Friday, January 9, 2009

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Some Reflections About Renewal

Just prior to the holiday season I had the opportunity to attend a renewal mini-workshop put on by my friends at PCO's renewal secretariat and sponsored by outgoing Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Jim Lahey; it doubled as his unofficial retirement party, one of Jim's last attempts to spur on the renewal conversation.

This was my first interaction with Jim and let me say that, while I can't speak to his overall contributions to the Public Service in sweeping terms, his demeanour, candour and passion were inspiring. I also had the opportunity to meet some other great people, most notably Katherine Baird from the Public Policy Forum (who co-authored Canada's Public Service in the 21st Century: Destination: Excellence) and Bob Chartier, the GoC’s resident leadership expert.

There was a lot to take from the workshop. Here is just a small taste of the conversational flavour of the evening.

Katherine and I had a very interesting discussion on what the ramifications would be if we simply started to change the physical space within which we worked. How would breaking down the cubicle walls, creating open and bright collaborative workspaces while retaining a handful of shared offices for private meetings affect the work culture? Mike and I have often discussed enough, we even ranted about it once. I doubt this idea will gain much traction but if there is a manager out there willing to experiment, why not give it a whirl? You may find that your team is more innovative or collaborates more frequently if you liberate them from the physical rigidity of the typical workspace. Involving them in the physical act of tearing down the walls between them may even increase the magnitude of the impact on their approach to working together. So why not leave the accommodations people out of it? Consider it a team building exercise.

Bob and I spoke about the need to simply engage in conversations about some of the problems within our work culture(s) or rules-based systems something we don't do that well in the Public Service. More often than not we are quick to self-rationalize as to why we can't have the conversation, even if we know it is one that should be had or that could bear fruit. We need to move beyond avoidance and into engagement. Jim added that he often hears public servants say that they want to take risks without facing consequences, yet there can be no risk without consequences. We then got into a conversation around the fact that the risk adverse culture within the public service is confusing given the difficulty involved in terminating employees and documenting poor performance. If anything, we should be expecting to see more people taking risks than avoiding them altogether.

If this is not evidence of learned helplessness, I don't know what is.

In that spirit I want to try to drive the blog back to the discussions about work culture that originally prompted its creation. I don't think we have gotten away from that altogether; however I feel as though we focused a lot on technology in the workplace, and there are clearly other determinants at play.

In Jim's closing remarks he spoke a bit about leadership’s 4 components: courage, judgment, love and humility. Courage and judgment reside on one axis, love and humility on the other. Good leaders are courageous enough to get involved, to take risks, to stand on points of principle, and to call nonsense by its name. Good leaders temper their courage with judgment. Judgment, says Jim, can only be learned by making mistakes. Often the gain to one's faculty of judgment is of a similar magnitude to one's mistake. Good leaders love what they do, they are passionate and inspire passion in those around them. Yet good leaders remain humble, and know that without others, they lead nothing and can accomplish nothing.

The most important thing that I took away was something that Jim said to me when I was leaving. I was explaining that I am trying to direct my career so that I can be one of those leaders he spoke of. He looked at me and said, "Don't wait - do it now".


  1. good article...I'd say that you are already one of "those" leaders.

  2. Here here kp!

    But on the topic of risk-aversion in the PS, we had a discussion on the issue at the MTP Forum last month with Anatole Papadopoulos, and came out with a lot of reasons why it permeates the PS.

    First is the type of employee attracted to the PS. Those looking for job stability and pensions aren't necessarily the risk-taking type.

    Second, there's the risk-reward balance. In the private sector, if you risk and succeed, there's a high reward factor, which the PS lacks. Even if you risk, and succeed, in some major endeavor, you won't get a bonus or a promotion out of it. You'll just get to include it in your competency portfolio for your next competition.

    I think the reason for the lack of risk-taking is that the PS attracts risk-averse employees to begin with, and then doesn't offer any incentive to risk. No matter how little there is to lose, it still outweighs the lack of incentives to gain.

  3. Hi Nick and Mike. I've been lurking your site for months and just **have to** come out of hiding after reading your most recent post. The Human Resources Branch at Industry Canada is in the process of designing an innovative new physical workspace for itself. We are lowering the cubicle walls, creating collaborative work pods, providing private rooms for those times when work requires major concentration and going wireless in order to create a mobile workforce. And, we're doing it in full partnership with our Accommodations folks who are keen to implement something new with us. If you're interested in hearing more about our plans and following our story as we move into the new space in May or June 2009, send me an email ... nathalie(dot)kachulis(at)ic(dot)gc(dot)ca. :o)

    Nathalie Kachulis
    Deputy DG, HRB
    Industry Canada

  4. Two "contrarian thoughts" on risk-aversion in the public service...

    First, as suggested in the section entitled "Golden Handshakes" in the book "Words that Change Minds" (,M1), a lot of public servants who were risk-takers probably left government in the early 1990's when they were offered attractive packages, and used them to start their own companies (which explains in part why so many consultants in Ottawa used to work for the public service!).

    What the passage of the book doesn't say explicitely is which type public servants stayed in government while all the cuts were taking place, what type of position they've move into, and where are they now. The answers are pretty obvious: the public servants who stayed are the risk averse ones, they moved into the management positions, and many of them are now in senior management roles. Of course, their risk-averse management style has profoundly influence the culture of the entire institution...

    The second thought is one I have already touched to in my work on staffing ( when I state: "There is indeed a great deal of risk aversion in the public service. But the statement needs to be framed properly. People are risk-averse when it comes to actions that might have negative outcomes in the short-term; people are much less risk averse when it comes to inaction that might have negative consequences in the long-term. It seems that the decision to act imparts a higher level of responsibility than the decision to do nothing."



  5. I agree the PS is risk-averse (as well as failure averse, as Jennifer Bell notes in her article:

    Realizing that there is no real consequence to taking risks, I've been doing so lately they actually are being rewarded - both personally and professionally.

    So, Jim's advice to you couldn't be more appropriate to all of us young/junior people who don't necessarily have the clout (yet) to be the ones offering the rewards, we can still lead by example.

    Thanks for your posts...they're keeping some of us motivated to walk the talk.