Column: The Hierarchy - Innovation Trade-off

Friday, November 20, 2009
[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!