Friday, December 21, 2012

Top 10 of 2012: A Year in Review

Before heading out for the holiday season, I figured I'd take a look back at the year that was. Here are the top 10 most popular posts on last year:
  1. How to stop being tech support in 30 days 
  2. Debunking the "risk" of working more openly
  3. Used to be a public servant, took an arrow to the knee
  4. Guerilla Renewal
  5. Peak Bureaucracy
  6. 8 Simple Rules for Budget Time 
  7. All I really need to know about Public Policy I learned from Lego
  8. Trust is the only thing that scales 
  9. Mapping Internal Policy to the Hype Cycle 
  10. Rethinking Government Grants and Contributions

Thanks so much for the support and your time over the past year. I appreciate every read, share and comment.

See you all in the new year.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Cubicle Hacking 101

Welcome to the cube farm; pictured is my office, at least a small part of it.

I - like many of my fellow paper farmers - have been allotted an internal plot of carpet with no direct access to natural light. While paper doesn't necessarily need light to flourish, paper farmers do, at least this one.

Building a solid base

After nurturing a good relationship with the bureaucrat on the other side of the divide from me, we agreed to remove the middle panel from our cubicle walls. The result was a window into the world of natural light, a sharp increase in serendipitous and humanizing contact with others, and a dramatic improvement to our collective moral.

Positive spillover effects

It worked so well, when someone else joined the team she immediately opted to install her own window; meaning that I now have two windows that connect me directly into my colleagues' offices.

We often lament the fact that the culture writ large is hard to change (see Eat or be Eaten), but the truth is that we exert a tremendous amount of control over it in the areas immediately around us (see On Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation). Taking advantage of this fact creates a number of positive spillover opportunities. For example, every single person who has come into our space since we added the windows has commented on them and/or asked us about them; each conversation is a perfect opportunity to shift the yard sticks a little.

Installing a couple of makeshift windows isn't the radical approach that will change the office culture in a day (see How You Could Change Your Office Culture in One Day, and Why You Will Never Do It), but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Do you have any interesting cubicle hacks that help round the square corners of your office culture? If so, I'd love to hear about them.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, December 7, 2012

On risk, fearless advice, and loyal implementation

I've been thinking a lot lately about the issue of risk and how it relates to the idea of fearless advice and loyal implementation. Admittedly, these thoughts aren't entirely formed yet so bear with me.

When it comes to risk, we are our own worst enemy

Generally speaking I feel as though civil servants over-inflate the risks of almost everything they (we) do. We often chalk it up to the culture, forgetting that if you stripped bureaucracy of the bureaucrats the risk averse culture would likely disappear. Sure the written rules will remain, but no where (to my knowledge, and in my experience) are the written rules actually as stringent as our interpretations thereof.  My thoughts on how we approach to risk are best summed up with the famous Walt Kelly line (pictured to the left): "We have met the enemy and he is us". We are responsible for the culture, to blame it, is to blame ourselves; on this, I doubt I can be convinced otherwise.

The relationship with fearless advice and loyal implementation

Before delving any deeper, I should probably hang this caveat out there. Recent discussions with a number of colleagues (at different stages in their career) have led me to the conclusion that I am likely an outlier in that I have a fundamentally different understanding of risk than is the norm. Yes - its surprising isn't it - I have a high tolerance for risk, but I also have a high tolerance for consequences arising from my actions; and in the real world risk and responsibility are inextricably linked.

However, inside the bureaucracy I'm of the view that they are artificially divided. By this I mean to say that even when someone is willing to take a risk and bear the responsibility for its consequences they can't actually do so.  Rather than being able to simply pull the trigger on something they are forced to crunch their willingness to move ahead into some sort of recommendation (often in a briefing note) that gets pushed upwards onto someone else.  Sometimes this can be a good thing, for example it protects junior employees from taking the heat if the shit hits the fan, but it can also be paralysing since it concentrates risk in certain areas which likely makes those areas more sensitive to risk than they would otherwise be.

That said, here's my (related) observations on fearless advice and loyal implementation

Giving fearless advice is a low risk activity; there are plenty of opportunities to do so all along the long tail, and most of them are behind closed doors.  Loyal implementation on the other hand is a high risk activity; execution is always a delicate matter, and always held to the highest degree of public scrutiny. I think that perhaps we (public servants) have been spending far too effort on loyal implementation and not enough on fearless advice. Our natural hypersensitivity to risks out there in the public realm have crept into our conciousness in here.

Here's my best effort and trying to boil that all down to a single image (click to enlarge):


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 30, 2012

Giving credit where credit is due

There have been a lot of really influential people thus far in my career, but one of the most influential has to be Etienne.

Etienne's now dormant blog on management in the public sector was an incredible source of inspiration and learning when I first broke into this business and his paper "An Inconvenient Renewal" was (and still is) one of the most well articulated arguments for public sector renewal I have ever read. While we can all benefit from the public nature of Etienne's work, I feel particularly privileged to have been able to have a number of private one on one conversations with the man.

In fact, the highlight of my week was dinner with Etienne here in Ottawa. He finally got to meet my wife and our children. We shared a bottle of wine and talked at length about life, change and the public service and even though he stepped back from the public sector right now, his passion for it (and life in general) is still as infectious as it was when we first spoke on the telephone almost 5 years ago.

One of the highlights of that conversation about the three bits of advice he would give a public servant looking to be successful in the current environment:

  • Do what you are told
  • Don't rock the boat
  • Make your boss look good

What followed was a hilarious and telling conversation about whether he and I were capable of doing all three at the same time, or if we were more likely to search out opportunities to do combine them in some novel ways. My favorite combination by far was rocking the boat while doing what you are told and making your boss look good; after all, those are the types of opportunities I think many change makers are looking for. The icing on the cake was having my wife there to keep us both honest.

In the end, the meal, the wine and the conversation was exactly what I needed; and that's fitting because it sums up my relationship with Etienne. He's always been someone who has been there for me offering me exactly what I needed when I needed it.

Keep an eye out for these people as you advance in your career, because they are as rare as they are important.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 23, 2012

Debunking the "risk" of working more openly

I've heard a lot of chatter recently about how we (public servants) can't work in a more openly because of the "risks" of putting our information "out there".  I've always tried to push back on people who hide behind the risk argument because, quite frankly, I feel as though their fears are vacuous, unfounded, and have yet to run into someone who can substantiate them with a real world example.

At the risk of being pedantic, "risk" is often the public service equivalent of the boogie man, a ghost story we tell youth to scare them into compliance with the established norms of behaviour.

There are core assumptions that underpin this fear

However, when we examine them logically we quickly find that they are all categorically false. To be clear, when I speak of "openness" I'm not referring to out there in the wild writ large but within our borders - not the borders of your cubicle, directorate or department, but rather that of the enterprise as a whole - the municipal (local), provincial (state), or federal governments within which we work. This isn't the first time I try to tackle this particular issue on this blog, but given some the discussions I've had recently, the subject merits a redux.

But first I wanted to set up the discussion by arguing that GCPEDIA (the Government of Canada's official internal wiki) has the potential to be the single most transformative technology adopted by the Government of Canada since the first computers were issued to civil servants twenty years ago. It is the only technological environment (possibly with the exception of the lesser known GCConnex and GCForums) that allows public servants to share information across the entire enterprise. It has the potential to level geography, silos, and hierarchy and in so doing allows the civil service to tap into its cognitive surplus like no other technology to date has.

Yet, much of this potential goes unrealized

While there is likely a wide range of reasons why this is the case, I want to focus narrowly on the issue of the perceived risk of using GCPEDIA. For the remainder of the discussion, when I refer to "working more openly" what I am really saying is "working inside the Government of Canada's Open Wiki Platform known as GCPEDIA". That said, below are the false assumptions that keep civil servants from working more openly; I will go through each one after listing them:
  1. People are interested in your work 
  2. People will search for your work 
  3. People will read your work 
  4. People will comment / edit / interact with your work 
  5. The comments / edits / interactions of others will decrease the overall quality of your work

#1: People are interested in your work

The first assumption is that other people are actually interested in the work you do, putting it in the open will obviously attract immediate and widespread attention from your public servant peers. However, the truth is that while you may think your work is of the utmost importance the simple fact is that majority of other people in your organization simply don't care. They have diverging responsibilities and areas of interest; yes, there will be overlaps but not anywhere near the frequency or intensity that the fearful would have you believe. In Canada, the federal Government employs over 250,000 public servants and the breadth of the work is as wide as it is deep. This leads me to think that it is far more likely that the mechanics of our work overlap than it is the substantive nature of that work. In other words, we may both be policy analysts (convergent tasks) but that which we analyse is radically different (divergent subject matter).

#2: People will search for your work

The second assumption flows naturally from the first, that people are looking for your work. We assume that putting it out there (in the open, on GCPEDIA) means that it will be exposed to everyone when in reality its more akin to hiding in plain sight. Think about open work environments as akin to the web itself. You aren't bombarded with everything on the web when you open your browser. It's more likely that you use an intermediary - like Google - to help you parse through the ridiculous amounts of data on the internet. Think about how much is actually on the web versus how much you have actually seen. The same holds true in open work environments. People use intermediaries - search - to help them parse through the massive amounts of information available to them. Having to search prior to discovering the content you are sharing may not sound like much, but think about the things you search for on a regular basis and then compare that to volume of things you don't search for. This is a akin to needle in a field of haystacks. Moreover, the act of searching should be considered as proof of interest. By this I mean the people who search for your work and find it, are likely to have a genuine interest in it.

#3: People will read your work

The third assumption - that your work is actually read-worthy - is another big leap. What percentage of things you search on the web do you actually spend time reading? If you are like me its probably a small fraction. I search, scan, move on, scan, move on, scan, pinpoint, deep dive, move on, scan, etc. There is simply too much information out there to engage with it all in a meaningful way.

#4: People will comment / edit / interact with your work

The fourth assumption, that people will interact in some way with your work is a stretch at best; in fact, I presented evidence to the contrary in a previous blog post. Think about your own usage of web based environments. Do you comment, edit, or share every article you read online or are you more meticulous in your interactions? Its more likely that you don't have the interest, time or expertise to interact with all of the content flashing across the screen.

#5: The comments / edits / interactions of others will decrease the overall quality of your work

I think that the final assumption - that the contributions / interactions of others will water down your work - is fairly presumptuous and smacks of a touch of ego. The prevailing thought process here seems to be (and pardon my plain language) that if I expose my work to others they are going to screw it up in some way. I think this line of reasoning also signals a complete lack of trust in your fellow civil servants.

Why would they troll you? The technology (GCPEDIA) provides some built in protections. All contributions are done through attribution and are easily traced back to a Government of Canada email address, you can set up alerts on specific pages so you are notified when changes occur, and the version control is extremely tight. I find it ironic that many people are willing to hand a printed document to a colleague and ask them to provide "a second set of eyes" but far fewer are willing to use a technological medium to offer that same opportunity to far more people.

The redux in sum

The false assumptions that the fear of openness is based on are interest, search, read, interact, and detract. I would like to conclude simply by encouraging you re-articulate the argument above to anyone who regularly pushes against greater openness in the enterprise.


Addendum (Update 25/11/2012)

What I didn't mention, but is worth adding is that if someone actually does take the time to go through all of these steps, they likely were interested enough to search, read, and interact with your work. Under these conditions - and the technological restraints of a place like GCPEDIA - it is far more likely that they are adding value to your work, not taking it away. For evidence of this nuance, click here.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 16, 2012

Two simple thoughts on innovation and leadership

Public sector innovators have the courage to look right when all their colleagues are looking left.

Public sector leaders recognize that courage, celebrate it, and do whatever they can to steer the rest of their organization towards it.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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