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The Fine Art of Burning Your Ships

Friday, June 24, 2011
I recently took a line of reasoning from Game Theory and applied it to change management; the take away being that in order to change the behaviour of others you must yourself be willing to change. But perhaps I stopped short. While willingness is in fact a necessary precondition for change, willingness in and of itself does not start change.


Action does

Action requires commitment beyond an action plan; it requires sealing off the way backwards, not simply pointing the way forwards: (6m41s excerpt from Open Yale, Game Theory Lecture 13 - Sequential games: moral hazard, incentives, and hungry lions):



When watching the clip it dawned on me that perhaps we have inadvertently been ignoring a key strategic, and maybe radical, option available to anyone with the authority to make a decision: burning the ships (i.e. making a decision that fundamentally alters how we perceive the way forward because there is no longer a way backwards).

But we tend to shy away from the notion because we prefer to think about change in terms of great leaders inspiring action or small groups collaborating. The result of which is usually the same: clamouring hopelessly about the slow pace.

Is it any wonder change is so slow? We chase it without the full benefit of all available tactics, or even a framework within which to do a cost-benefit analysis of those tactics?


In Practice

I've had the good fortune to spend most of my career in close proximity to senior decision makers within the public service, and can say with all honesty that very seldom have I seen any of them burn their ships in order to secure the way forward.

Yet our organizations are being challenged in some significant ways. We talk so much about the importance of leadership, but what I've learned is that but our leaders don't lack the competencies required to make tough decisions, they lack the means. When more advanced leadership tactics (e.g. burning your boats) are cast as indefensible they are effectively neutered as a viable options.

Burning your organization’s boats may never be a popular choice, but given the changing nature of the bureaucracy, we may find ourselves in a position where we either willingly burn our ships now to speed up the change, or we sit back on our laurels and have someone else burn them for us.

Personally, I'd rather work in an organization that is willing to practice the fine art of burning their ships; but regardless of who does the burning, we need to a whole lot better at dealing with what comes after they are laid asunder.


Editorial Note:

If game theory, collaboration, and organizational change appeal to you, I would suggest reading (in order):

  1. The Collaborator's Dilemma (by me)
  2. Thoughts at the Confluence of Game Theory and Inciting Action (also by me)
  3. Mutuality, Group Dynamics and the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma (by Chelsea Edgell)

The last of which ties in many of the ideas I wanted to get at in my original postings but didn't have the bandwidth to achieve. Chelsea's reflections about the iterated nature of collaboration, selecting an appropriate strategy for collaboration, and avoiding the tragedy of the commons are especially pertinent and worth investing the time in.



Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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The Long Tail is in the Zeitgeist (Part Deux)

Friday, June 17, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I wrote:

We are fast becoming a culture that is fascinated with cultivating a personalized experience at the intersections of every possible niche market or experience; this desire has penetrated far deeper into the zeitgeist than I think we realize.

What I failed to say was: in addition to being pulled into the niche by citizens, bureaucracies are facing tremendous pressure to be in the niches by their workforce. Today, I want to finish what I started by exploring three different examples: innovation, social media, and work-life balance.


Innovation


Make no mistake, bureaucracies are 20th century organizations with 21st century challenges. So is it any wonder we make mistakes?

Take the common approach to innovation for example. How many organizations have innovation groups or secretariats? Making innovation a business line rather than your core business is one of the biggest reasons that the pursuit of innovation usually fails. The reality is that the size of the system ultimately undermines its ability to be innovative.

While it may be true that a large enterprise will never be as agile as eight people in a room with a coffee pot, it is also true that if we are to have any hope at fostering innovation we should acknowledge the fact that innovation may not be something that can be built into traditional hierarchical structures.

Perhaps we should focus less on formality and whether or not a particular innovation is scalable across the enterprise but rather ensure that we accord ample flexibility to our human resources so they can be innovative in their own right.


Social Media


The way in which government agencies are approaching social media is, to my mind, generally short-sighted. The overwhelming trend is to use social media as a way to disseminate information about the organization and it’s policies and programs to the public.

By now anybody who has spent any time in the space is familiar with the criticism that social media isn't a broadcast medium in so much as it is a conversation.

But, have we wrongly favoured a line of reasoning that privileges the narrow use of social media for official external communications over the widespread use of these technologies for less formal communications between and among staff?

I think we have. I also think this is precisely why we see departments with Twitter accounts blocking Twitter for its employees or departments with Facebook pages blocking access to Facebook. In short we have adopted an institution-centric model for social media rather than an employee-centric one.

I can't say for certain but I have the feeling that this may be partially a by-product of the fact that communications and marketing professionals are leading the bureaucratic charge towards the use of social media; communicators who are charged with communicating what their departments are up to.

Before moving to the next example, I think it is worth mentioning that one of the defining properties of the long tail is that the total niche of the distribution rivals the total mainstream and that the larger the organization, the flatter the distribution becomes; both of which are tantamount to evidence that we do in fact have much more to gain from diffusing these technologies informally across the organization than we do from formally centralizing them.


Work-Life Balance


Nowhere is the tension between the generic approach of the machinery and the desire for specificity more apparent than in the management of our human resources. People are desperate for autonomy, mastery and purpose but instead get telework policies and casual fridays. It's no wonder employee engagement is on the decline.


It's about relevance

If our public institutions are to have any chance at success, if they are to remain relevant in changing times, then they (we!) must get better at satisfying niche demands from both the outside and inside of our organization.

But make no mistake, this movement, from what government does to what government is being asked to do, will be painful.

How painful?

Well, I suppose that is a matter of how well equipped our organizations are to:

  1. create an environment conducive to what Vint Cerf calls "permissionless innovation";
  2. diffuse communications technologies and extend trust to use them; and
  3. allow people to exercise greater autonomy over their work.

Simply put, any organization tightening the managerial reins in this environment will experience more tension than lose loosening them; and I've argued before that in a hyper connected age, this will undoubtedly effect the flow of talent between and among organizations.

Food for thought.


Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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Thoughts at the Confluence of Game Theory and Inciting Action

Friday, June 10, 2011
I've stated before that the Open Yale Game Theory course is a must watch for anyone interested in thinking more strategically about their work, more specifically I think it can help people working in change management or otherwise trying to incite people to action.


Key Concepts: backwards induction, best response and Nash equilibrium

One of the rules of game theory is to put yourself in the other player's shoes. The reasoning that informs the rule is simple: you need to understand how players will react to each others strategies as they interact with one another. Once you understand how each of the other players react you can reason backwards from the end of the game to determine the best course of action moving forward, this process is called backwards induction.

Another important rule in game theory is that players will always play a best response to other players. In other words, players don't generally select sub-optimal strategies on purpose. When every player plays their best response the game has achieved a Nash equilibrium. Colloquially referred to as the point of no regrets, the Nash equilibrium is the point at which every player has done the best they can given the actions of all the players.


The link to inciting action

We could think of the status quo as the current Nash equilibrium, no one seems to have a strong incentive to deviate given the responses of everyone else. Change management then is akin to setting a new Nash equilibrium. Given what I know about game theory, I think it provides a unique insight on how exactly to achieve this:
  1. determine the desired outcome
  2. put yourself in that person's shoes
  3. use backwards induction
  4. determine what would incent others to move towards the desired outcome
  5. amend your own behavior in order to realign the responses of others
The lesson, I think is simple. If you want to incite others to change, you yourself will have to be willing to change, perhaps this is what Gandhi meant when he said, "be the change you want to see in this world".

[image credit: Maia C]


Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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The Long Tail is in the Zeitgeist

Friday, June 3, 2011
I’m a fan of the long tail.

You may recall that I’ve already mapped both internal communications and the public sector adage of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” along the long tail distribution; and while those maps have value, they are just a subset of examples of a much larger phenomenon.

We are fast becoming a culture that is fascinated with cultivating a personalized experience at the intersections of every possible niche market or experience; this desire has penetrated far deeper into the zeitgeist than I think we realize.

I think we understand that as a consumer I want niche products, but where we fail is that we often overlook the fact that as a citizen that consumer will want a similar experience. By that I mean the citizen-consumer wants (expects!) access to niche government programs or services that meet their particular needs, and want (expects!) to access them as easily as they Google something.

In short, here is how I see the movement.



I have a number of other thoughts on this but have to leave it here for now; more soon on this I promise.


[PS - If you were at Marcom and attended my session (thank you!) you can view my Prezi here, or grab my raw speaking notes here]




Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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