Friday, August 20, 2010


I've got to warn you, I am about to do two things I told myself I never would.

First, I'm going to start by breaking the cardinal rule of blogging as a public servant: don't ever talk about the particulars of your workplace.

Second, well, let's just say if I explained it now, it would give too much away.

The Only Constant is Change

Some of you may question what is important enough to prompt me to speak to the specifics of my workplace. Last week, I got some bad news. Last week I learned that my boss is leaving.

If there is one thing I have learned in my time in the public service it is this: you cannot overstate the importance of good leadership.

The Team

The team I work in comprises only 8 people, including my boss.

She is a Director General (DG), we are her DGO (Director General's Office); and unlike typical DGOs, we don't have anyone reporting up into us. We are the closest thing in the public sector I have seen to a SWAT team:

  1. Lightweight (mobilize quickly)
  2. Proximate to senior leadership
  3. Experienced in our areas (unique skill sets and backgrounds)
  4. Clear on our responsibilities
  5. Able to think ahead and anticipate issues
  6. Surrounded by an enabling culture
  7. Results driven
  8. Handpicked by the boss

The worst part is that despite another few months under her leadership, the team is already starting to go its separate ways. I don't expect the next iteration to look the same as the last.

It gets worse: we are being moved under a Director (read: getting heavier, losing proximity to senior leadership) who is yet to be determined (read: unclear responsibilities and culture) and Director General who is also yet to be determined (read: double jeopardy).

In short, the entire unit is imploding, and quite frankly I'm pretty upset about it. It affects me personally, but also I think this is a huge blow for the public sector in general.

We are losing the closest thing I have ever come to a results oriented workplace in the public sector.

We are losing the closest thing I have ever come to an innovation lab in the public sector.

We are losing proof that a small and flexible unit, properly managed, can be highly effective.

It's Personal

When my boss told me she was leaving it was a complete system shock. I forced out the word “congratulations”, but inside a small part of me died.

She was an integral part of the work I was putting forward; she was one of the designated champions; she, at least in my opinion was the strongest voice at the table. Without her, the likelihood of success for the work I am about to undertake drops dramatically.

That drop makes me think twice about staying in my current role.

There, I just broke the second rule – the one I wasn't going to tell you about at the beginning of this diatribe: self-doubt.

I doubt my ability to be successful in my current role because one of the most critical elements for success is being removed from the equation and replaced with an unknown.

Worst Conclusion Ever

I suppose I am supposed to conclude with something definitive, be it positive or negative about the future of my work, but I can't.

For the first time in a long while, I am left speechless.

[image credit: TheGiantVermin]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Innovation is like Poker: A Day to Learn and a Lifetime To Master

It struck me last week that innovating in the public sector is a lot like playing Poker. Good players will tell you that it's not sheer luck, but rather a combination of skill, strategy and tactics. In this spirit, I've taken the liberty of recasting 10 of the most common poker tips for public sector innovators.

1. Don't Play Every Hand / Do Fold More
Probably the number one mistake beginning poker players make is that they play far too many hands. When you're just starting out playing poker, you want to play poker, and that means staying in hands that aren't very good just to be part of the action. But playing more doesn't mean winning more, it usually means losing more. If you find you're staying in half or more the hands you're dealt, you need to upgrade your starting hand requirements.

Lesson for innovators: If you choose your projects carelessly just to be a part of the action you risk dwindling your social capital and ability to influence. Look for better opportunities and take advantage of openings.

2. Don't Play Drunk
Countless nights have I sat across a table from someone & watched them get plastered silly and throw away their entire stack of chips. I've been that person too - and there are nights where you're just playing with friends for low stakes and it's more about the fun than the poker - but if you're in a casino, watch the alcohol. The truth is, while you may be more relaxed after 2 drinks, it may lead to you playing looser and less sharply, even if one's not 'drunk.'

Lesson for innovators: Don't be reckless. Don't burn through your social capital needlessly and be careful of those who do. Try to associate with people who keep their head in the game until the last card is shown.

3. Don't Bluff Just For Bluffing's Sake
A lot of beginner's understand that bluffing is a part of poker, but not exactly how. There's is NO rule that one must bluff a certain amount or at all during a poker game, but many players don't feel like they've won unless they've tried a poker bluff. Bluffs only work in certain situations & against certain people, and if you know a player always calls to the showdown, it is literally impossible to bluff that player. It's better never to bluff than to bluff "just to bluff."

Lesson for innovators: Don't withhold information just to withhold it. Do it sparingly, and with good reason, and whatever you do, never flat out lie to your boss. Even if you could catch them with(?) a bluff, why would you want to?

4. Don't Stay in a Hand Just Because You're Already In It
Another common mistake beginners make is to think that "Well, I've already put that much in the pot, I have to stay in now." Nope. You can't win a pot just by throwing money at it. There may be cases when pot odds warrant a call, but if you're sure you're beaten, and there's no way your hand can improve to be the best hand, you should fold right away. The money you've already put in the pot isn't yours anymore, and you can't get it back just by playing a hand all the way to the end.

Lesson for innovators: It is okay to kill an idea if the timing is off, if you don't have the support, or if the idea wasn't all that great in the first place. Knowing when to call it quits is imperative - there is no shame in it.

5. Don't Call at the End of a Hand to "Keep Someone Honest"
This one follows the last tip. I see a lot of players look at another player's final bet, look at the hand, & say "I know you've got me, but I have to keep you honest," as they throw in a final call. It may be worth it to see if a player really has the hand if you're not sure & you're gaining information that will help you later on, but if you really feel a player has the hand he's representing & you're beat, why give him another pile of your money? Those bets will add up over an evening.

Lesson for innovators: Accept failure and move on.

6. Don't Play When Mad, Sad, or in a Generally Bad Mood
When you play poker, you shouldn't do it to escape from being depressed or having a really bad day. You start out on tilt -- playing emotionally, not rationally -- and you won't play your best. Likewise, if during a poker game, you lose a big hand or get sucked out on and feel yourself going on tilt, stand up & take a break until you feel calm later on. Fellow players will sense your mood & take advantage of it.

Lesson for innovators: Innovation requires presence. If your head isn't in it, it'll show, so take care of yourself.

7. Do Pay Attention to the Cards on the Table
When you first start playing, it's enough just to remember how to play and pay attention to your own hand. But once you've got that down, it's incredibly important to look at what's going on at the table. In Texas Hold'em, figure out what the best possible hand would be to fit the flop. Make sure you notice flush & straight possibilities. In 7-card stud, pay attention to what's showing & what people have folded when you consider calling opponents.

Lesson for innovators: Keep your head up. Innovation occurs within a much larger organizational context. Focusing too narrowly on your piece of the puzzle jeopardizes your initiative and the likelihood of its success.

8. Do Pay Attention to the Other Players
As you play, one of the single best things you can do is observe your opponents, even when you're not in a hand. If you know if one player always raises in a certain position, & another has a poker tell when he bluffs, & a 3rd folds to every re-raise, you can use that information to help you decide how to play against them. Once you know that player 3 always folds to a re-raise on a river, that's when you can bluff & steal a pot.

Lesson for innovators: Keep your head on a swivel. Knowing how people will react to you or your initiative allows you to anticipate action before it happens. Streamline your execution and make sure you are able to adapt and respond as the situation changes.

9. Don't Play at too High Limits
There are many reasons people move up to a higher limit game than they usually play. Good reasons like they've been winning consistently at a lower lever & are ready to move up, & bad reasons like the line is shorter for higher limits or you want to impress someone. Don't play at stakes that make you think about the actual money in terms of day-to-day life or with money you can't lose. Even if you had one super-good night at $2/4, resist the urge to play $5/10. The next tip explains more why.

Lesson for innovators: Start small, scale with success. Build momentum, then use it smartly.

10. Do Pick the Right Game for Your Skill Level & Bankroll
One of the reasons you shouldn't jump into a $5/10 game after winning a huge bunch of money at $2/4 is because as the stakes rise, so does the average skill level of the players sitting there. You want to be one of the best at the table, not the fish who sits down with sharks. If you're making stacks of money at a lower level game, why move? You're winning stacks of money. The swings up & down at higher limits are much bigger, and one big night's win won't last long at a high-stakes game.

Lesson for innovators: Innovation is harder the farther you move up in the organization. If you are having success where you are, think twice before jumping at a higher paycheck, more responsibilities, etc, you might actually get less than you bargained for.

[photo credit:Rambis]

Friday, August 6, 2010

Equip Leaders to Lead

Below you will find a 5 slide deck that I have embedded if you want to scroll through it for context, I have also broken each slide out as an image below with a few comments. The underlying point that I am trying to make is that senior leaders in the public sector deal with an incredibly complex and nuanced information and influence system that operates around them and that, in order to make the best possible decisions, they need to be properly equipped with business intelligence aggregation devices.

Step by Step
Essentially the bureaucratic hierarchy is quite simple: it's a pyramid where outputs flow up for decisions, and direction flows down.
The external environment is far more organic. Stakeholders don't always interface with the government effectively because they aren't necessarily designed to do so.
However, strict bureaucratic hierarchy is somewhat of a myth when we consider it in relation to external stimuli. Public servants at all levels within the organization consume (interact) with the outside world is some way, shape, or form. Thus the external environment influences both the production cycle and the direction of the public sector organization in ways I think we truly do not yet understand; ways that are far more profound then the media scrums of our political masters and the infamous Globe and Mail test.
What I find fascinating is that all of the public sector organizations operate in much the same context, yet largely remain in their own silos.
But, given an increasingly complex policy environment and cost-cutting, you think we would be actively investing in ways to improve co-production, co-consumption, and co-direction. After three and a half years in government, I can say with authority that true interdepartmental coordination is always the most difficult thing to achieve. We have difficulty identifying the leads, who should be at what tables, what work has or is being duplicated, etc. I had prepared a full two-page introduction to this premise but have scrapped all of it in favour of one simple sentence:

In order to lead effectively in the environment outlined above, senior leaders need a tool that delivers them real time business intelligence to inform decision-making.

Business Intelligence Aggregation Device

Senior leaders, meet what could easily be your new best friend, flipboard.

The concept behind Flipboard, the personal magazine, is incredibly powerful for any organization looking to make better use of its business intelligence.

That being said, I think this application has the potential to be transformative in the public sector. Information moves so slowly through the bureaucracy that it undermines even the most valiant efforts at being proactive. Forget about Flipboard connecting you to content you care about, think about its potential to connect senior leaders to the business intelligence they need in order to lead effectively.

A Huge Opportunity for Innovation

I don't see a reason why we shouldn't investigate how to implement this type of solution behind an organizational firewall. Simply replace Flipboard's Twitter and Facebook aggregations and “Retweet” and “Like” buttons with business intelligence and actionable items.

  1. Production: a synopsis of what’s being written by employees (briefing notes, policy papers, correspondence, communication plans, etc), sortable by level or business line.
  2. Direction: request in-person briefings with subject matter experts, send delegates to meetings, approve documents for publication, etc.
  3. Consumption: get a feel for what external sources are influencing decision-making and knowledge asset production within the organization
  4. Co-Production / Consumption / Direction: Share and act across organization boundaries when it makes sense.
This type of approach provides a far greater depth and breadth of information than the status quo of briefing binders, red dockets for signing and often out of date telephone directories stapled to cubicle walls.

If we truly want our leaders to lead, we need to equip them to do so. Whenever I look at new pieces of technology and assess their potential value to organizations I find myself reflecting on a statement made by Clay Shirky:
"These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn't when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It's when everybody is able to take them for granted. Because now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together."

That is why I am really interested in this particular idea.

Introducing the equivalent to the "Enterprise Flipboard" into existing organizational structures doesn't erode hierarchies or undermine authority structures. It simply makes better use of existing (but currently opaque) business processes and the social systems that surround them. Back to Shirky's point, "Enterprise Flipboard" really isn't all that interesting technologically; being able to leverage tools like this for data aggregation and decision-making should be the norm; and so should the idea that everyone in the organization is in this together.

If you are interested in discussing developing the equivalent to an "Enterprise Flipboard", let me know, I'm interested in discussing it more.