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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