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We used to be rockstars

Friday, September 12, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I still remember when I got my first invitation to speak.

It was a Scheming Virtuously double bill in Calgary then Edmonton. I took vacation from one department while another paid my travel because it was just easier than getting approvals. I'd never done any public speaking before so I volunteered in the Career Centre at Carleton University where I could demo a presentation I built from scratch that was up until that point just a handbook. I bombed in Calgary but did better in Edmonton. I recorded both deliveries and listened to them on a constant loop for the duration of the flight home, meticulously taking notes on what worked and what didn't so I could deliver better in the future, not knowing whether or not there would actually be an opportunity to do so.

As it happens, there were many.

They came from all over Canada and down into the United States. I eagerly said yes to every one of them and just as eagerly refused any financial compensation that was offered. I believed in the gift economy, and to a certain extent, still believe it. An early friend along the journey once joked that I would have agreed to speak at the opening of a window, and you know what, at the time he was probably right.

Over the next few years I was lucky enough to build a practice off the side of my desk and with the help of the fellow travellers I met along the way I slowly moved that practice from the corner of my desk to the centre of it. I invested heavily, reading, reflecting and writing on a weekly basis. I published, encouraged others to do the same, read their blogs, hung around more on twitter, left comments on their blogs, and engaged them in conversation. I was building, we were building. The energy was palpable, and easy to caught up in.

Surely at times our efforts misdirected, but on balance they were well placed. At the very least they were always dynamic and thus a welcome change from what we perceived as the stifling normalcy of the bureaucracy that others so readily accepted.

At least that was the feel of it.

We found and built our niche on a platform that the status quo didn't seem to anticipate and certainly didn't understand.

This is how we understood ourselves; we were the new movers and shakers.

Plane tickets, hotels, stages, bright lights, and new friends in crowded bars, everyone genuinely interested in you and what you had to say, as long as you could conjure up some evidence and conviction. Never once did we anticipate that the miraculous run would end, not once did we ever talk about what happens when others would cease to be interested in our talents or how we would deal with the eventuality of competition among us when mind share, attention, and opportunities became more scarce.

These were just some of our blind spots; looking at the forest, forgetting all the trees.

Don't get me wrong. I'm speaking of great people, accomplished people, whom I was fortunate enough to forge bonds with, build relationships with.

I have fond memories; we did some great things.

We seized opportunities others didn't see, we conjured up new influence models and delivered our fair share of five star performances. Sure there were casualties along the way but that's just a part of the biz.

We learned our lessons, shared them and moved on, our skin still firmly in the game, even as the game changed.

I reflect on all of this not out of some sense of longing for glory long past but because things are different; at least for me. It's hard to say for certain and while my memory is imperfect I recall more experimentation, more genuine curiosity, and grass-roots enthusiasm then than I feel now. Perhaps I was just closer to it back then. Or perhaps I'm more cynical than I used to be, time eroding my enthusiasm, like others before me. Perhaps it's just simply the evolution of a career path that you only get to walk once unknowingly, without a clear set of directions or the benefit of hindsight.

All of this struck me a few months ago when I was at a meetup on systems change organized in part by Kent and in part by a handful of other familiar and friendly faces. I stood in the back of the room and took it all in, overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of déjà vu as I mingled with new allies and a handful of the usual suspects. The fact of the matter was that I'd been to dozens, if not hundreds, of the same meetups across the country in my career; and while the thematic focus of past meetups were obviously different (e.g. social media) the underlying trend towards levering new insights (e.g. design thinking) to influence positive change was the same.

I get it. Things change. People change.

We're all shifting, moving between different pieces of the puzzle, our networks changing concurrently, forming and reforming around those pieces in the ways that only the omnipresent web makes truly visible and serves up confidently, algorithmically and asymmetrically.

Some of us have since gone on to be doers; happy victims of our own success, implementing that which we were once passionate advocates. Some of us have undoubtedly lost our influence as our markets became saturated, crowded out despite our first mover advantage. Some of us have undoubtedly made the transition to the next thing, having understood that building a career around the higher order questions will always yield better results than building expertise around set of tactics. While still others among us are in the unenviable position of having to attend to more pressing and personal priorities: building, dismantling and/or rebuilding their relationships, families and/or mental health.


I'm not sure whether or not you'll find this reflection valuable; but to be honest it's something that's been weighing on me for some time now. I'm not sure publishing it accomplishes anything other than getting it off my chest. That said, before I queue this up for publication, I wanted to be clear on a couple of things. I'm not saying we don't still share a sense of community, because we do. Nor am I saying that we aren't doing good work or seizing new opportunities, because we are. I'm just saying that things are different now then they were then.

I'm just saying, we used to be rockstars.

Process and Public Service Renewal

Friday, September 5, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Just a quick post today. I was on the road most of August and am still mostly just catching up.


A few weeks back I wrote about The New Nature of Process, the idea that that organizations are at a pivot point akin to industrialization. But where that revolution occurred by standardizing and repeating processes for material goods, we're looking at standardizing and repeating processes for human learning in the context of complex problems. All optimized for efficiency, fitted within governance and business cycles.

(Albeit with a broad view of efficient. Sometimes expensively sending a nurse practitioner to someone's house is, in the long run, more efficient than optimizing the process within the hospital they'd otherwise visit.)

Let's call it standardizing processes for exploring and solving complex problems. At the time I considered it an interesting idea, a possible trend. But after thinking about it for a bit I realized that if it's true - that is, if we're just getting started but can get far better - it would assuage the doubt I feel about public service renewal. Even the elements of it that I personally support and suggest.

For instance, in the past I've wondered if a public service characterized by trust, decentralized decision making, and engagement is unrealistic or undesirable. If such a state only works well in marginal cases, such that the success stories for that approach actually represent most of the fertile ground. Or, after Chelsea highlighted some of the more negative possibilities of loosened hierarchy, I wondered if the style of management I considered ideal was too unreliable across a critical mass. That it would work well only if it was the only thing managers had to worry about (it isn't). Or take Hugh Segal's recent take in the Ottawa Citizen, about the need for stronger managers, less management layers, and more leeway for frontline decision making.

I generally favour these approaches, in a vacuum. But the real world is messier. However, if we can significantly and reliably accelerate employees's sensemaking of complex environments, such approaches may be very manageable in the real world.

And the sensemaking tools are there. How to map a network of stakeholders, how to help them (and you) understand each other, how to suss out side effects of policy, program, and service decisions. The question now is one of optimization and repeatability.

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.