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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Friday, December 2, 2011

The plight of the clay layer

"When I go to Heaven, I'll Spank God's Ass"
by alphadesigner
Let's face it, new hires want everything.

Senior management, perpetually seeking out the best and the brightest, hopes to give these new hires everything they desire but are often too busy with the work to bring the change to the bowels of the organization, leaving the mission to those in the middle.

While I still believe that middle management may be in the best position to foster innovation, I've also come to realize that they are often rendered ineffective by the very nature of being responsible for satisfying increasingly complex demands from both above and below them.

In essence, I think that middle management is unfairly expected to operationalize culture while simultaneously accomplishing mission.  This already uneasy task is made more difficult by the fact that often their contributions go unnoticed, and their resources eroded.  On top of it all, we cast them as the problem. We call them the clay layer. We question their motives, their authenticity.

But to be sure I doubt their impermeability is all that purposeful or sinister.

To be fair, the system is simply not designed to deliver what we are now asking of it. Look at how radically technology and the nature of work has shifted in the last 50 years - why haven't our organizational models kept pace?

The grim reality is that sometimes the system can be so broken (or perhaps more rightly, outdated) that it muddies even the clearest of waters (and perhaps reputations).

Most people I have met in the middle are simply ill-equipped to do all that is asked of them. I doubt it's a fun position to be in, and to be fair I'm not sure what (if anything) we are doing to support those being crunched in the middle.

I personally know many people in the middle who have taken on (read: have thrust upon them) more than any single person could (or should) handle; and this only exacerbates the problem.

This is the plight of the clay layer, and I for one, think we ought to take the time to recognize it.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 25, 2011

Authenticity is my only metric

My thoughts are a mess - this week has been intense both on and off the ice; invariably many thoughts have passed through my head, but I haven't had the time I need to collect them.

That said, I suggest you read the transcript from this year's Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture given by Allan Gregg (a man I respect greatly, and who is far more informative than I).  Gregg's thesis can be summed up as civil society (elected officials, public servants, and citizens) need to be more authentic.  

It's a thesis I agree with, one that any proponent of open government or open data will agree with, and one that I have strived for in this space since its very inception.

When the dust settles and my career comes to an end, authenticity will be my only metric.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Look who's talking about the new Web 2.0 Guidelines

If you guessed me, you'd be wrong.

Here is everything I have read thus far on the subject (presented in the order I read them):


If I missed anything, let me know, and I can retroactively add it to the list.

Two things I haven't seen mentioned in the commentary yet:

  1. How the guidelines (and probably more importantly the code of values and ethics) relate to anonymity or pseudonymity online
  2. According to Treasury Board Secretariat guidelines are usually targeted at managers and functional specialists and the application there of are voluntary (as compared to say a directive where enforcement is mandatory).


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Public Sector Microtasking

Given our propensity for micromanagement I suspect many will look at the idea of micro-tasking with come skepticism, but I think the idea is worth exploring (as do others).

A primer

For the uninitiated, micro-tasking is simply the breaking-down of more complex tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. The most widely talked about micro-tasking service is Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk); which according to Wikipedia is:
a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables computer programmers (known as Requesters) to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are unable to do yet. It is one of the suites of Amazon Web Services. The Requesters are able to post tasks known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a store-front, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk's Terms of Service) can then browse among existing tasks and complete them for a monetary payment set by the Requester. To place HITs, the requesting programs use an open Application Programming Interface (API), or the more limited MTurk Requester site. Requestors are restricted to US-based entities.

Requesters can ask that Workers fulfill Qualifications before engaging a task, and they can set up a test in order to verify the Qualification. They can also accept or reject the result sent by the Worker, which reflects on the Worker's reputation. Currently, Workers can have an address anywhere in the world. Payments for completing tasks can be redeemed on via gift certificate or be later transferred to a Worker's U.S. bank account. Requesters, which are typically corporations, pay 10 percent over the price of successfully completed HITs to Amazon.

In short, corporations post tasks that computers can't do, other people do them, and in so doing earn some small modicum of compensation. (Note if you are interested in learning more about microtasking and Amazon's Mechanical Turk, I suggest watching Aaron Koblin's TED talk: Artfully visualizing our humanity)

In practice

Aphid Farm by binux
Common public sector tasks such as translation, document formatting, fact checking, and basic editing could all be tested in a microtasking environment. While these tasks aren't necessarily sexy they are probably the easiest to manage at the outset. They can be easily broken up into smaller bits (e.g. translate this paragraph, format this 5-page PowerPoint presentation, fact check this page, etc) and are directionally straightforward. In order to ensure some modicum of consistency, users could take qualifying tests prior to being granted access to a particular category of microtask.

That said, microtasking shouldn't be limited to strictly perfunctory tasks. Service providers and policy makers could leverage the same system by presenting scenarios and asking people to complete questionnaires, say evaluating proposed changes to service delivery models or interpreting legislative or regulatory changes. There is an important caveat here, that obviously not everyone in the organization would have the requisite specialized knowledge to provide an in-depth analysis on a given topic. Meaning that feedback acquired from microtasking is more likely to be a better proxy for the general public than it is to be for a specific or specialized stakeholder group.

The motivation

One of the most common criticisms levied against microtasking is the incentive structure; why would people bother completing any of these tasks? First let me start by stating that I don't think that the problem of motivation is a deal-breaker when it comes to public sector microtasking. The answer to the problem is gamification.  If we could create a system that leveraged game mechanics while allowing users to engage the system on their own terms it offers them an opportunity for greater autonomy, mastery and purpose; qualities that Dan Pink argues are the hallmarks of motivation.

I've argued in the past that:

An increasingly diverse workforce coupled with an increasingly diverse scope of work means our organizational models have to contend with increasingly jagged edges, wider gaps and unforeseen overlaps. Upon closer reflection, my gut tells me that if we took the time to examine our organizational structures more closely we would find conflict at the jagged edges, delays at the gaps, and duplication at the overlaps.

It also means that many public servants oscillate between periods of hyperactivity and lethargy in the workplace. I think the most compelling benefit of a microtasking system would be that it would help alleviate the pressure of both ends of the spectrum. Those who were incredibly busy could more easily surge as required because they could gain access and expertise from those whom were less busy at that particular moment in time.

Some of our most basic performance issues stem from the fact that few of us have things we can work on when everything else has been accomplished. If you have ever heard anyone say that they had to stretch their workload over the week you know what I am getting at. The problem, at its core, is that we (public servants) don't have a common place to aim our cognitive surplus.

Imagine what we could do if we did.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Let me tell you a story

She impressed you. She was professional, articulate, quick to answer, but thoughtful and enthused. That's why you hired her.

You parade her around the office, introducing her to her new colleagues, welcoming her as the new addition to the family. It’s a flood of new faces. It’s a touch overwhelming but she's going through the motions anyway.

Eventually you arrive at her cubicle, give her her login credentials, suggest some reading, requisition her a blackberry, drop off some forms she needs to fill out and head back to your office.

She sits down, still smiling, and starts soaking in the atmosphere.


You take it for granted, but the atmosphere feels foreign to her. She just spent the last 7 years earning her Master's. She honed her skills in the noisy campus coffee house, armed with an iPhone tethered to her MacBook, surrounded by others doing the same.

Now she finds herself surrounded by drab grey walls, sitting in front of a desktop computer, and telephone with a cord attaching it to the wall.

A cord?

But it’s not just the antiquated nature of her technological surroundings that puzzles her; no, the discomfort is much, much deeper. It’s so quiet - eerily quiet. No one is arguing, in fact no one is even talking. She misses the conversations about the big ideas. The important conversations.

She listens in as you speak to one of her new colleagues in the cubicle next to her. She is confused by the language you invoke, replete with acronyms and jargon, but what she finds even more confusing is her new colleague's complete and utter deference to authority.

Did he just surrender?

The entire thing is unnerving.

Yet she tolerates it.

She's new, her head swirling with the pressure to be liked, to be seen as a good employee, to otherwise make a good impression with her new 'family'. Her faith, or perhaps more rightly her naiveté, leads her to believe that a larger context will materialize, that eventually her surroundings and her motions will seem less foreign to her.

She is right.

Over time, she slowly learns behaviors from her colleagues and adopts their vernacular. She stops asking so many questions, she goes through the motions, she stops feeling discomfort.

She stops feeling anything at all.

You pass by her in the hall, you smile widely, she mumbles something and keeps walking. You can't help but wonder what happened to that articulate, thoughtful and enthused person you hired six months ago.

The thought is fleeting, you are too busy to look into it now, you are on your way downstairs to the security desk, you have a new hire starting today.


Ps - if you are looking to step up the open government conversation, I suggest clicking here.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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