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Influence, Organizations, and Team Players

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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


Nick recently wrote about different forms of influence (see: On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureaucracies):

My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

In doing so, he hits on a concept I've been wrestling with. Regardless of what your job description says, you don't start jobs with the right level of ability to influence. It needs to be built.

However, there's always a balance to be struck. Building influence (which is largely building relationships) takes time, and it's time that could be spent working more directly on goals. I'd contend that organizations generally err on the side of narrow goals at the expense of systems, relationships, and, well, better definitions of those goals. But there are dark sides to personally spending time on the latter:

In Tragedy in the Commons - largely a collection of interviews with former Members of Parliament - the story that emerges is that no one ever reached a point where they felt they could just start doing the right thing. Even Cabinet members felt the need to "be good team players" and it was clear that not all were comfortable with the level of compromise. If this is true for end-of-career statesmen, senior decision-makers, I don't think this tension is going away any time soon for the rest of us.

And where building the ability to influence fits the above mold (being "a good team player") it can perpetuate bad systems. I wrote about this idea a while back (see: When Parameters are the Problem), in that sometimes there's a trade-off between doing the right thing and maintaining smooth relationships with our coworkers or hierarchy (and recognizing that sometimes we can get "the right thing" wrong).

I tried to walk that walk since I wrote that post: pushing back against faulty systems. My experience is that it's hard, uncomfortable, and the downsides are greater than I imagined. I'm not ready to rescind that idea, but I can see plenty of scenarios in which it's wise to shelve that maxim. It's an interesting dilemma in which the future I'd want for the public service writ large may be different than the advice I'd give individuals I care about.

Because these day-to-day decisions add up, over time, to those outcomes: influence through soft power or influence through positions in the hierarchy. And we should consider our approaches with caution and thoughtfulness.

The Future of Policy Work

Thursday, November 20, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

On Tuesday next week I will have the privilege of addressing a large number of policy professionals in the Ontario Public Service as a part of Polivery V: The Future of Policy Work. What follows is a first draft of my remarks, pardon the style, it helps me deliver. As always, your comments are more than welcome... (it's late, this is a draft, and I'm tired, etc).


My name is Nick Charney, I'm the Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Institute on Governance, a small not for profit organization whose mission is to advance better governance in the public interest.

I'm currently on interchange from the Government of Canada where I've spent the last 8 years working at the confluence of people, public policy and technology.

There's a great many things I could get up here and say about the future of policy work.

I could start by saying that in the future having the right skills will be essential.

Or that a talent-focused culture will be critical.

Or that organizational agility is the key to effective outcomes.

But I think I'd rather start out by saying that future of policy work is is still being written.

That there is no shortage of wicked problems, demand for ideas, or the need to bring them bear.

That the policy environment is changing.

That technology and Zeitgeist are changing the nature of public policy and that these changes are ushering in both a wealth of challenges and opportunities.

And that how you deal with them will ultimately determine what your future holds.

First the challenges ...

The hollowing out of capacity.

Strategic policy shops becoming issues management shops, driven by increased transparency and a 24/7 news cycle.

We often sacrifice the long term health of our democracy to deal with that which is immediately before us.

This is the McDonalization of public policy.

It may taste good in the moment, but in the long run it's bad for public health.

We need to make better choices.

Policy makers need to re-claim their relationships with the media, with elected officials, and with each other.

They need to stand by less and stand for more.

The faceless bureaucrat is no longer a tenable position in this environment.

Innovation by check box.

Everyone is suffering from innovation fatigue.

When everything is innovation, nothing is.

Labelling something innovation is often as meaningless as labelling it as secret in today's environment.

Any scrutiny proves it otherwise.

Yes - innovation hubs, labs, dragon's dens and hackathons are all in vogue right now but the true test isn't what goes into them, but rather what comes out of them,.

Too often our best and brightest are put to work on matters of process rather than substance.

Let's put more smart people next to hard problems and stop treating them as puzzles to be solved.

That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table.

That they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed.

It's not true.

"Innovation" defined as moving the pieces around or adding more processing power won't disrupt the status quo.

It is the status quo

Hyper-bureaucratics

Process has always been our panacea.

But by now we must be fast approaching peak bureaucracy.

The point where we simply cannot add any additional layers without incurring untenable costs,

Be wary of those who refuse to do the hard work of flattening hierarchies, simplifying processes and minimizing barriers.

Be wary of those who would rather establish processes to diffuse blame than simply things and consolidate responsibility.

We need more decisions and less diffusion.

The loss of monopoly & Increased competition

We have new roles.

We've moved from that of a monopoly provider to something more akin to a sensor, sense-maker, connector and/or validator.

It can be unnerving but don't panic,

Embrace the fear and explore the new opportunities.

Bask in the complexity

We have never had a better understanding of how things are interconnected.

But focusing solely on technology or innovation actually prevents us from realizing the art of the possible.

The technology is the easy part.

We know that connecting people and ideas has never been easier.

Yes the policy shop of the future deploy technologies to connect people around ideas but also employs people to do the same.

It employs people to lean in and slog through the messy stuff: history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions.

The stuff technology can't fix.

This takes time and effort.

The policy shop of the future retains the time honoured tradition of subject matter expertise and encourages depth not just breadth of experience.

Engage in social media

Listen to what people are saying.

Find the experts.

Weigh their analysis.

Read what they read.

What's the Zeitgeist telling you?

Be curious.

Create content don't just consume it.

Slog through the hard stuff yourself.

Write things down and work through problems.

Turn off the TV and read a book.

Like a paper book!

Experiment with data

Find, verify and link or liberate useful data sets inside your organization or within your field of work.

Explore what happens at the margins where different data sets interact.

Create visualizations that cast an old problem in a new light (caveat opportunity based on time: TBS policy suite visualization)

If you find something interesting broaden the tent and engage others.

If you don't have the skills to do this or the time to learn, find people who do, and work with them.

Use design thinking

Empathize with problem.

Be creative when thinking about solutions.

Be rational when mapping the solution to the problem.

Match people's needs with what is feasible

This is something we are teaching right now in collaboration with the GovLab @ NYU.

Its surprising how effective a two day deep dive on a problem can be if you approach it with the right methodologies.

In case you are interested, the d.school at Stanford has a number of approaches available free online.

Read up on behavioural economics

Commonly referred to as nudge.

There's a lot of books on the matter and some interesting work has been done recently in the UK,

Long story short,  slight tweaks in your approach vector can drive vastly superior outcomes.

Behavioural Economics brings sentiment, analytics, and design to ground by emphasizing what people actually do when faced with a given situation rather than what we think they ought to do

I want to conclude by saying ...

How you go about your work will continue to change but ultimately being able to frame up advice that helps leaders make good decisions will always be a critical skill for policy makers.

Indeed, it always has been.

Now if you recall in my opening remarks, I told you that the future of policy work is still being written.

In closing I want to appeal to your sense of agency and remind you that when it comes to policy advice you literally have the pen.

Invest that pen.

Familiarize yourself with trends and new techniques, but don't chase breadth at the expense of of depth.

Do you best to balance both, stay curious, and remember, your pen is mightier than anyone's sword.

Thank you

On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureacracies

Friday, November 7, 2014

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

In bureaucracies we often mistake hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

But my view is that hierarchy is knowable, straightforward and discriminate, whereas influence is elusive, subtle and complex.

I consider hierarchy as akin to a hard power, influence as a soft power. And I've always been more interested in soft power then hard. My career path has been one of relationships over level and rewarding work over the greasy pole. My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

While I fully admit that sometimes influence flows from hierarchy and that those who ignore hierarchy ignore it at their peril (myself included), I also believe that it is increasingly the case that influence flows from some undefinable blend of serendipity, panache and resolve. I think we tend to prefer hierarchy because it offers the illusion of certainty and allows us to ignore the fact that influence is messy and that it can be neither poured neatly into an organizational chart nor contained within the strict limits of its boxes. And so our bureaucratic cultures continue to mistakenly treat hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

A likely example most would be familiar with is the Executive Assistant (EA) who is actually more like an Executive Director (ED) than an EA.

In my experience, many EAs don't have the rank they ought to. The ones worth their salt (and I've worked with many) are in fact more like EDs. Yes, they may have the tedious task of managing an executive's calendar but they are also the only ones trusted to do so; meaning that if you are the one requesting a meeting with your boss you are essentially at the mercy of the EA.

Now, it's easy to discount them but they have better access leadership and information flows than most - just by way of where they sit. The really good ones are easy to spot: they build skills and subject matter expertise, they sit at management tables, they have their boss's ear and they follow them from one job to another (and/or spend their entire careers in similar roles).

But I digress. All of this to say that the influence isn't a corollary of hierarchy and that many ignore that fact at their peril.

My hunch 

Actors without hard power tend to be better at wielding soft power because they have to, whereas those with hard power are weaker at wielding soft power because they don't. In other words, if hierarchy privileges you, you needn't worry as much about how to influence others, whereas if hierarchy doesn't benefit you, then you need to. As I'm reflecting on this I'm wondering if there is a tipping point (not in the Gladwellian sense) somewhere along your career trajectory where your levers and/or approach changes because there are suddenly more people below you than above you within the system.

This is not a slight to those on either side of the divide, nor do I think it's a hard and fast rule. It is an observation that may explain some of the interpersonal dynamics at play within bureaucracies that so many people find bothersome; namely, executives pulling rank on folks without it and/or folks without rank disrespecting and side-stepping the hierarchy.

What do you think?

Quick Notes from the GTEC Conference

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

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


Monday's notes
I've been attending GTEC - the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference - for four or five years now. My first public service job was (a non-IT job) in an IT branch, and I wanted to dig in. I went once, and it stuck.

The underlying, unofficial theme since I've been going is that technology leaders have to be business leaders, capable of managing people and portfolios, acting as strategic partners to CEOs. This is what I've found most interesting: how do subject matter experts become managers and leaders? How does one develop a sense of strategy?

It's these broad, business-meets-IT questions that I'm drawn to, and they form the basis of my shortlist of interesting snippets from last week at GTEC.


  • We can think of leadership in multiple ways: business leadership, thought leadership, and change leadership. The point made here was that as interesting and appealing as thought leadership is, and as necessary as change leadership is in turbulent times, 85% of what keeps organizations humming is "good, old fashioned business leadership". That which is unexciting, normalized, day-to-day, and hopefully effective.

  • Engaging all employees is not as simple as communicating to all employees, and often the best way to figure out what people want is not necessarily to ask them what they want. The quote here was to work with "the right people, in the right way" - which sounds simple but is often overlooked. If I may editorialize, there are very few skills we learn for which the intuitive approach is the most effective. Think golf swings, card games, cooking - anything. There's always some level of sophistication we eventually reach, or can be taught. The term beginner's mistake is common for a reason, yet we often apply intuitive (and wrong) approaches to management, leadership, and in this case, employee engagement.

  • Security and privacy are, and will be, the foundation of every government decision on information technology. You could tell because every other sentence was about security and privacy. Don't get me wrong: this is actually the level of importance that should be assigned, and it provides the reassurance that security and privacy sit duly highly in government's decision-making framework. But the fact that governments are taking it seriously needs to become a boring base assumption, so that government IM/IT leaders can actually talk about information and strategy instead.

That's the shortlist, but there was much more. And there are two other talks with a shared theme that I'd like to highlight, but I'll do that in a standalone post later.

Three thoughts on leaders and leadership

Friday, October 31, 2014

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

As you likely know I joined the Institute on Governance (IOG) via an interchange in January of this year.

I've since taken on additional responsibilities, a new title and started the IOG's Executive Leadership Program. In fact, the program kicked off this week with a two day executive retreat.

It was an incredibly rich two days but rather than sing the program's praises, I wanted to quickly share three of my early takeaways from the program (which I scribbled down in my learning journal):

  1. Leadership is a process of influence that happens in a group to achieve a result. 
  2. It is about resilience, both personal and institutional, good leaders are able to turn the former into the latter. 
  3. We often rely on our own strengths and talents, good leaders play to the strengths and talents of others.
Cheers (and happy Halloween!)