Hello everyone, welcome back to another episode of Artworks for Teachers. I’m Susan Riley, your host, and today I’m thrilled to introduce you to Marina Nitze. So if you haven’t heard of Marina, I think you’re really going to love this episode because she is the co-author of the book Hack Your Bureaucracy, which is all about, it’s a tactical field manual for how to cut the red tape. in organizations and to actually create meaningful change.
And so this episode, I’m telling you, you’re gonna walk away with so many golden nuggets. You’re gonna want a journal or something to take notes, even if it’s on your app, on your phone, because she’s just laying it out. One thing after another, how you can break down some of the silos, very specific tips on how to build relationships while… having these changes occur. And she’s just wonderful, so practical. I think you’re really gonna love this episode.
Marina has a background as a chief technology officer for the US Department of Veterans Affairs from 2013 to 2017. So she has been in agencies that like education that are big bureaucracies to kind of work through. And. She’s currently working in the foster care system to try to create change in there, to shorten the time that it takes to actually get children into foster care homes. And so again, she has so many ideas and tactics and techniques that I think you’re gonna find valuable. And she’s also so personable as well.
So I hope that this episode is helpful for you, especially if you’re planning on kind of engaging in a change effort of any kind this year. And without further ado, here’s Marina.
All right, welcome, Marina. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thanks so much for having me.
Of course. So for people who may not be aware of you or your work, could you just tell us a bit about yourself and the story behind your book, Hack Your Bureaucracy?
Absolutely. So my name is Marina Nitze. I used to be the Chief Technology Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration. Before that, I was the first entrepreneur in residence at the Department of Education. So education holds a special dear place in my heart. These days I work on foster care reform in 45 states, and I also do something called recovery engineering, which is I come in when an organization is having a crisis and we help them be stronger emerging from the crisis than they were going in. And then wrote Hack Your Bureaucracy with my friend and former boss, Nick Sinai. We wrote this book because we kept seeing people struggle deeply in the bureaucracies they were in. And we’re in bureaucracies all the time, right?
It’s our school board. It’s our city council. It’s our condo association. It’s our workplace. And I think people feel paralyzed, and they can’t do anything about it. And we didn’t want to see people be paralyzed. So we took these tactics that worked in some of the hardest bureaucracies in the world, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Harvard. And then we either found stories of them working in people’s everyday lives, or we literally set up experiments for them to try these tactics in everyday lives. And they kept working and so we captured them into this book. It’s got 56 tactics and each one is like a very mini chapter, two, three pages, with a story, at least one, of someone who successfully deployed the tactic to make the change they wanted to see in the world.
Wow. I mean, now, besides the fact that it’s hard for me to say the word bureaucracy, but I think you’re so right in that we live in so many of these areas where we feel like there’s a lot of red tape. I certainly came out of central office. I went into central office thinking I could make a change. I came out of central office feeling like there was just too much red tape and it wasn’t worth it. So, I love this about your book that it is a tactical field manual. It really is something that you can just go and take and put into place.
So we know that schools are some of the biggest red tape areas that there are, right? And so out of the 56 tactics, what are two or three of your favorites? I would love to hear about these.
Yeah, absolutely. So one of my favorites is the concept of the space between the silos. So we’re all familiar with silos, right? There’s a team or there’s a department that absolutely won’t let you in, that’s always doing it the way that they have always done it, and they will always do it that way. That feels familiar. But often the space in between the teams or at the handoffs in a process step is totally undefended territory that’s ripe for change and innovation. And so one of the very first things I do when I’m working with any organization, a school, a Fortune 500, doesn’t matter, is take the process that someone is frustrated with or that is not ending in the results that they want and actually literally follow it from start to finish and I don’t mean conceptually I mean like if something goes through the fax machine I show up on the other side of the fax machine or you go to the mail room wherever you need to do and anybody can really do this. It may feel scary and a little bold depending on where you have to go. But but you can you know frame it as a curiosity adventure and you are likely to find so many answers to questions you’ve had or opportunities to fix a step or remove a problem. I’ll tell a quick story from my foster care work. So a lot of my work in foster care is around making it easier to become a foster parent. And right now there’s a Byzantine paperwork obstacle course basically that can take hundreds of days. And this is especially harmful when we’re talking about grandmas, aunts, uncles, or a kid’s teacher who are ready and available to take that child and they may literally be sleeping on the floor of the office waiting for that adult in their life who loves them to get through that paperwork to get them in their home.
And so I was following in one state the application process from start to finish, and it led me to this one particular woman’s desk, and her job was to request the applicant’s driving record from the DMV. And she, as she’s narrating her process to me, is complaining about it the whole time. Oh my God, the DMV, they live in the 19th century, they’re making me fill out this carbon copy paper form, like the kind with the colors they have to press really hard. I have to get a stamp, I don’t even have an envelope, like this is miserable, I hate this part of my job.
And I did what this woman wasn’t empowered to do, which is I then went to the DMV and I said, hey, can you show me how you fulfill these driving record requests? And the woman there says, oh yeah, absolutely. They come into my electronic system. They come in here on the left. I reply in about an hour. And I said, well, wait a minute, where does the carbon copy form fit in? And she said, oh my God, were you at Child Welfare? Those people live in the 19th century. Why do they keep sending me this form in the mail when they could just email me like the rest of the state? And so I was like, I have someone like you to meet, I introduced these two extremely passionate, hardworking civil servants.
Within an hour, they switched over to the electronic process, got rid of this painful step, and shaved 32 days off the process of a kid getting to live with their loved one. And so that’s an extreme, probably, example for mine. But I have hundreds of similar stories of that entirely from following a process from start to finish. So wherever you are, if you’re frustrated, maybe you have the decision-making process, or why is something so slow? Or why is something never turning out the way that you expect. If you can follow that process, you may uncover the answer. And you may uncover it in a space between the silos, which means it’s not particularly well defended.
So that’s one. Another one that may be particularly relevant to this audience is the idea of doing the work outside the meeting. So I think, no offense to anyone who may be a high school debate coach, but I think we were set up unfairly by a high school debate class and the idea that you show up with a well-prepared persuasive argument, you say it, and then you win, right? And that’s not how decisions actually get made in bureaucracies. And so if you’re going to a meeting where you are hoping for an outcome or you’re hoping for a vote in a particular way, you got to do the work outside the meeting such that the meeting itself is almost a foregone conclusion and that means understanding how each decision maker is going to vote ahead of time. And how do they get their information? What influences them? Do they have a briefing book? Do they like to be felt read in early? Are they influenced by positive press coverage? Is the worst thing they could possibly imagine being called and speaking in front of City Hall? Like everybody has their own risk and incentive frameworks. This is knowable information, it’s kind of a research project. And if you can tee that up, you can get people the information that they need that’s aligned with their incentive and risk frameworks ahead of time in the way that they prefer to receive information. When you actually go to that decision-making meeting, it should go as you, there shouldn’t be surprises, right? And then you can use that time in the meeting actually to build support for whatever you’re planning, whether it’s a well-planted question from the audience that maybe is asking a question that you know someone else is too afraid to ask,or an executive sharing their support because they’ve been read in ahead of time. So really encourage you to think about a meeting as not an hour-long thing that you have to attend, but rather the end results of a prior amount of work that you do to line it up so that you get the outcome that you’re hoping for.
That’s incredible and I’ve seen that work. One thing that you said that was interesting for me that I want to piggyback on is this idea of that’s not how decisions get made. So talk a little bit about that. How do decisions typically get made in these kinds of arenas?
Yeah, so it definitely varies by your bureaucracy, but I think people have an incorrect belief that bureaucracies never change or they were designed to not change. And I’d encourage you to think creatively in your current environment about all the things that actually are changing all the time. People’s pay scales change. There are new position descriptions. There’s a new committee. There’s a new innovation. So if you understand how those can change. Those changes happen over time, right? You can then understand how your bureaucracy makes changes. And then you can actually co-opt that change process for the process, the change that you’re trying to make. Does that make sense? So your average bureaucracy is gonna make its own decisions in its own ways. There may be committees, they may be written down, they may be unwritten rules, and they very often at least are partially unwritten rules.
But you can look around and see the changes that are happening. You can get a sense of what that process is. And then you can kind of co-opt that for your own purposes.
And so then the other thing that I wanted to share or to discuss was that in the first example you provided the steps, you followed the steps to kind of see where the paperwork miss was, right? But what if I’m a teacher and I can’t follow those steps or I can only go so far and I don’t have the empowerment to go to wherever I need to go in order to ask them that question like why are we doing it this way?
Um, do you feel like there’s a way to find an advocate or somebody else who could be a third party or how would you go about that?
Yeah, absolutely. One story we actually have in the book that we got from a teacher was also the idea of playing the newbie card. And maybe you’ve been around for a while and for various reasons you feel like you can’t ask a question of why something is happening a certain way. There may be a new teacher or a new staff member that you can tee up because they’re new to ask that in a way that helps you get to the answer too. So that’s one possibility, but a more likely possibility is the tactic of cultivating the karass. So a karass is a concept from Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
And in the book, it’s a… A karass is a bunch of people God has hidden around the planet to accomplish a goal together. We use it in a secular way. And the idea is instead of thinking that your organization is full of people that are slow rolling you, that are trying to stop you from getting budget or trying to make things harder, what if instead there are people hidden around trying to help you? And so we really encourage building karasses wherever you are. And a karass is people that are in all other parts of the organization. It might be the secretary pool. It might be if you’re a STEM teacher, it might be somebody in a non-STEM field, right? It could be someone at another school or the person that runs the PTA, like really, really having a diverse network of people. It’s too late to build your karass when you actually actively need something from them. So karass is proactive, it’s authentic relationships. At no point are we suggesting that you go, you know, dishonestly befriend all these people. That’s not the tactic. In my case at the VA, I had this tremendous karass of security guards helpful to me. The members of the executive secretary pool were extremely helpful to me. And over time we actually called our karass the Grilled Cheese Club and we would meet every month. And it had members of the janitorial staff, it had lawyers, it had procurement. Anybody that was kind of interested in what we were up to, we had a really inclusive karass and we would make grilled cheese, possibly violating fire codes, on a George Foreman grill once a month.
And it was so helpful because when they came forward and we were talking about different plans, especially at the VA that we had for transforming the digital experience or transforming customer experience, you’d have someone from budget saying like, oh, did you know there’s gonna be a special window where you might be able to apply for unused funds the second week of November? Or you’d have legal saying, well, make sure you have this privacy notice in exactly this way or else Susan, when she sees it, is gonna veto your project. And also the laws of physics mean we can all only be in one place at once, right?
If you have as cadre of people around your system who have a shared goal or a shared frustration, maybe you don’t even know what the goal is yet, but you know that there’s a shared problem. If you all have eyes and ears open for what the causes may be or what the solutions may be, you never know when the meeting or someone overhears something or how bringing all that information from all the different angles together might highlight what the solution might end up being.
Yeah, I think it’s so often educators forget that their network is around them. Like we always talk about the importance of your secretary staff and your custodial staff in a building, but it’s beyond that and being able to kind of look at your network and leverage them well. I also think that goes along with the idea that, and I ran into this a lot in central office, the idea that there’s conversations being had when you’re not in the room and you can’t proactively try to unravel something if you’re not in the room, if you’re not a part of it and the undercurrent that is happening. But to your point, if you have a network that has ears to the ground, and that could possibly, maybe they’re not in the room, but they’re passing by the room and they know exactly what’s being said because they heard it as they pass by, that could be really helpful as you’re trying to consider how to unravel some of this. Do you have… specific ideas in how to do, like for example, the other part of this that I know educators get really nervous about, is how do I do this respectfully? How do I do this in such a way? How do I try to break through the red tape in a way that’s A, not gonna get me fired, and B, is respectful and still kind of allows for me to have a relationship with this person after this is over.
Yeah. So my tactic there is called stab people in the chest. And that sounds a little violent, but the idea of stabbing people in the chest means that you aren’t stabbing people in the back.
So you may disagree with someone fundamentally and you may never agree, you may never persuade them. But if you are transparent and honest about your position and why you have your position, and you never blindside them, like the last thing you wanna do is be in front of a superintendent or a principal or a leader and say, ha ha, he missed on slide 11, this part of the argument, and I’m gonna get them on slide 11. That might work in the moment to get you what you want in that moment, and then it will permanently destroy your relationship with that person.
And so what you want to do instead is when you’re going to disagree with someone and the higher profile of disagreement, the more you have to do this as uncomfortable as it can be, you want to sit down with them one on one, grab a cup of coffee, sit down privately and say like, look, I’m going to disagree with you at this point, or I’m going to pursue this path that I know you’re not in support of and this is exactly what I’m going to do. You want to be very, very transparent. Again, the goal is not to persuade them necessarily because you probably won’t, but it’s to build trust that you are not going to stab them in the back and you’re not going to blindside them, and that can build a really high functioning high trust working relationship in all the other areas where you are going to agree or where you’re going to disagree but on a much like lower stakes issue and you’re going to have to still work together and you may be working with these colleagues for decades right so the last thing you want to do is blindside them once and then have to see them again in the lunchroom for 30 more years.
Yeah, yeah. And if sometimes when we’re working in these pathways, it feels almost like covert, right? Like that you’re trying to play chess almost. And what you really wanna do is just be open and honest and have adult conversations. And this is how we’re moving forward because of my core belief system or whatever it is that you’re trying to improve, right? So here’s a followup to that.
When it comes to trying to make change efforts, it feels like change effort can be very challenging and difficult. So how do we just kind of finally get stuff done?
Yeah. I mean, change is hard and so much of why it is hard is because the way to make change is not documented, right? Like your bureaucracy probably has an org chart, but that’s not how decisions get made. It probably has processes and policy manuals up the wazoo, but that’s not necessarily how changes get made. And because it’s not a documented process, it can feel so opaque that you kind of give up or you feel totally powerless. Or we see people often try tactics that I think are overly touted as ways to make change, like we’re gonna sign a petition or we’re going to like have a meeting and like yes maybe sometimes those can lead to change but probably not. But what does help too and I know you’ve had like education is such a huge space and I’ve had tremendous privilege of working in two at least two huge spaces, veterans and now foster care, and in both those situations there’s no fixing the VA or fixing foster care or like oh next month foster care is gonna be all fixed, all done right and I feel like education is probably similar where it’s so overwhelming.
And that can make it hard to take even a first step.
And so what I have really learned and taken to heart from this, having had lots of mentors before me and then having had this experience now twice, is this approach that in technology is called strangling the mainframe. But if you will, I’ll give you a Harry Potter analogy that is not a technology one.
For some reason, if you are planning on reading Harry Potter and you have not yet, this is going to contain a very big spoiler. So fast forward 90 seconds. So in Harry Potter, Voldemort is like education, right? It’s the huge thing that you’re trying to fix.
And for the first six and a half books, Harry and the whole wizarding world try to head on, you know, get rid of Voldemort. In the course of doing so, there’s billions of pounds of muggle property damage, most of Harry’s family dies, and Voldemort is stronger than ever. But what does work is discovering the Horcruxes. You find one discrete chunk of Voldemort’s power and you destroy it. And then you go on to the next one and the next one. And at the end, he is, you have destroyed enough of the power that it is a finite being, little alien dude that you can get rid of. And so in that regard, education is super overwhelming, but what is the one thing that you may want to fix? And here, to me, there’s a little bit of a balance. I did this at the VA and I did it again in foster care, which is holding out a North Star. Like if the VA is really good, what are two or three sentences that describe what that looks like in the end?
And then how can I play a long game of getting there that’s going to involve a lot of compromises and bartering and bringing people along on my journey with me? And a key tactic here too, to me, is the first thing you wanna pick. A lot of people make the mistake of saying, okay, I’m gonna fix this thing. I’m gonna announce it. I’m gonna put out a press release. I’m gonna have community meetings. I’m gonna tell everybody that I’m coming after this thing. Don’t do that because then you get a lot of people’s attention that can only pretty much harm you in that situation.
You wanna start out with a Trojan horse. You want to start out with something that is quiet, non-controversial, and will teach you how your bureaucracy makes changes so you can kind of build that muscle on do you need technical approvals, do you need policy changes, do you need position description changes, how can you learn how to make those in your organization and be confident that you know how because you have done it. Not that you read the manual, but like I have changed the position description, I have changed the agenda, whatever it may be. And when you’re doing it on the non-controversial thing, now you’ve, when you are successful, gotten probably a larger karass of folks around you, and now you have political capital. Now you are somebody who has successfully made a change in your environment, but you picked one quietly that was not super controversial. But now you have this amazing tool belt that you can use for increasingly difficult, increasingly controversial things, and you have a tool belt that almost no one else in your organization has, because it’s very rare to have that. I mean, I cannot overemphasize how much the foundations of understanding procurement, HR, legal, that whoever owns the, literally who owns the agenda, who decides what, who goes in what order and who speaks in what order, those things can have massive influences over time if you understand how they work and how to influence them. So don’t pick education, pick a thing in education that you really want to focus on.
Which is super powerful because you’re right, it is. It feels so overwhelming and so big, you don’t know where to start. I love your analogy of those horcruxes because you’re just, I mean, spot on, being able to just one at a time kind of pick them off. And I’m always a big believer in start small. I always say start small to grow tall. So if you’re gonna start small and pick that one thing, you get a win. You want a fast win in order to get some momentum and move on. That’s fantastic. So helpful. Thank you.
So I wanna kind of pivot a little bit because you mentioned that in your background, you served as entrepreneur in residence for the US Department of Education. So I’m curious what that role looked like and how you achieved that role and what you did while you were there.
Yeah, so it was part of a program that at the time was brand new called the Presidential Innovation Fellows. And our family was sort of the White House Fellows Program, but this was an offshoot of that designed to bring in more technologists. They described it as tech savvy entrepreneurs to come into government for six month stints. And I was selected and placed at the Department of Education. To be very honest, I think I did a lot more learning than contributing in my time there, but I got to work with amazing people like Richard Culotta, who’s now the CEO of ISTE, and really learn how bureaucracies work. A lot of my work was around open educational data standards, because I don’t need to tell you, like, we have this amazing breadth of technology in education, but if it is not interoperable, then you have, you know, 30 different systems that don’t talk to one another, and that’s… If they work at all, frankly, having 30 interoperable ones, you’re missing so much of the opportunity from having that integrated. You have data entry pain points. You have frustrated staff that perhaps does not want to stick around as long as they otherwise would have. And you have students that are missing out on educational gains that you can’t go back and make up for. And so we worked a lot on open educational standards. I was always also obsessed with this project, although I did not finish it around course catalog data standards. And like, what if we had a standard in the country that could automatically suck in your course, your class transcript, and then understand how far you were to your degree. Because we constantly heard from students in college that they were having to stay an extra semester, an extra year, because they had missed the one class that’s only available in the spring sort of thing. And so when somebody said the goal was to increase on-time college graduation, to me, that seemed like an interesting lever point, which is how many people are not graduating, quote unquote, on time, because they missed one or two classes, some different planning ahead or couldn’t that help a school optimize when they’re offering classes if you know that 170 of your students are going to have to stick around an extra semester if you don’t offer this class this semester. So that was an interesting side project.
Yeah, well, and it sounds like your time there really did influence and impact what you learned about bureaucracy itself and how to take those small pieces, right, and follow the trail and figure out where those stumbling blocks are and then work on the blocks themselves. So that sounds great. I was just, I was so curious because I had not heard of that before and I know that was back in Obama’s White House, but, and I know there were a lot of things that happened during that season.
So, but I just found it fascinating that was, that’s part of your background and how wonderful. So with all of this breadth of experiences that you have, one of the things that I noticed just coming at this from a third party is the weaving of creativity, of how you’ve had to be creative in finding these solutions to things that feel unsolvable. So from your perspective, how do you feel like creativity can support us in helping to make the changes that are needed.
Yeah, I mean to me, I think bureaucracy hacking is tons of creativity. I have, I’m, right across from me, I have a 8×5 dry erase board sticker, the enormous ones, and I just, anytime I’m facing a problem, I’m like mind mapping and strategizing. And it may not feel that way to everybody, so you know, again, bureaucracies can feel very stifling and sometimes impossible to make change in. But if you start understanding the rules, right, this is the Pablo Picasso quote, that if you understand the rules well enough to break them, then you can start getting really strategic about, okay, I need to get here. It’s almost, I literally think about it almost as like a computer game. I need to get here.
I’m here, there are five hops in the middle. I’m gonna need to barter like carrots with Linus and then get him on my team so that I can get, you know, the coconut that I need to unlock the door over here, but it very much is that. As you understand, I need to get here, I need to, you know, win Mary over so that she can redo the voting order on the agenda so that Allison, because she’s A, doesn’t always go first and then be a wet blanket and then everybody after her doesn’t. And that’s a tactic I’ve actually used a bunch of times, is just mixing up the voting order you can start plotting out what you’re gonna do. And you can also think of it as a game where you wanna really maximize wins for everybody. These are very infrequently zero sum opportunities. If someone is afraid of the change that you are embarking on, there may be many ways that you can help assuage that fear. You can get them involved designing early, which can be a little scary, because you’re like, oh no, I’m involving the naysayer. I’m gonna let them in on my plan. But they’re gonna get in on it anyway. So better to get them in early and get their feedback of what they’re really afraid of. And they may have totally valid concerns.
And I’m a technologist, so I work a lot with modernizing technology. It’s something that people overlook all the time when they’re planning is all the workforce that’s been there for decades that’s a master of the current technology. And to tell someone that’s had a 30-year career where they are very proud of supporting foster kids, of being a civil servant, of supporting veterans by keeping these servers up and being an expert in them, to be like, oh, just go get a certification this weekend and just learn the new technology, no big deal. That is insulting at best. And of course, they’re going to dig their heels in because they are going to go in your new world, they go from being a respected expert to an unrespected total noob. And so part of it has to be like, are there really thoughtful transition plans that can help them get on board? Some people may want to learn the new skills alongside. Some people may want an early retirement plan. Some people may just need a guarantee that they’re going to continue maintaining that the status quo for a number of years while you kind of pilot and build out the new one. And so I think it’s really important to think creatively about everybody’s role and how you can get as many people on board as possible, even if it means sacrificing a thing or two that you ultimately want, it may be very much worth it to get those extra people on board and get their buy-in and have them see that you are really truly willing to make compromises and sacrifices in service of the North Star.
Yeah, absolutely. We talk about this a lot when it comes to using arts integration and cultivating that in a school building that oftentimes in your pilot team, you want, I at least encourage at least one to two naysayers because those people are going to tell you where your holes are and if you can get them to understand what you’re trying to do and at least build a respect between you, again, going back to that stab them in the front component.
If you can build that respect, oftentimes they will be your biggest advocate once you cultivate that relationship. So I think that is an incredibly important point. So thank you so much for sharing all of these tips today. This was so super helpful, so tactical, but I love it because it’s practical. So where can people find you and stay in touch?
Yeah, if we are pretty easy to find, you can go to hackyourbureaucracy.com to read the latest blog posts. And then I am on Twitter, LinkedIn, threads, blue sky, all the things at marina.nitze, N-I-T-Z-E. And Nick is on everywhere at NickSinai, S-I-N-A-I.
Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you being here. And continue to hack away. I love this.
Thank you, you as well. It sounds like you’re a master bureaucracy hacker yourself.