Thoughts on Problem Definition from NYU's GovLab

Friday, August 29, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Alan Kantrow from NYU's GovLab who was in Ottawa to frame up a collaboration with the Institute on Governance (where I am currently on interchange). In addition to back of house discussions, Alan took the time to speak to a number of different groups including the IOG's Executive Leadership Program (which is currently recruiting it's next cohort) about the importance of problem definition. It was a great talk and Alan made some key points that are worth sharing:

  • We are more likely to pursue solutions that are locally optimal but globally suboptimal, this is problem shifting not problem solving.
  • There is an interesting incongruence between hierarchical incentive structures that reward solving small problems and problem shifting which generates animosity among peers horizontally.
  • Making the system known – the up front costs/benefits and embedded logics – explicitly puts people in an uncomfortable position because the outcomes from a good systems map are (in most cases) predictable.
  • Shift the bulk of your resources upstream to problem definition, if there has been any central lesson in the work of the GovLab thus far it is that poor problem definition creates poor outcomes. Don't short change yourself upstream (problem definition).
  • You need both a theory of change and a theory of action; these are not synonyms. The former is about how does a project touch people, how do they respond and what are their incentives, whereas the latter is about how you cause change to happen within that context, at what points of intervention and in what sequence?
  • Far too many people ignore the risks when defining their problem; they genuflect in their direction but fail to go beyond a discussion of type and probability. There is tremendous value in assessing risks against other criteria, time, location, human resource resiliency, cash flow, etc. Resiliency against certain risk types is an important competitive advantage, it allows people to bid on risk.

As a side note, I left the talk wondering about the tension between the amount of time and effort required for proper upstream problem definition and the super-fast superficial culture that reinforces heads down doing instead of heads up thinking.

Are Public Servants Interchangeable?

Friday, August 22, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

On Tuesday I attended IPAC's Summer Policy Conference on the New Government Leader. I was a participant, a panellist and a sponsor; life's complicated and lines are blurred but that's neither here nor there. During the course of the day there were a number of threads that wound themselves through the conversations. The one that seemed to be of the most interest was that of interchange (and the suite of related issues such as talent management). Uncharacteristically, I bit my tongue as the conversations unfolded, and when I had the mic as a panellist I offered to share some thoughts on the matter. Since the focus of the panel was on collaboration, data analytics and networked policy development, no one took me up on my offer, though some people did approach me afterwards. Here are my thoughts:

On the whole, interchange is a great program; at least is has been for me thus far. It was an opportunity to try something new, lose some baggage and rediscover the art of the possible. The deal took a long time to get inked and there were some minor complications, but once there was agreement on terms, it was a fairly straightforward process.

What I found fascinating about the discussion was that despite the fact that everyone is so quick to admit that the public service has lost its monopoly on policy advice – which again, I take as a proxy for influence (See: Is Innovation is Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada) – they are so beholden to working within it. In other words, while everyone seemed interested in using the interchange program to gain outside experience, their interest is tempered by a palpable reticence to simply pursue the experience on their own accord; leaving the public service is off the table.

Now, don't mistake my observation. I knowingly make it from the privileged position of having already secured an interchange and I fully admit that I was reluctant to report to my new employer before the interchange ink was dry. There's something cultural here worth exploring, when even the heretics among us are reticent to walk away. In other words, does this cultural homogeneity consistency lend itself more readily to the question of whether or not public servants interchangeable, rather than the question of whether or not they ought to go on interchange?

The Underappreciated Impact of Digital

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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

I still read articles that discuss how digital technology and connectivity are transforming democracy, unlocking avenues for communication and governance. Entirely, totally true. No argument. But there’s an angle that seems underappreciated to me.

Most articles talk about it as we have found these people interested in what we’re doing, and we can connect to them, so we will. However, the far more interesting thing to me is that these people were always here, we just didn’t know how to find them.

The digital era both revealed the problem - that our decisions touch far more people than we once realized, and can impact their lives significantly - and presented a solution.

But, two things:

First, it's a solution, not the solution. Just because we can find people through digital means doesn’t make it the default interaction channel forever. There’s a reason online communities hold meetups. We need to know when to deviate from digital.

Second, recognizing that in the past we had a measurement problem, underestimating the breadth of our impact, we shouldn’t assume that we’ve solved it completely. Rather, we should be deeply concerned about who we haven’t found yet. Even for those on the easy side of the digital divide, not everyone raises their hand.

We always talk about digital technology as a solution,  but the problem that hyperconnectivity revealed is at least as interesting. This is the underrated impact of digital technology: not that it enabled government to connect and engage, but that it made us realize that we should have been doing so all along.

Note: this is an argument I've partially made in different forms before (See: Complexity is a Measurement Problem, People Act, Technology Helps, or Collaboration: Overhyped and Underappreciated), so apologies if this is old hat. But I wanted to explore this particular angle of it, and it'll play into a forthcoming deeper dive on this idea from last week: The New Nature of Process.

The New Nature of Process

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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

In a recent report on the next frontier of digital technology, Accenture created a model of the long history of challenges that have faced management.


In short: the industrial era was characterized by a transition from individual craftsman and artisans to large-scale processes, and this transition was enabled by repeatability. A worker didn’t need to know how the factory ran to screw part A into part B, and if he left, a replacement could be trained incredibly quickly. This was the age of Taylorism, of precision and measurability permitted by process and structure.
Throughout the last century we’ve transitioned into an economy far more based on knowledge work (see Deloitte’s assessment, below), which meant the industrial management style ran into a crisis of rigidity, the solution to which was adaptive processes. Judgment, discretion, if-then statements, case management.


However, for senior executives ultimately managing a variety of adaptive processes, the problem then became one of complexity. There’s too much going on, it’s too hard to understand, and the performance reports that are so useful for widgets-per-second are far less revealing.
Accenture suggests that the solution to complexity is in digital. Specifically, “smart digital processes”, which would feed decision makers key information exactly when they need it. My response is: maybe? In some cases? It seems the more plausible answer is a return to process - which is happening all around us, albeit which a crucial difference from the Taylorism of old.
Process in the Knowledge Economy
There's a common thread among the emerging approaches to governance. In his equation for today’s public policy, Nick highlighted several, including design thinking, behavioural economics, and public sentiment. We could add the field of facilitation, the practice of public participation, and innovation labs to them mix. All of which are hugely reliant on defined processes. 
The key difference is that the interim goal of the process of old was to remove the need for learning, whereas the process of today is designed to maximize the speed of learning. At the end of this post there are some links to example process kits: if-then guides to, essentially, helping humans understand other humans and the systems they live in.

The end goal is the same: scalability and repeatability. In this case, it’s repeatably, reliably solving unpredictable, emerging, or complex problems. We’re on the same arc as the first graph, but for a completely different organizational paradigm.
So the challenge for management becomes a new, grander problem of complexity. Where executives have been struggling to manage adaptive processes via industrial-inspired organizational designs, they’re going to be overwhelmed by managing a variety of learning processes without significant changes in management style. In some cases the if-then flow will be impossibly complicated, and in others it’ll need to be thrown out the window. A single node in a hierarchy will never be able to understand each process, only the principles behind them.

What's in it for Us?
We need to do it. It’s where the performance gains in a complex environment will come from. I’ll exapt an HBR article about how our personal learning curves regularly plateau. Here’s the graph, with learning on the Y axis and time on the X axis:


Success comes from knowing when to jump to the next learning curve, which is incredibly hard at the outset but maximizes the speed of progress.

Embracing this learning curve will be cost-effective in two ways. First, there’s evidence that consensus-building through learning processes costs less in the long term than making and defending decisions (which will apply to both internal management and policy/program governance). Second, in the latter part of that learning curve we’ll reach a level of sophistication that allows economies of scale:
  • We’ll be able to reliably pull from a menu of processes and adjust to new situations, rather than starting near scratch every time
  • We’ll be able to recognize when we can leave these learning processes to citizens, businesses, and NGOS, and govern accordingly
  • We’ll be able to share and teach approaches broadly
Returning to Accenture’s claim, organizations have run into a problem of complexity. Particularly for governments, however, I don’t buy their claim that the answer is in smart digital. Instead, I think we have to recognize that in many ways we’re back at the beginning, worried about about scale and repeatable processes. Just very different processes.

Example process kits:


Fatherhood Lesson #234: How to untangle your daughter's hair

Friday, August 8, 2014
by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

If you've ever read my personal blog, you'll know that I occasionally post a lesson that I've learned as a father. This lesson, I think, is better placed here. 

I have two daughters. There will be instances when their mother won’t be around and I’m going to need to figure out what to do with their hair. But thus far I’ve struggled even with brushing it. It got tangled and knotted and the girls protest because, well, it hurts when I do it.

It seemed like a simple enough process: start at the top of the head, and brush downwards, right? 


This week, I quietly observed my wife as she brushed my daughter's hair and, luckily for me, she described to my little girl how to brush hair properly.

You’re supposed to start by brushing at the bottom, to untangle it there, before moving to the top of the head. She explained that if you start at the top, by the time the brush moves to the bottom of the hair, you may have inadvertently tightened all the knots, making it even more difficult to untangle.

Lesson learned: Start with the hardest part first and work it out before moving to the easier parts. Otherwise, I’ll make the work harder, longer and more painful, thereby annoying my daughter who is just anxious to go play.