How things usually go right and occasionally go wrong

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

The idea of failure reports has been in vogue for a few years. Engineers Without Borders is probably the best known organization that does this, and I've heard that example cited in government circles a handful of times as a model for accountability and sharing lessons learned.

What I've heard less of is how you'd write one. The last project post-mortem I was a part of was mostly HIPPO - the Highest Paid Person's Opinion - on what they'd like to see done differently the next year. Asking people to fill out templates on what they'd do differently tends to generate the obvious answers, and it has the same problem I ran into when I tried to write a personal failure report: people don't work in a vacuum, and they often don't actually know why others took the actions they did (to say nothing of organizational politics and interpersonal dynamics acting on the person holding the pen). Even the Auditor General has expressed concern that his office's recommendations to government rarely lead to sustainable improvements

I ran into Etsy's Debriefing Facilitation Guide last year, which sawed through each of those shortcomings in the first few pages.

"Most traditional accident investigations tend to focus on "Someone did not do something they should have, according to someone else." ... "this results in an obvious recommendation for the future: "Next time, do what you should." Unfortunately, this approach does not result in the safer and improved future we want."

They describe the goal state to be "the presence of people's expertise, not simply the absence of accidents," which leads the principle that the goal of the debriefing is "to discover... what [people] actually did, and how they perceived the world at the time."

At which point the document segues into principles and guides for a structured, facilitated exercise. Not simply asking people. A lot of work has to go into creating a comfortable space for discussion, and getting past surface-level answers. There's a reason the "Five Whys" is such a sticky concept in strategy and planning.

All of which takes time, particularly when a project team spans 3-5 levels of the hierarchy - as it inevitably does, though debriefs rarely honour this fact. A working-level debriefing in the absence of the people who provided guidance, direction, and governance will fall short. But, if we're talking about projects that span years, involve an array of stakeholders, or carry big price tags, systematically learning why the organization produces the outcomes it does will outweigh the costs.

"The goal of a debriefing is not to produce recommendations... The goal is to seize the opportunity for an organization to learn as much as they can, in a relatively short period of time, about how people normally perceive and perform their work. Because the people involved were doing their normal work on a normal day when the event in question happened." 

Two Lessons After a Few Weeks In

Friday, December 23, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I quietly changed roles recently -- shifting away from a role working on policy innovation at the macro systems level to working on the implementation policy innovation at the micro program level. I'm enjoying the experience so far and (as usual) have been reflecting a bit on what I can learn along the way.

The danger of templates and the tension of task completion
Templates might be useful tools for standardization but they also create an artificial barrier that limits our thinking, especially templates that only push us to think to a certain milestone (e.g. design) and stop short of another (e.g. implementation). In other words they can create artificial barriers that reinforce an "out of sight out of mind mindset" when in reality those things -- while downstream -- ought to be given due consideration upstream. Similarly, there's a constant tension between doing completing the task that is immediately in front of you and that which is not. It takes a high degree of effort to say no to the pressure of the immediacy and keep your focus on longer term objectives. The risks closer to you often seem more important than those downstream but it is that very proximity that inflates their severity not their inherent characteristics.

The importance of stepping outside of strategic policy
Take the time to step outside the strategic policy world and work in or on a program and/or on implementation; there's a lot to be learned.


  • If you are interested in stepping into parts of my old role you can find more information on it here (internal link).
  • I'll be in DC talking policy innovation + holding a small hackathon on the Policy Innovation Portal (internal link); contact me if you'd like to set up a meeting or hit the link above to register for the event.

Collaboration takes time that organizations don't have

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A couple years back I wrote about a vicious cycle of centralized decision-making and the what it meant for executive attention on important issues. I don’t think there’s a single major issue in large organizations that doesn’t, at some level, stem from the meta-problem that the demands on executives’ time are incredible. At some point in the dissection of every systemic issue you could include “And executives don’t have the time for it.” Every major new initiative includes, as a factor for success, “senior executive support.” 

I’ll recreate the same model because I think it’s still interesting. Today I’d add organizational design and I’d probably fingerpaint it, but I think it mostly holds up.

The long story short is that more time spent on content means less time on process, including coaching, big-picture thinking, and organizational design. Which ultimately leads to the need for even more centralized decision-making in the absence of experienced delegates and effective governance. 

The compounding problem is that executives are structurally hamstrung from recognizing and correcting this pattern. Throughout an organization, there will be some sub-organizations with a manageable workload where everything gets dealt with. However, from the top, those organizations will look the same as those where things are falling through the cracks. Some issues that would otherwise be important will remain invisible because there’s no time to make them visible. And your delegates will start curating demands on executives' attention on their behalf out of sheer practicality - and from a smaller-picture lens - removing the ability for pattern recognition.

That is, for someone running at 100% capacity - as in, an actual maximum at, say, 80 hours per week - they’ll never know if the amount of work that should, given current systems, require their attention would actually add up to 120 hours per week. The extra 40 hours of work is impossible to see.

From the ground floor, this often results in issues that are paradoxically so important that they can only be resolved by [X] level of executive, but so unimportant that they won’t possibly make it to that level in the absence of good luck or a media article that catalyzes attention. 

When this problem exists in an organization, people probably don’t - and can’t - know the extent of it. 

Right now I'm doing work on digital-era governance, and there are recurring themes: collaboration, systems thinking, user-centricity. But collaboration takes time - particularly when we're talking about formal, long-term collaboration between organizations or even orders of government - and time is already an incredibly stressed resource, in ways that are very difficult to fix.

Four Thoughts on Public Engagement

Friday, December 9, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I was doing some work with a communications and public engagement wing of an organization recently and a couple of things came up that are worth repeating.

First - We've probably reached peak engagement. 
Not everything merits a public engagement campaign and people are tapped out. Sometimes you and your organization should stick to (or return to) simply communicating. If your campaign is aimed at the general public, it aimed at no one in particular. Everyone wants to be inclusive but the reality is more likely that there are a handful of experts from whom you want to hear from and they are already likely known to you.

Second - Don't think that public engagement upstream will be a defence to criticism downstream. 
In all likelihood it's not opportunity to participate in the public engagement process that people wants but rather to influence the actual outcomes from that process. Basically, people don't feel heard unless their views are those actioned.

Third - most organizations have moved beyond just public engagement.
If you agree with what most of the behavioural economics schools are teaching out there right now then you would also agree that there tends to be significant difference between what people say they want and how they act when actually confronted by a particular choice or decision. This is why things like data, design, and ethnography have all risen (returned?) to popularity. These additional inputs can act as a powerful signal (evidence?) checks on the results of pure public engagement.

Fourth - all politics are local and nimbyism reigns supreme. 
This always has and always will influence public policy and public engagement. Its why you shouldn't fight public relations battles you know you can't win (See: Machiavellian Infrastructure Spending) and why I'd rather give advice than have to choose (See: To Govern is to Choose).

On the Practical Experience of Safe Spaces

Friday, December 2, 2016

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I met Charles Jaimet -- a senior developer at Post Media -- and chatted about the confluence of journalism, civics, and the internet. Prior to our meeting Charles took some time to read the handbook Scheming Virtuously and so we discussed that too. After the conversation I invited him to write up his thoughts so we could share them more broadly. Below are Charles thoughts on the practical experience of safe spaces.

If you'd like to get in touch with Charles, you can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Here are my thoughts on safe spaces in the work place.

You wrote:

"Safe spaces are places where you have latitude to speculate, and where creativity is encouraged."

I believe very much in this approach but my experience has been that employees should embrace safe spaces but with caution.

As an employee, seek out safe people above safe spaces. Anyone can say a space is safe, but I've very often seen comments come back to bite honest employees during job reviews and promotion consideration.

Just because a manager says a space is safe doesn't make it so, and if you can't trust someone outside a safe space, odds are you can't trust them inside one.

Managers can start building trust, which as you said is key to working safe spaces, by taking risks inside the space themselves - confiding in staff, or agreeing with their disapproval of bad processes inside the organization. When everyone is speaking honestly, then no one has as much to fear.