Saturday, November 28, 2009

Update: Putting the Social in Social Media

Hi All - I just wanted to share the feedback I received from my presentation at the Advanced Learning Institute's Social Media in Government (SMGOV) conference here in Ottawa. The conference took place back in September. If you are interested, I posted the presentation here on my blog.

Moreover, I will be opening the next SMGOV Ottawa with an updated version of the my Putting the Social in Social Media talk. It has, in my mind become a much tighter presentation over time and I am looking forward to delivering the new one on March 2. Sadly I was also supposed to go out to do the same talk at SMGOV Edmonton but it looks like I no longer have the budget to do it, so if you are planning on attending the conference you have my sincerest apologies. There are however some great presentations on the lineup including friends of mine from the city of Edmonton, the province of Alberta and of course from the federal family.

All of that being said, what I am really interested is your reaction to the comments below, especially the one about my use of profanity. You may recall that I purposely dropped one f-bomb in a positive context about how much I love my job. Even despite the f-bomb my talk was rated a 4.86 out of 5 (not bad!) which put me tops on the list of presenters. Kudos everyone who rounded out the top 5, they were all great presentations.


(click to enlarge the scan - note you might have to click again to zoom in once you get to the picture)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Column: The Hierarchy - Innovation Trade-off Continued

Last week I shared a rudimentary model that illustrated what I perceived to be a trade-off between hierarchy and innovation during the progression of one’s career in the public service. The post elicited numerous insightful comments and initiated a couple of conversations offline. The model is something I am keeping in development for now, so your continued feedback is always appreciated, as too were your comments on the original model. In retrospect I should have explained my thought process a bit more clearly as there are a number of other related variables that could have been overlaid onto the diagram.

Risk varies along the distribution

I was having a conversation with my friend and fellow public servant Ralph Mercer this week, the discussion covered a lot of ground but we did discuss the model in some detail. One of the points he raised was about the variance of risk along the distribution. He was not the only one to bring it up. In fact one comment articulated it as follows:

[T]he constraint at the top is not hierarchy/operations, it is risk (risks of public perception, risks of safety/security/natural disasters/riots/economy), and since the stakes are so high, the degrees of freedom are fewer. At the lower levels, the risks of screwing up are lower and generally more tolerable.

I agree completely with both Ralph and DGTweets on this one. The risks at the top are greater than those at the bottom or even at the middle. Furthermore those risks become readily apparent when you see our most senior leaders go before parliamentary committees. In particular, the Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent appearance before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates provides an insightful example of how high-level risks (such as those pointed out in the comment) can impact one’s ability to be innovative. I for one used to half-joke about being the Clerk someday, but given what he had to go through in front of the committee, I am more likely to settle somewhere in the Pareto zone where I can enjoy a good balance of freedom to innovate and the authority to implement that innovation so long as my interests and what the organization asks of me continue to be in alignment. If this relationship is true then we can hypothesize that many public servants may choose to settle in similarly. Colloquial evidence of this already exists in my experience. In fact many of my contemporaries have already decided that they don’t want to move past the Pareto zone. Even if they haven’t invoked the analogy directly, my sense is that some of these considerations are coming to bare.

All of this of course begs the question of how to affect the overall distribution of the curve if people don't want to progress through the hierarchy for the reasons I have articulated above

If the risks are different based on relative hierarchy, so too must be the challenges

The same comment I quoted above goes on to argue that:

Hierarchy is not a thing, it is a behaviour. And this behaviour can be demonstrated at any level of the organization. I can assure you that the admin staff in a department has a definite hierarchy depending on who they support. Hierarchy is not perpetuated by level but by people who have a need for some command and control. I've seen leadership and innovation at the very top of the organization regardless of the pressures of running a country, regardless of their place in the “hierarchy”.

While I do agree with the underlying notion that innovation can take place anywhere in the organization, I believe that one’s relative position within the hierarchy determines the types of challenges public servants face when attempting to be innovative. For example public servants below the Pareto zone have incredible freedom (even if they don't recognize it) to try new things because their feet are not as readily held to the fire. However in order to innovate they require consensus because they lack authority for unilateral decision-making. On the other end, public servants after the zone have the authority to make decisions but are more bogged down in operations, stuck in daily high-level meetings, conducting ministerial briefings and generally face greater scrutiny for failures.

Given the variance in risk and challenges, how can we enable innovation from the top?

Again during my conversation with Ralph he mentioned something that caught my attention, he called it the culture of the blind eye. What I drew out of that conversation is that considerable innovation (and the development of leadership) can happen when those at the top of the organization purposely turn a blind eye to certain on-goings lower in the organization, on-goings that break or bend the rules, but that do so in the spirit of scheming virtuously. Scheming virtuously at the lowest levels of the organization grow through consensus and start to develop, gaining momentum while making their way through the system.

How can we enable innovation in the middle?

As ChristopherHyne points out, despite the greatest potential for innovation being in the Pareto zone it also seems to be the choke point for communication within organizations. I think that one of the reasons the Pareto zone is a choke point is because positions within that zone often require managing both upwards and downwards, balancing operational requirements, and taking on new responsibilities (innovation isn't innovation without action) usually without any new resources to dedicate thereto. The result of which is many competing priorities and finite resources within which to manage them. This is the primary reason why I think investing in our enterprise is so important. If we can find greater efficiencies, then we can free up time and resources to purposefully allot them to innovation at the middle level.

How can we enable innovation at the bottom?

Try to reshape the culture that teaches others to hoard unnecessarily, that over-classifies documents as secret, and that saves documents to closed departmental records and document management systems never to be opened again. Take advantage of the blind eye, purposeful or otherwise, scheme virtuously and embrace the ethos of open and the tools that help enable it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Column: The Hierarchy - Innovation Trade-off

[Update Nov. 23: Given some of the commentary I just wanted to reiterate a couple of points:

  • The model below is by no means an absolute.
  • You can in fact be innovative regardless of where you are on this career arc.
  • Pareto zone is meant to show where the greatest potential for innovation is, not where the innovation is.
Please read the comments, there is a great conversation happening]

--Original Column--

The diagram below is essentially a career arc for public servants that I have charted, overlaid onto a Pareto distribution. The y-axis represents a public servant's position within the hierarchical structure (and its typical underpinnings such as decision-making authority, time eaten up by operational requirements, and constraints on behaviour imposed by those requirements). The x-axis represents a public servant's ability to be innovative (and its typical underpinnings such as the need for consensus, safe time and space, and the freedom to act in those spaces. (Click the diagram for a full-size version)

I don't think I need to spend a whole lot of time here verbalizing the diagram (that's what makes diagrams so useful). What I will say is that the Pareto zone is by far the most advantageous place to be in given that you are closest to the Pareto optimum point where you have the freedom to be innovative and the authority to implement it. If you drift too far to the left you have the power but are so constrained by operational requirements that innovation becomes impossible; drift too far to the right and you have everything you need to be innovative except for the decision-making authority to actualize that innovation.

I strongly encourage you to not only leave comments, but to disagree. By no means is this meant to be an absolute model, just a reflection based on my experience in government thus far. On a side note you may want to read this post in which I also spoke about career progression in the public service.

Below is an editorial note from Mike that I wanted to share to start the flow of conversation:

On a somewhat related tangent, the diagram could also be a representation on the level of influence one has on government policy (and other things). For example the best zone in which to operate seems to be at the senior levels where the primary deliverable is advice and not the operational in nature. Moreover, to some extent The higher you move up the chain the greater your ability to dictate the agenda to some extent, but all are still largely working from the recommendations given by the senior analysts in their departments.

All that to say is, I’m not sure I completely agree with your diagram, though I don’t disagree with anything specifically – but I do find it interesting that it could in theory reflect the ability for public servants to influence their work.

---- Oh and for those not familiar with the jargon:

The progression on the diagram (from right to left)

Working Level
Middle Manager
Director General
Assistant Deputy Minister
Deputy Minister
Clerk of the Privy Council

Please let me know what you think!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Column: Lest We Forget

Given that Remembrance Day was this week, I just wanted to dedicate this column to those who risk more than any of us so that we can enjoy the freedoms many of us often take for granted.

To those brave men and women in uniform, I say thank you.

I say thank you because I care, and I say thank you because you've earned it.

To the public servants out there reading this column, I say this:
Given everything they have done and continue to do for us, I see no reason not to give 100% every day when we come in to work.

In fact, I would argue that anything less would be doing them disservice.

Lest we forget their sacrifices.

Lest we forget that those sacrifices are not owed to us.

Lest we forget we ought to earn them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Update: Busy Week, Lots to Do

Hey Everybody, there are a lot of great things going on this month that I just wanted to quickly draw your attention to.

First, in the month of "Movember" men everywhere take the opportunity to grow out their moustaches to help raise awareness (and money) to fight prostate cancer. To this end I have joined a team of my fellow public servants, cleverly titled Her Mo-jesty's Loyal Public Service. It is a great group of public servants and friends, one of whom - my brother Rumon - is even chronicling the month with daily photos. If you wish to make a donation it would be greatly appreciated. Now, if you have seen me recently you may have noticed that I have yet to convert to the "Mo", but I promise I will do it by the end of this week. For more on Movember feel free to have a gander at this video:

Second, Ignite is coming to Ottawa on Thursday, November 12. If I were you I would register immediately, show up promptly, and clap hella loud for my presentation: Public Service Renewal in 5 Minutes (Note: This will also be your last opportunity to see me prior to converting to the moustache for the rest of the month).

Third, I will be attending the 2nd Ottawa Timeraiser on Saturday, November 14th at the National Gallery of Canada. It is an innovative project that centres around a silent auction where people bid volunteer hours for local organizations. Great cause - I hope to see you there. There is a video below with more information.

Fourth, just a friendly reminder of that the 1st Case Study Jam is Thursday, November 19. Be there or be square.

Note: We just confirmed that the Canada@150 project will be sharing some of their findings about the use of new collaborative social media technologies within the public sector. It is going to be an awesome blend of some statistical analysis and user experience stories.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Column: From Practice to Practitioner

It is funny that a friend and colleague just blogged that she finished reading Bob Chartier's book, Bureaucratically Incorrect: Letters to a Young Public Servant.

You see, I met Bob about a year ago and, although we haven't been in direct communication much, we always get along smashingly - which is one of the reasons why I was very excited to open for him on the last day of the 2009 Alberta Managers' Learning and Development Forum in Calgary a couple of weeks ago. The other reason I was glad to speak ahead of him is that he is an impossible act to follow. If you have ever seen him speak, you know what I am talking about. In short, he is awesome and I consider it an honour to be able to speak on the same bill as him. What really did it for me was when he suggested (to the crowd) that he and I should embark on a speaking tour, which he affectionately dubbed "The Geezer and the Grasshopper".

Anyway, I just wanted to share some of the wisdom that Bob shared with the group in Calgary, blended with some of my own thoughts.

Moving from 10% to %100

At one point, Bob asked us to envision a public service where we each devoted only 10% of our time to "do our practice", whatever that practice is. We all have varying interests and skills, many of which are lost when we simply do what our job requires us to do. He asked what we thought the public service would look like if we all embraced our practice as an integral part of doing our job? If my interest is public service renewal, then shouldn’t I be encouraged to make contributions to it when I can? If your interest/expertise is in alternative dispute resolution, but you are an auditor (the example Bob used), you should be able to take some time to participate in the communities that practice your practice, that practice your passion. There are a lot of spectacular learning opportunities for public servants right here at home - within the public service - but the dominant mental model isn't one that recognizes the opportunity as an opportunity but rather paints the opportunity as a cost: the cost of not doing one's job for that period of time.

Bob went on to explain that if we were all able to move from investing 10% of our time in our practice to 100%, we would become practitioners. In doing so, we would all become more connected with our work. We would be more passionate about it. We would be at the place that David Irvine describes as the "sweet spot" - where our interests and our responsibilities to the organization overlap (Side note: I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking after David Irvine at the Alberta Human Resources Conference in Red Deer a couple of weeks ago). This is exactly what I mean when I show this picture in my presentations and tell people that this is how I feel about my job.

Career Evolution

Looking at the evolution of my career in the public service thus far, I can say with great certitude, that I have made the shift from practice to practitioner, I have found the sweet spot that Irvine refers to and I have to tell you it wasn't easy, but being there now is pretty f***ing awesome. The other thing I can say with certitude is that the time I have invested in my practice (prior to becoming a practitioner) has done at least as much, if not more, for my career than my substantive work. My practice delivered new opportunities that would otherwise be outside the purview of my substantive role. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that I haven’t learned anything on the job, because I have. What I am saying is that the daily tasks of one’s substantive position are generally more static and (so the theory goes) you have already demonstrated that you can do them (by winning a competition based on the skill set/expertise to actually do the work). Practice on the other hand is considerably more dynamic and has no preordained areas of responsibility. Practice can shift with your interests and as you discover other things, people and passions through the serendipitous nature of that discovery.

But making the transition from practice to practitioner is difficult (it took me over 3 years), but the work is worth the reward. In order to achieve that transformation, the first thing you need to do is realize that your practice is in fact not a cost but a contribution, a contribution that, in some non-traditional or currently immeasurable way helps improve your organization. The second thing you need to do is start to convince others of this very same thing. Start a conversation with your manager. Ask them how you can better align your passions with what the organization asks of you. Public servants, Bob says, are not only dying for this conversation, but also for the more genuine relationships that this conversation engenders. I think that this is why Bob sees communities of practice as the most powerful/transformational tool at the disposal of the public service. He sees them as a tool that grows sustainable leadership within the public service.

Why We Do What We Do

This is why I think that you are so important - that the community that has formed around this blog and the blogs of my fellow public servants, on twitter, LinkedIn, Govloop, GCPEDIA or GCConnex are so important.

What we are doing with all of these social media tools is having the conversations we were dying to have; connecting communities looking to forge better relationships and in so doing, growing more sustainable leadership.

What we need to do now is rally more people into these conversations, increase the number and quality of these relationships, and uncover more of the leaders buried under the weight of the bureaucracy.

Are you with me?