and begin to listen to, understand, and fulfill the greater needs of the organization.

Finally, I tell my people that anyone can be a Positive Change Agent, and that I want them all to be Positive Change Agents. To do so, they just have to be willing to “illuminate the way” beyond the status quo, and to manage the friction which such changes. I then tell them—“If they do this, the journey of being a change agent will lead you to success beyond your wildest expectations.”

Thank you David.

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