Friday, December 16, 2011

The first step to thinking outside the box, is stepping outside it

I don't care how specialized your organization's mandate is, there will always be more information and knowledge outside your organization than within it.

So here's a question, why are organizations spending money on the dividing line between the two? 

Why are organizations effectively cutting off employees from the resources they need to accomplish their mission through measures like Internet access blocking or refusing to let employees work out of their cages offices.

Is it really fair to ask employees to be innovative and think outside the box with one breath while we deny them the means to actually do so with the next?

This is by far the most detrimental cognitive dissonance of organizational behaviour today. It limits the pool of potential solutions to any given problem, feeds paralysis by analysis, and otherwise undermines employee morale.

Innovation is at the edges
5D by Mark Sebastian

I've argued previously that disruptive innovation is about breaking traditional trade-offs and that the people best suited to innovate are nomads and immigrants: people who move seamlessly from one environment to the next, reconciling divergent world views as they go.

If this is indeed the case (and I believe it is) then the logical place to find innovation may in fact be at the organizational limits. Anyone looking to understand the next iteration of mandate, mission, or modus operandi should set up observation posts at the digital and physical organizational boundaries.

The edge of our organizational models will always be the most interesting places. Most of what informs my thinking (and thus my work) comes from outside the organization, and while some may think that is to my detriment, my experience is quite the opposite. The reason I have had any success is because I have demonstrated a clear and consistent ability to approach problems from a different angle and propose novel solutions; I've even been referred to by some as their "alternate lens".

In concrete terms, this means purposely associating and spending time with with people who I might not run into during a typical day at the office:
  • Public servants from other departments, levels of government, and countries 
  • Developers and hackers 
  • Not for profit organizations 
  • Academics and functional experts 
  • Journalists, communication firms, and consultancy groups
  • Private (for profit) companies
  • etc
(... who all share my interest in people, public policy and technology.)

And while the web allows me to do all of this digitally and at relatively low cost, I can not understate the need to supplement online activities with real-world interactions whenever possible. This is one of the primary reasons I am willing to expend my own resources (travel costs, vacation, or weekends) to do things like participate in the Open International Hackathon, go to DC to help the Govloop team hand out free lunch to 500 public servants, or join the Hub Ottawa (a new coworking space).

In short, I make a concerted effort to do these (and other related) things because I know that stepping outside the box is the first step to thinking outside it.

What efforts are you making?  How are the people around you supporting (or blocking) you?


  1. If you are interested in reading more about the confluence of coworking and the public sector I suggest this piece a by Jamey Coughlin entitled "hackers & bureaucrats a beautiful coworking mash-up?"; it was the inspiration for these (and other) thoughts.
  2. Chelsea Edgell wrote a post called Reimagining the Boardroom Part 2: Cubicles and Sleep-pods that I read after having written this but felt worth pointing to.
  3. I've started writing a special series for Apartment 613 (a popular local culture blog here in Ottawa) about the relationship between bureaucratic culture and the city's culture.   You can read my interview with a local burlesque dancer and photographer, both of whom also happen to be public servants.

If I don't publish anything between now and the new year have a great one and keep on scheming virtuously.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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