In the halls of state government, Michael DeAngelo experiments in extreme empowerment

Michael DeAngelo

Michael DeAngelo

State government—that bastion of bureaucracy—might be the last place you’d expect to find a radical experiment in organizational structure.

Yet it’s happening. Inside a division of WaTech, the state of Washington’s technology solutions organization, Michael DeAngelo (MBA 2005) is transforming the workplace into a self-managing system more fluid and agile than a hierarchy could ever hope to perform.

DeAngelo is the state’s deputy chief information officer (or, at least, that’s what his business card says). Within his division of e-gov, though, he has no title. Instead, he has roles, which change by the project, same as every employee who used to report to him.

By ceding authority to the collective, DeAngelo is creating a culture of what you might call “extreme empowerment.” Without the conventional—even habitual—command-and-control structure, teams prioritize what to do on their own.

“Individuals, while filling a role, are completely empowered to do whatever they need to in order to achieve the purpose of that role,” he says. “They don’t have to ask permission.”

Sound maybe a bit too laissez-faire? It did to DeAngelo, too.

Change in management 

With a background in computer science, DeAngelo began his career managing technology at the U.S. Geological Survey and leading e-commerce and IT services at the Walt Disney Company.

He enrolled in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program in 2003 to help him “bridge the gap between technology and business.”

It paid off quickly. After graduation, DeAngelo served as CIO at Health Care Authority and Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife before being poached by the state’s new CIO to develop a strategic vision for technology across the reach of government.

Shortly after joining the office charged with driving innovation across state government, DeAngelo recognized an enormous challenge: attracting and retaining top tech talent in the land of Microsoft, Amazon and Google.

“Our value proposition—longevity and good benefits—just isn’t that compelling anymore,” he says. “What we do have is mission. But if purpose can draw people to state government, the environment here is not empowering them to achieve the difference they came here to make.

“We needed a culture that serves this sense of purpose.”

Holacracy now

While searching for the solution, DeAngelo happened upon a provocative model of self-management called “Holacracy.” He was dubious at first. But his research revealed that organizations such as Zappos, Valve, Spotify and ING were adopting similar self-managing “operating systems.” And he came to suspect that a model of distributed authority might just be his path to employee empowerment.

DeAngelo began beta testing this system in 2015 in the office of the CIO. And by measures of decision making, empowerment and employee feedback, it was a quick success.

Average time to identify, discuss and resolve and operational issues was reduced from 20 to two minutes. Employee-reported empowerment scores jumped 50 percent. “I thought I was a fairly empowering leader,” DeAngelo says. “But turning my authority into the system is more empowering than I could ever be.”

Expanding the scope

Last April, the WaTech pilot project became a year-long scientific experiment. The self-organization test group has expanded to 100 employees of DeAngelo’s innovative tech solutions division. A control group continues doing business as usual.

Preliminary results indicate that the advances in empowerment and decision-making from DeAngelo’s pilot program are extending to the larger application in e-gov. The project has even been honored by the National Association of State CIOs.

As for the future? “I’m not trying to change all of state government,” DeAngelo says. “We’re approaching this as an experiment to test different organizational systems and potentially solve our problem of hiring and retaining top tech workers.”

But he does hope to address a larger challenge: the wide-scale opinion that government is anything but innovative and agile. “Our brand is bureaucracy,” he adds. “I want to begin changing this perception. I’d love to have people say, in ten years, that you should look to government to see something innovative.”