Friday, March 9, 2012

All I really need to know about Public Policy I learned from Lego

I love Star Wars.

When I was a kid I used to queue up the entire trilogy (yes, the trilogy) empty my vast Lego collection out onto the floor and spend the entire day in the Star Wars universe building things I'd seen on the screen before me.  It shouldn't come as a surprise then that I have passed those interests on to my children, both of whom love Star Wars (although they know 6 movies, animated series and countless video game versions) and Lego.

My son Kohl (4) with our new Lego AT-ST
Last weekend we watched Return of the Jedi then retired to the play room to play with the Lego (yes, I still play with Lego).  I somehow got it stuck in my head that I wanted to build an AT-ST walker. But before I did wanted to gauge the kids (stakeholders) interest in the project; they were obviously on board.  So with their blessing, I built the AT-ST pictured above completely from scratch (no instructions, no sets) in about a week's time.  It's far more complicated than anything I ever built as a child and I am incredibly proud of how it turned out.

That said, what I never anticipated was just how much the experience would teach me about public policy.  Here's what I mean.

Public Policy, like Lego, requires vision

You aren't going to get very far if you don't have vision.  In my case it was fairly easy, as a long time fan I have a good sense of what the end product should look like.  I think this speaks to the value that subject matter experts bring to the public policy discourse.  But even then, I repeatedly went online to look at pictures of AT-ST walkers, I needed to check my assumptions against hard facts.  The same applies to policy analysts who need to consciously check their assumptions against the data available to them.  Moreover, not only did I look at photos of AT-ST's but I purposely sought out photos that exposed different sides of the walker to me or that were done in different medium (sketches, paintings, computer generated graphics, other Lego builds, etc).  Policy makers need a well rounded understanding of their medium and that often requires expanding inputs beyond a small handful of expected sources.

But periodically checking in with photographs for direction also gave me the intelligence I needed regarding my resource pool.  Given what I've already completed and that which I have yet to complete, do I have enough resources at my disposal or did I need to go back for more?

Public Policy, like Lego, requires the right resources

I started by building a small chunk of the AT-ST but soon realized that I didn't have easy access to the pieces I needed to work on it project efficiently.  I have a huge (I mean huge) Lego collection.  My kids have not only the benefit of all the Lego they've been purchased over the years, but also everything I was purchased as a kid as well (thanks mom!).  Rummaging through an enormous bin of pieces can be incredibly time consuming.  After all, I had very specific needs for the project in front me.  I didn't need all the resources at my disposal, only a subset.  So I decided to slowly source the parts I needed before continuing to assemble the walker.  My requirements were fairly simple. Anything that was gray was in with the exception of wheels and really large platforms and priority was to be given to any parts that moved or could be used to make joints or connect angles. 

But I also had to be realistic. I knew that I wasn't going to need every piece of Lego I collected, so I didn't need to go through the entire collection routing out all of they gray pieces, I just needed enough resources to complete the job.  The rest could easily be returned for another project.  Having the right resources was incredibly important; but knowing what resources were in my collection but not yet directly accessible to me (buried pieces) was even more important.  The familiarity with the resource pool meant I knew whether or not my approach - an approach that hinged on a particular type of resource or its abundance within the collection - was plausible or not. For example, smaller pieces are generally the hardest to reach resources because they usually wind up at the bottom of the bin and as such require additional effort to secure.  At one point in the process I even had to build a makeshift scaffold from some small buckets to hold back pieces from collapsing back into the large container in order to reach these exact pieces at the bottom of the bin. Additional work pays dividends when you are certain the resources you hope to uncover actually exist. But sometimes those pieces don't exist, you simply can't find them, or you can't access them without huge cost. That's why you need to be able to pivot your approach, why you need to be flexible. You need to be prepared in the event that the end product may not look exactly like your vision.  Vision is, after all, limited to resources.  Remember that a roadblock often means an improvement, not a detraction of the quality of the end product. 

Public Policy, like Lego, has to stand up to scrutiny

The more complex the undertaking the more fragile it is.  This is especially the case during the initial build when you are unfamiliar with how to best handle your creation with care.  Quite frankly while you may have an idea of where the weak points are you aren't quite sure.  Typically we expect breaks at the joints but tragically, the only way to know for sure is to purposely break that which you have just created. 

So don't be afraid to knock it over, apply pressure, or add some weight.  Make note of where it breaks, then rebuild it, re-test it, and see if it breaks in the same spot again. Repeating this process a couple of times not only shows you its strengths and weaknesses but also teaches you about the act of rebuilding itself; which is to say that it breeds a familiarity and expert understanding that is important.  It's important because it will frame your reaction.  It will determine how you reinforce the joints, what pieces you swap out or in or lead to a complete redesign that circumvents a problem that cannot otherwise be fixed.

In the end you want to build something that can support its own weight.  A task that is made more difficult when you have moving parts.  My walker for example has a moving head that moves both horizontally and vertically. Moving parts are complicated, awesome, but complicated.  The more of them you have the more additional support you need, but the support you add should create a sense of robustness without undermining mission.  In my experience the best support mechanism in this regard is transparency. 

For example, the mobility of the head combined with its weight meant that I needed additional pieces to hold it in place. If I used coloured pieces it wouldn't be a walker anymore but something else entirely.  Using transparent bricks maintains the mission while offering critical support to the most complex piece of the undertaking. There is greater willingness to accept additional support when that support mechanism is transparent and minimally invasive; you are also quick to accept it when you compare it directly to less palatable (or more intrusive) alternatives. 

Public Policy, like Lego, should be a creative endeavour

Having fun is an inherent part of crafting.  It's incredibly important, so don't be afraid use your imagination and be creative.  If something doesn't work out right away, don't panic and don't abandon ship, its just bricks, there is nothing that can't be fixed, altered or tweaked, and there is always a work around. You just need to be willing to look for it. 

Public Policy, like Lego, could be exciting to next generation

After I finally completed the project, the look on my kids faces was incredible.  They watched me craft something amazing yet tangible; so much in fact, that it left them wanting more.

Shouldn't our governments strive for the same thing?

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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