Friday, June 28, 2013

We all have our defining moments

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Mine happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I was in university at the time, working as a front desk agent for a hotel here in Ottawa. I spent a number of years with the company and during that time met thousands of people from all over the world, but one person in particular; a little boy named Jared not more than 5 years old, is the one I remember most.

I wish I could say the circumstances under which I met Jared were better, but in fact they were rather dire. It was Christmas time and the hotel had a partnered with the local hospitals to provide free accommodations to people in town visiting their loved ones receiving critical and palliative care in Ottawa. Jared came to Ottawa with his mother to spend Christmas with his father. I met the duo when they arrived at the hotel, I checked them in and bantered back and forth with a young man who was full of energy, his emotions pulling him any number of directions. He was excited to be at a hotel, but deeply concerned about his father, happy to finally have arrived but worried about being away from home on Christmas.

“What if Santa can’t find me?” I remember him saying to his mother one day while they passed me in the lobby. It was Christmas Eve. Without hesitating I walked out from behind my desk and told Jared that perhaps he could write Santa a letter and leave it above the fireplace in the foyer on Christmas Eve alongside some milk and cookies. Surely if he did that Santa would know where to find him. While his mother was skeptical, Jared was more than happy to oblige. I sat with him in the lobby as he crafted his letter. I took him back to the Kitchen where the chef helped us with some milk and cookies and we returned to the Lobby, placing the package above the fireplace. Jared went upstairs with his mother and I quietly asked her to call me once they got upstairs.

“Tomorrow, when you wake up there will be gifts for Jared under the tree in the lobby. Just give us 15 minutes advance notice to put them out. Merry Christmas,” was all I said to his mother when she called down. When I finished my shift I went to the mall with the woman who I would later marry and proceeded to buy gifts for a boy I barely knew and had met only a few days previously. We wrapped the gifts, delivered them to the hotel, and went to my family’s home for our réveillon.

I never got to see Jared open the presents. In fact, I never saw him or his mother again, but I'm certain they got them because I received a call from the Vice-President of the $4 billion company on New Year’s Day thanking me for providing exemplary service to the client (his words, not mine).

So what's the point?

It’s precisely what I told the VP on the phone: “What we did for Jared during Home for the Holidays wasn't an individual or isolated act. While it’s true that the team saw a problem and decided to act we couldn't have done it without a culture that supported it. The culture of empowerment at (the company) is so enabling that it shapes positive behaviour. The company’s trust in the professionalism and judgement of its employees is incredible; it’s a frame I'm thankful to be working in. We do things like this at varying scales every single day. You may not hear about it, but its happening.”

That experience set the benchmark for me and, despite it being more than ten years ago and in an entirely different sector; I feel strongly that we ought to be able to say the same thing about our current work environments. It’s also one of the reasons why I think the theme of the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference this year – Open, Collaborative, Mobile (which I take as a proxy for action/agency) – is so compelling. If GTEC can help people make demonstrable steps towards building more open, cooperative and action oriented organizations that enable dedicated and purposeful agency than the conference will have been a success.


  1. We've been exploring the issue of storytelling in the public service as of late so I figured I might as well share one of my own; however despite it being one I hold dear, it’s not often one I talk about so its only appropriate that I'd like to give a h/t to Blaise Hebert for encouraging me to do so. 
  2. If you are interested in further reading on this theme, I recommend you read this.
  3. This post was also published to the GTEC blog.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On the Stories You Tell Today

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

The most thought-provoking conversation I took part in this week was a one-on-one with Director General of Communications about how technology is impacting the civil service; in fact, I'm still trying to parse out precisely what I think it means.

We were having a discussion about Blueprint 2020 (which, if you haven't heard of yet, is the Government of Canada's latest visioning exercise) and started going back and forth about what we think may be on the horizon; what does the civil service of 2020 look like?

He told me that one of the core differences between the policy and communication worlds is that the communications world is largely concerned with the next 5 minutes while the policy world has the ability to focus on the long game. 

"The stories policy people told 7 years ago, are just starting to come into play now."

There was no panic in his voice, no sense of urgency, and as though it was the natural progression of things. He said it with a certainty rooted in an experience that far outweighed my own and that was in of itself reassuring. 

It made me question my own impatience with change; wonder about the stories I've helped shape; and prompted me to think harder about the stories am about to - because the only thing I'm sure of after that conversation is that the stories you tell today are likely far more important than you think they are.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Towards a New Professionalism in Government

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week I compared Sir Ken Robinson's views on the success of Finland's educational system to the way organizations are managed [see: Escaping Death Valley]. Success due, in part, to the attribution of a high degree of status to the teaching profession.

Status is an odd word, with less than ideal connotations. But public service carrying status is a necessary state for the sake of public trust, attracting talent, and – importantly - because status is a natural result of a challenging, high-performance workplace.

Regardless, I'm not going to call it status. I'll look instead at the road to a new professionalism in government, over a couple posts. And because everyone is so - rightly - jazzed up about it, I'll start with storytelling. The new professionalism is less formal. Messier at the edges.


For that virtuous cycle, above, we don't enter at one particular node. Organizations have to build the performance scaffolding to raise the talent attraction scaffolding, which then allows the performance scaffolding to go even higher.

There are several angles to why we need good storytelling in terms of performance and talent. We need it when pitching to decision makers, to convince them of the value of projects and programs. Our peers' storytelling provides inspiration and good ideas. And our public storytelling builds understanding and trust - vital both for relationships as we work for and with those we serve, and to convince talented Canadians to become public servants.

I've been very inspired by my colleagues who work on user-centred design in government*. I hit on this recently [see: What We Don't Know]: it doesn't matter how technically impressive a product is if people don't use it well. It doesn't even matter if they can, or can't. Just that they don't. But you can design for this, test assumptions and prototypes, and create useful products that people will use productively.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the U.S. exists largely to protect citizens from suffering because they don't understand the exceptionally hard-to-understand financial system. Doesn't matter if they can, or can't. In a spectacular move, they hired Audrey Chen away from Comedy Central to serve as their Creative Director (in government?!). Chen, who was nice enough to speak to us a while back, conducted usability testing on their websites, informational documents, and templates for, say, student loan forms. The goal was maximizing the likelihood of people understanding what they were getting themselves into, and minimizing the likelihood of personally and socially expensive financial issues down the road.

They're making sure things aren't just broken, as Seth Godin would put it.

Good storytelling is essentially akin to usability for ideas. It's the same principle. It doesn't matter how good our ideas are, if people - decision makers, citizens that influence outcomes, or peers whose support you need - don't understand them, they aren't useful, and we have failed in our duty as public servants. And we can work on this.

Nick pointed towards George's authentic storytelling in Canadian Government Executive magazine, and I'll echo his hat-tip (oh, it's vortex rings we're on now? Okay).

I also respect my friend Dave Fleming's approach on his blog, as he takes a role as Executive Director of Halifax's North End Business Association:

"I’m going to introduce myself with a list of 13 things about me – a little about my vision for our city, about my experience and business knowledge, and a few which are about the person. If you want an answer to something I haven’t covered, please get in touch."

It's a simple, authentic step, but necessary for working productively with those whom he serves.

When Nick posed a question about faceless bureaucrats [see: Can Bureaucrats be Interesting when the World Demands that They be Boring?], there was some disagreement about whether bureaucrats can be, or should be, faceless. But the reality right now is that we have scrutiny without visibility. And thus, without understanding. We have availability without transparency. I don't think it's enough to simply post PDFs of receipts online, dust off our hands and say job well done. Nor do I think it's a good idea for us. We could storytell what we're doing, what is meaningful, and communicate it in such a way that people have a reasonable chance of understanding it.

Hell, we can even be boring ourselves. But I doubt that our work, which materially affects Canadians, is. So I agree with George: it's time to tell our stories. And it might even get us here:

And talent, understanding, and impact might get us into the first virtuous cycle.

Professionalism isn't APA formatting. It's results. Jargon, opacity, and bullshit don't achieve them.

*As a side note, this is not a sentence lightly said. The UX experts in government, and their excellent story, actually blow my mind. Their dedication, capability, and professionalism inspire me to be a better public servant.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Noteworthy Example of Authenticity

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I leaned heavily on a speech made by Allan Gregg to try to position authenticity as the antidote to the problem of facelessness (see: The Solution to Facelessness is Authenticity); a problem that I argued the week before that was not some abstract thing out there but rather one that is entre nous (see: The Real Problem of Facelessness). In so doing I pointed back a previous post where I encouraged people to make the most of opportunities for fearless advice in your day to day interactions with peers, because quite frankly given the nature of our organizations, very few of us actually have opportunities to give fearless advice to those who hold the balance of power (see:On Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation).

Essentially what I was arguing for was - as one commenter pointed out - "getting real instead of relying mechanically on machine-like institutional protocols to achieve things" and by extension define our relationships, shape our work, and the public perception there of. A recent article in Canadian Government Executive written by George Wenzel is a perfect example of this. It takes the narrative of the wasteful, bloated and ineffective civil service and stands it on its head:
I proudly work for the National Managers' Community (NMC), a group with only 22 paid staff in the federal government. During my two-year term in this job, I've been given responsibility to build a community of managers in Alberta. My assigned goal is to improve the quality of public sector management across the province.
My inexperience in event planning and communications didn't stop the NMC from exploiting my potential. I learned fast. In one year, I offered 33 leadership events to over 800 participants. Total cost: $20,000 (30 percent under budget). Fantastic value for tax dollars. On quality, 90 percent of participants said they’d recommend the sessions to colleagues. High quality and low cost. Not what you hear in the news, is it?
I started a weekly email newsletter to connect leaders across the 40-plus departments with staff in Alberta. It grew from 250 to 1600 subscribers in 18 months. By word of mouth. Total cost to keep managers informed? Zero. I write it mostly outside of work time. Why? Because I'm committed to making a difference.
To summarize: I'm a proud public servant. I'm frugal with the public purse. I strive to be excellent in all that I do. And I'm not alone.
I have long argued for purposeful story telling and that stories - especially those that show the vulnerability of the story teller - can go a long way in shaping a larger narrative  (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants & Purposeful Story Telling). George does this perfectly, showing his face literally and figuratively. Messily blending a complex set of interrelated story elements: substance, passion, reason, and attribution in a potentially hostile online environment.

Re-read the excerpt above, George's remarks speak to directly to the substantive nature of his work and are rooted in the fact that his passion, not protocol, drives his work. If you click through to the link, you will also find a picture of George and his coordinates in the byline. At the risk of sensationalizing his modest act of courage, the article as a whole could be considered as a reclamation of "face" and the re-humanization of George's work in the public sphere.

I for one, think he's onto something, maybe its time more of us told our stories.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Escaping Death Valley

by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Sir Ken Robinson's talks on education and the importance of creativity are among my TED favourites. He's a great speaker, and the subject matter clicks for several reasons. First, because I worry about how our structures, norms, and rules may stifle creativity, pretty well systematically. Second, because quality education - and children primed for critical thinking rather than assembly-line duplication of information - are essential for the well-being of our democracy. And third, because many of the problems, and possible solutions, in educational systems apply broadly to many types of organizations.

I was thinking mostly of the third piece as I watched his most recent, How to Escape Education's Death Valley. I found myself thinking that you could take the transcript, replace “education” with “organizations” and “teachers” with “employees” and have a seriously intriguing approach.

Robinson compares the U.S. and Finland, a country that regularly gets top marks in math, science, and reading. Finland, in his view, is excelling for three reasons:

  1. Individualization, rather than standardization
  2. Attribution of a very high level of status to the teaching profession
  3. Decentralization of responsibility


It's well recognized that many of our management practices still cling to their roots in command and control, mechanical, factory-based processes. We are transitioning ungracefully into different paradigms built for different work and possibilities.

Robinson talked about personalized education, with strong community links, a broad curriculum (recognizing that time spent on arts and soft skills is as important for long-term math and science effectiveness as time spent on math and science), and programming inside and outside of school.

“But what all the high-performing systems in the world do is currently what is not evident, sadly, across the systems in America -- I mean, as a whole. One is this: They individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it's students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That's how you get them to learn.”

Many organizations are realizing the importance of the “soft” elements of the workplace, such as  engagement, team building, and fostering relationships between employees. Zappo's, renowned for customer service, encourages managers to spend 10-20% of their work week outside of work, with their employees. It's actually an example of standardization designed to result in individualization and the establishment of deep understanding of relationships, at the tips of the organization's tentacles.


“The second is that they attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can't improve education if you don't pick great people to teach and if you don't keep giving them constant support and professional development. Investing in professional development is not a cost.”

I agree completely, obviously. A while back I wrote a piece in Canadian Government Executive magazine called The Public Service and Varsity Sports:

“Every morning, students are waking up pre-dawn in campuses around the country to run themselves into the ground, practice drills over and over, and compete fiercely with their peers for the positions of greatest responsibility on sports teams. They do this because in exchange, the organization to which they belong affords them status, challenge, and unparalleled developmental opportunity.”

And the research backs this up. Challenge was the top answer for 20,000 IT employees surveyed by InformationWeek about what matters to them about their jobs. Status and development opportunity are natural corollaries of a challenging job.

I have some discussion fodder for status in our organizations. For another post, this one may get long.


Neither individualization nor status is possible without decentralization. Without responsibility, one can scarcely believe in their job, their role in the organization's mission, or have the capacity to act on the good ideas that can only work at ground level.

There tension between control and empowerment has been growing, in my view. Standardization carries with it the virtues of economies of scale, reliability, measurability, and easier learning curves as employees move around the system. In the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, one of the anecdotes is of an employee noticing that every factory buys different gloves, at a range of prices. Through standardization – avoiding the high-priced outliers, and through pushing the price down by buying in bulk – he could save his company a ton of money. Score one for standards.

On the other hand, Finland's education system is based around responsibility at the school level. As Robinson says:

“Education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working.”

In a recent post I explored case studies on the pitfalls of decisions made at 10,000 feet, too far from their implementation to capture and take advantage of feedback loops obvious to those on the ground [see: What We Don't Know].

Those at the heads of organizations must command and control. But they can command tasks, or they can command missions, principles, and structures that enable capable decision makers, controlling the 3% that goes wrong, rather than the 97% that is going right.

Why is This The Road Less Traveled?

“It was hard, man.” - Kid President

For many reasons. Chiefly among them, because it's hard.

In turning around the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Isabel Blanco faced major backlash to her proposed changes. They had a massive case backlog, partially because they took far too many cases, and they weren't performing well. As described in Stephen Covey's Smart Trust:

“Because of the visible and serious consequences of a child being harmed by being left in an abusive home, the overwhelming tendency of a state or any low-trust bureaucracy is to develop a rule-based system to eliminate human error.”

On autopilot because of the judgmentless sytem, and facing too many cases, caseworkers weren't engaged, picking up cues, and truly understanding their clients. The solution, which worked wonders, was to loosen the rules and put the caseworkers back in charge. But Blanco's boss had to field calls from frantic citizens concerned that her approach would put child lives at risk. For many, the incentive is not to trust Blanco or the caseworkers here – it's rules and policies. That's hard.

In Robinson's view, individualization, status, and decentralization are working for high performing educational systems. In short, trust is working. It is frequently the answer for organizations.

It is frequently not the answer for individuals in the organization.

A divide that will hang as a question for now.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Peak Bullshit: A Video About Authenticity Worth Watching

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I was originally planning on launching into a discussion about how greater authenticity will ultimately lead to greater complexity but decided I would rather share this video that drives home some of what I've been articulating lately. Its 20 minutes well spent. Enjoy.