Column: The Hierarchy - Innovation Trade-off Continued

Friday, November 27, 2009
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.