Friday, September 28, 2012

Lean into it

Last week a pair of public servants published a couple of thought provoking blog posts; it was a conversation I felt I needed to get in on.



It's perfectly natural to question the path you're on; I do it all the time.

I can't speak to your political views online (you probably shouldn't either) but I did want to speak to your concerns about the future the public sector; its what prompted me to start writing here in the first place.

You are right to compare our working conditions with those of the outside world and hope for more. Long gone are the times when back of house business was an truly internal matter. When you see photos of the Googleplex, the Shopify offices, or visit virtually any startup enjoying even a modicum of success its hard not to feel a bit left out of the mix while sitting in your cubicle. When you read about their latest product or sit down with a bootlegged copy of their employee handbook you can't help but wonder if you should've taken a left turn instead of a right one coming out of school (or perhaps even heading into it).

But here's a word of caution, the web brings you the best of the best 24/7. What makes the rounds online are the sensational success stories, the next hottest item, when you look out there the grass will always be greener. If you can understand it intellectually you are one step closer to coping with it emotionally. Call it satisficing or chalk it up to hedonic adaptation but if you want to enjoy success in this sector you need to make the daily effort to lengthen your shadow of the future. Success isn't as immediate or as readily available as what you read on the web may make you think.

I repeat: the grass will always greener my friend.

Social technologies are giving you a window in the carefully curated lives of others; a highlight reel of firehose like proportions makes it easy to get caught up in the wave. Whenever I come across someone who is down about their job or their prospects I tell them that even Batman has to be Bruce Wayne once in a while, that professional snowboarders still have to ride the chairlift, that not everything you do can be as exciting as what you read online.

In short I think we've become helpless romantics chasing the startup culture that Forbes, Harvard Business, and all the rest write about on a weekly basis. Make no mistake the romanticization of success puts you under constant pressure and lessens your overall satisfaction with your immediate surroundings.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you need to temper your expectations somewhat or you will forever be chasing them. I'm not advocating settling for less then you think you deserve (or can demonstrably earn) but rather trying to make a case for avoiding a career characterized by schizophrenia, not because your resume will suffer (as some people would argue) but because you may not actually learn all there is to learn prior to moving on to the next thing.

This isn't easy.

It's something I struggle with daily and something I have repeatedly pushed back on whenever a senior manager pulls me aside and tells me that "[I] have so much potential, if only [I] smoothed the edges a little bit ..."

I think you're right to be worried about the tipping point. I'm of the firm belief (and have argued publicly) that in a hyper connected world defined by an increasingly mobile labour force, labour supply can (and ultimately will) self organize in ways that fundamentally reshape the fabric of some of our public institutions. Organizations with a solid reputation, built on openness, access, and trust will attract like minded workers to help them strengthen their culture while those with a reputation for rewarding ostrich-like behaviours will attract those who prefer to muddle through with their heads beneath the sand.

I haven't read Voltaire's Bastards (at least not yet) but I have spoken to a number of retired high ranking civil servants who talk with great admiration about that same bygone era; and I, like you, would like to see a return to a time where civil servants are treated with the respect I think they deserve but rarely enjoy.

I want to encourage you to lean into the challenges you face on a daily basis. Treat every obstacle as a learning opportunity. Write about the challenges you see, posit solutions and write about those too, read lots of books and share your insights about those too.

When we spoke briefly (weeks ago now) I told you not to look at the metrics around your blog. I want to reiterate that message again right now.

Write for yourself; your blog should help you navigate the system, help you challenge it, and help you improve it. If along the way it helps others, consider it collateral benefit.

Make no mistake, engage with your readers, network, connect people and ideas, seed communities wherever you think it makes sense; but never lose sight of the fact that your blog's primary purpose is to help you lean into adversity and turn resistance into forward momentum.



As you can see, I too was struck by Kent's recent lament (as you so nicely put it). While you may feel that you face an uphill battle, I'd caution you on your use of metaphors. I do so only to point out that you are on the same side of that battle with your colleagues and casting your approach in antagonistic terms may breed more antagonism, which in the end isn't what I think you are working towards.

I understand that I'm writing you from position of what could be considered as relative power - having interdeterminate status, being a mid-level professional, and working in Ottawa - but don't want that fact colour what I am about to say, or how you respond to it.

I've travelled across Canada a number of times in the past five years and have met a lot of great people (public servants) along the way who are in similar situations as yours. My understanding is that its at least doubly difficult to get ahead in the (career) game in the regions. In some respects its a matter of scale, there is simply more opportunities here in Ottawa then there are in other parts of the country; but that may change over time, given advances in technology and, more importantly, management philosophies.

I, like you, fell into public service. I left the most incredible job I ever had - working for a National League Hockey Franchise during its Stanley Cup run - to join government and have been trying to recapture some of that magic ever since.

As you continue to move around the edges of the organization looking for opportunities to stretch its boundaries, know that whatever you choose to do there - be it speak softly or swing your elbows - will make some people uneasy. I came to the conclusion (read: was told by others) that I can be a fairly polarizing individual because I tend to push where the pain is the often greatest. Over time I became used to the fact that whatever I do, in any given situation, will result in roughly one third of the people in room being angry at me (because they are status quo people), one third being completely oblivious to me (because nothing moves them) and one third will be interested in what I bring to the table. That may not sound that appealing, but a 1/3 conversion rate is a fairly solid foundation that has (at least in my experience to date) created a wealth of opportunity (not in the financial sense, but in the learning sense).

You aren't a masochist for leaning into a challenge, you're better for it. Many prefer to take the path of least resistance; and in the public sector the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason, the path isn't groomed, its a tough trek, and often the incentives aren't there.

Its a path that requires you to be a self-starter, derive your motivation from within and know how take pride quietly in your work.

Keep leaning into the challenge, as you continue charting the route, leave markers for those who will follow behind you.

In time, the path will become more clear and easier for others to follow.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, September 21, 2012

Be an Office Nomad, It Pays Dividends

I had something else planned for today but I scrapped it in favour of simply sharing the following quotation from a Forbes article I read, its probably the most important thing I've read in a couple of weeks:
On the people front, the behavior of leaders matters—big time. In our initial study on disruptive innovators published with Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s DNA, we found five “discovery skills” that distinguished innovators from non-innovators. Innovators ask provocative questions that challenge the status quo. They observe the world like anthropologists to detect new ways of doing things. They network with people who don’t look or think like them to gain radically different perspectives. They experiment relentlessly to test new ideas and try out new experiences. Finally, these behaviors trigger new associations which let them to connect the unconnected, thereby producing disruptive ideas.
Helping people form new associations has been my bread and butter since I first started working in this sector 5 years ago; it can be yours too.

It's a little tricky, but I'd just like to go on record as saying being an office nomad often pays dividends.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, September 17, 2012

MBR: Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

I decided I was going to read a book a week every couple of weeks for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy

Why I read it

The giant 30% off sticker caught my eye in the book store; I flipped it over and Dan Pink had a blurb on the back endorsing the book, that was enough for me.

How it connects to the Public Sector

The book is essentially about how moving/acting/reacting as late as possible to a given situation is likely to produce the best results and that success is determined by the effort and knowledge expended in the lead up time before the action is required.  In other words, delaying until the last possible minute to pull the trigger on something doesn't mean that you are slacking off but rather building the capacity to understand precisely how to move quickly when the situation finally merits it.

What I got out of reading it

If you buy into the the argument that upstream effort makes you nimble and allows you to reap significant downstream benefits than you may also need to accept the fact that work - the real rewarding work of decision-making - only comes in fits and starts and that if we are to continue to find meaning in our work we must learn to derive it not from the crucial decision making nodes but rather the preparatory work that goes into getting us there.

In closing, I suppose its worth mentioning that I took over two weeks to read this book (maybe it has something to do with the title). I read it slowly, and was initially unimpressed with it, but as time passed and I dug deeper into the book, it steadily got better.

If you're interested in some concrete examples on how delaying decision making leads to better results across a bunch of different scenarios you may want to consider picking up a copy of Wait.

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

The Office Challenge

I've often argued that a little levity in the office goes a long way. 
It's why I made a web comic a while back on the Kubler Ross Model of internet blocking, why I sometimes advocate guerilla tactics in the workplace, and why I launched Gov + Memes.
you! by dhammza
It's also why I'm bringing you the Office Challenge; a list of totally absurd yet funny things to try to pull off in the office. They are neither intended to significantly distract from the workday nor be offensive to your colleagues. They are simply a way to have some fun in the office.  
You remember fun don't you?
Random Challenges
  • "Make it rain" Monopoly money in a budget meeting (bonus points for if its done while presenting a Treasury Board Submission)
  • Use Comic Sans font instead of bold to add emphasis to a briefing note
  • Put up a variant of this poster on the shredder in the office.
  • Change your email signature to "Stay Frosty"
  • Rickroll someone with a hyperlink to this Rick Astley Classic in a briefing note and/or email
  • Replace your chair with a hammock
  • Make a window in your cubicle by removing the panels (I've actually done this btw)
  • Do this in the elevator.
  • (leave your own in the comments below!)
You know that old NRA bumper sticker saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people" well you can say almost the same thing about cubicles, namely that: "Cubicles don't bore, people bore people".

I for one find it sad that something as simple as a little levity seems so outside the norm for so many of us that the tongue-in-cheek suggestions above can seem outrageous rather than humorous.

I'm not saying don't do the work, I'm just saying that there is room to have a little fun while doing it.
Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, September 7, 2012

I'm calling shenanigans on 'the $1.3 trillion price of not tweeting at work'

Listen, it's easy to sharp shoot someone else's writing. Especially when you don't know them from a hole in the ground. I generally steer clear of such tomfoolery, but to be honest, I read an article yesterday on FastCompany entitled "The $1.3 Trillion Price Of Not Tweeting At Work" and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Title inspired by Cow Days episode of South Park

The article derives its outlandish title from the McKinsey report I pointed to last week and wrongly positions a single social platform (Twitter) as equivalent to the broader term "social technologies" used in the report and (wrongly) recasts the estimated value of employing these technologies (in the global market) as the the cost of not tweeting at work.

The proof's in the pudding (here are the first three paragraphs verbatim):
On June 6, Larry Ellison--CEO of Oracle, one of the largest and most advanced computer technology corporations in the world--tweeted for the very first time. In doing so, he joined a club that remains surprisingly elite. Among CEOs of the world’s Fortune 500 companies, a mere 20 have Twitter accounts. Ellison, by the way, hasn’t tweeted since.

As social media spreads around the globe, one enclave has proven stubbornly resistant: the boardroom. Within the C-suite, perceptions remain that social media is at best a soft PR tool and at worst a time sink for already distracted employees. Without a push from the top, many of the biggest companies have been slow to take the social media plunge.

A new report from McKinsey Global Institute, however, makes the business case for social media a little easier to sell. According to an analysis of 4,200 companies by the business consulting giant, social technologies stand to unlock from $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in value. At the high end, that approaches Australia’s annual GDP. How’s that for a bottom line?
If that's not reaching, I'm not sure what is. It probably also worth mentioning that the article's author is the CEO of Hootsuite; meaning that the obvious subtext (at least in my reading) is that Hootsuite can help you get a slice of that juicy $1.3 trillion if only they could meet with your "Twitter-phobic CEOs".

I won't bother with the rest of the article as it offers up little in terms of understanding, applying, or challenging the findings of the McKinsey report. But I do want to close the loop on the issue of just how important (or unimportant) it is for your CEO (or in the public sector your Deputy Minister) to be tweeting.

Whether or not you CEO tweets is completely irrelevant

I could think of a hundred things off the top of my head that are far more important activities for my Deputy Minister to be engaged in than tweeting. In fact, I would position any of the hundred decisions they are likely to make during the course of a week as more important than the decision to tweet or not.  Furthermore, if anyone out there can show me a direct causal relationship between a private sector CEO tweeting and an increase in that firm's revenues (or in the public sector better outcomes) I will gladly eat my hat!

Whether or not your CEO is open to change is paramount

What CEOs (and again by extension heads of public sector agencies) need to be aware isn't how to tweet or why but rather the transformative nature of new communications technologies, how they affect information flows, how they can help the organization tap into it's  cognitive surplus and how the openness they engender disrupts their traditional business models.

Those at the top need to be paying attention to the likes of Clay Shirky, Don Tapscott, and, for a healthy dose of scepticism Andrew Keen; not jumping onto Twitter on the advice of profiteering social media hucksters (no offense).

My advice

Don't trust anyone who's selling the sizzle.  Don't throw money at tools before understanding the environment within which they operate.

Always put strategy before tactics and understanding before strategy because understanding informs strategy and strategy informs tactics. This isn't about learning how to blog, wiki or twitter, this is about learning how to be more adaptive to change.

While the former can be easily purchased on every corner of the web, the latter is much harder to come by and as a result will always serve you better in the long run.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

MBR: Overqualified by Joey Comeau

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Overqualified by Joey Comeau

Why I read it

It was recommended by a friend whose literary chops I trust; she made the suggestion via this comment on a previous MBR.

How it connects to the Public Sector

I'm not sure it does explicitly, but damn this book hit the spot.

What I got out of reading it

The book slowly reveals the history of its protagonist through a series of increasingly absurd cover letters. Having never read a work of fiction for a MBR I found reading Overqualified as part of the series a much needed reprieve from the world of business books.

I can't tell you much more about it other than I read it in a single day, spread over 3 separate sittings; and when I wasn't reading the book, I was looking forward to the next time I was going to.

Thanks for the recommendation Chelsea, I'm passing it along to everyone here.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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