Where Good Ideas Go To Die

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A year ago, I wrote a post about how and why good ideas face resistance (see: Renewal and Resistance). Today we still can't swing a good idea without hitting a Clay Layer*, and I thought that it was about time to revisit it.

The Clay Layer is this amorphous, eternal layer in the middle of organizations "through which no light shall pass,” and to which no one admits being a part of. It is where communications and good ideas go to die. People send ideas on journeys down or up the chain, seemingly with all the supplies needed, but never hear word from the destination.

Here's how it works: The President of an organization has a Great Idea. They instruct their lieutenants, the VPs, to make it happen. The VPs turn to the directors, who tell the managers, who tell the supervisors, who implement it with their employees.

Except they don't.


This Machine

In some organizations the Clay Layer may actually be a management layer. In others, it could be people, policies, or processes. But my contention was that it is more so a mathematical inevitability.

Hierarchies and ideas just don't get along. If there is anything less than unconditional support for a given idea, every layer in an organization represents an opportunity for support to break down. Worse, the chance for resistance, or non-support, at each layer compounds, multiplied by each additional layer.

So, the chance of meaningful implementation of that President's Great Idea is equal to:


Where x is the chance of support and y is the number of nodes in a hierarchy. It's y-1 because presumably, the President has 100% support for the idea.

Expanding this example, with 6 nodes (a President as node 1 and an employee as node 6), and a 85% (dare I say high?) chance of support for an idea:

0.85*0.85*0.85*0.85*0.85* = .44


So, 85% of the people in this organization would individually, if they ever heard about it, support the President's idea. But when the machine manufacturing it is a hierarchy, it has less than a fifty-fifty shot at success.

Or:

The Solution

The Clay Layer isn't a management layer, it's a function of the organizational system. So if there is a shred of truth in this, the approach seems clear as we try to get Great Ideas' success rates as close as possible to 100%:
  • Minimize y: reduce the number of layers involved by flattening organizations
  • Maximize x: ensure high rates of support for ideas through compelling presentation, cultural norms, and sheer persistence and reinforcement of key ideas
But there's an unfortunate corollary to our equation. The President will systematically underestimate how much they need to reinforce ideas (maximize x), because progress reporting has the same flaw: any inaccuracies in reporting compound at each level of the hierarchy. And every node has an incentive to overstate their level of support, and the level of success.

So, one has to disrupt the features of hierarchies. If the President receives feedback from multiple levels, they can better understand the implementation of their ideas, and adjust their approach if needed. Likewise, if the President can directly engage multiple levels and empower them in the implementation, the assumptions on which this equation rest dissolve.



*Nick has written about the Clay Layer at least once before

Actually, for that matter he also wrote a post called Where Good Ideas Go To Live And/Or Die.

Leadership Lessons from The Little Prince

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


Recently, a police officer in Halifax was asked by a pedestrian what they should do about a broken walk signal. The officer replied that they should call the municipality's phone number, noting that it was illegal to cross the street without a walk signal.

Facing an empty street, a pedestrian was told that a 10m walk was impermissible. This is the dark side of accountability; it's not in the officer's interests to allow common sense, but rather, to ensure his safe legal standing.

Thus, the officer is forced to support an unreasonable position. It reminds me of The Little Prince.



Generals and Sea Birds

In the classic book, the little prince comes upon a king:
For what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience. He was an absolute monarch. But, because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.

"If I ordered a general," he would say, by way of example, "if I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault."

"May I sit down?" came now a timid inquiry from the little prince.

"I order you to do so," the king answered him, and majestically gathered in a fold of his ermine mantle.
Ideally we'd be like the king, and only ever ask that which is reasonable. But sometimes we'll be like the officer. In the real world, we ask people, daily, to do things they cannot: navigate labyrinthine client service processes, or understand anchor-heavy, unreadable documents. Or, we prohibit people from doing things that are fairly reasonable, like cross an empty street with a broken walk signal.

Everyone knows this, but it happens anyway - because what people can reasonably be expected to do isn't sufficient for organizations' accountability requirements. Likewise, the king isn't ordering the little prince to sit down because he wants a seated prince; he orders such to be safe in the knowledge that he ordered it.

On the whole, this system of relentless t-crossing, i-dotting, and general ass-covering works out well for us. But we need strategies to deal with the ridiculous outlier cases.


Creatively Saying Yes

Fortunately there is a middle ground. The king could order the tired little prince to stand - honouring an unreasonable policy that all subjects must stand - but provide a shoulder to lean on.
  • Like the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leaders can hire both lawyers and designers to find the middle ground between what is legally required in a document and what is understandable.
  • Like the Pacific region of Public Works, leaders can prepare a lengthy annual plan for corporate responsibilities, then remix the information into a interesting roadmap for everyone else.
  • Like one manager I know, leaders can informally implement flex time for employees to work on projects of their choosing, in the absence of a organization-wide policy.
Leaders can, as my colleague Suzanne wrote on her blog, creatively say yes.


It's a Fine Line

In 2012, the Niagara Parks Commission received an application from Nik Wallenda (7th generation of a daredevil family) to tightrope walk the falls. Such stunts were banned. Here's how they explain it on their website:
NPC approved Nik Wallenda’s application to walk a tightrope stretched between the two countries... NPC has ruled that it will consider proposals by stunting professionals no more than once in a generation, or approximately once every 20 years, as a way to pay tribute to the stunting history that helped make Niagara Falls a top global tourism destination.
Such virtuous chicanery, that! The easier answer would have been “stunts aren't allowed.” But by creatively saying yes, they reaped the tourism and publicity benefits while avoiding violating their policies or facing a flood of similar requests.


Get Creative

This is the point at which a normal blogger would draw principles out of the above case studies. But there's nothing particularly clever or shocking, here: It's simply persistence, and resisting blaming a situation on external factors. It's simply not saying "it's not my job." It's reframing problems, and digging through the rest of your toolkit.

It's getting creative, when it'd be easy to give up.


To Govern is to Choose

Friday, July 19, 2013
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

That is the affirmation at the centre of an incredibly important report released by the UK House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in May; it's an affirmation I believe strongly in, but before telling you why I wanted to (again) walk you through a bit of the thinking behind how I got there.

Now, I know it seems like I've been recapping the ongoing narrative at every opportunity lately but the truth is that the ideas I put forward every week flow naturally from one another and - to be honest - my own thinking evolves from week to week. Recapping them helps both you and I understand where we are, how we got here, and where we are going.

If you've been following the narrative as it's unfolded than feel free to jump down past the recap header to the next one in bold below. If you haven't, then I suggest reading what follows, and re-examining some of the posts in this series should you feel the need to go deeper.

Recap

Which obviously brings me to the point I want to address today

Its a point that has always been in the back of my mind since starting this exploration; its a point I've already given away, but one that is - in my view - incredibly important and often lost in the shuffle: to govern is to choose. In my initial introduction I mentioned a report out of the UK. Not only is it worth reading but also citing verbatim; here's the executive summary in full (emphasis added):
In its plan for Civil Service reform, published in June 2012, the Government introduced “open policy-making”. This means engaging the public and experts from beyond the “Westminster village” in debates about policy and in the policy-making process itself, and establishing a new relationship with the citizen who becomes a valued partner to identify problems, discover new thinking and to propose solutions. It is a departure from more traditional approaches to public engagement, which have usually only occurred after the Government has already determined a course of action.  
To govern is to choose. Open policy-making should take debate outside Whitehall and into the community as a whole, but ultimate responsibility and accountability for leadership must remain with Ministers and senior civil servants. Once again, we emphasise the importance of leadership in Government; of effective strategic thinking, which involves choosing between different arguments, reconciling conflicting opinions and arbitrating between different groups and interests; and of effective governance of departments and their agencies. A process of engagement, which can reach beyond the “Westminster village” and the “usual suspects”, will itself be an act of leadership, but there can be no abdication of that leadership.  
There is great potential for open and contested policy-making to deliver genuine public engagement. There is also a risk of disappointment and scepticism amongst the public about the impact of their participation, and that Government listens only to the media, lobbying and “the usual suspects”. Ministers must commit sufficient time for public engagement to reach beyond Westminster. Digital technology and new media have a huge role to play. In time, the Government should be able to demonstrate that the citizen is able to contribute opinion, ideas and suggestions on an ongoing basis, if it is to be seen as moving away from old processes and embracing a new relationship with the citizen.
Ultimate responsibility and accountability for leadership must remain with Ministers and senior civil servants

There you have it. The conditions within which we operate may be changing but the accountability structures remain. Now, in the past I've written that I think that the balance of fearless advice and loyal implementation has shifted heavily towards implementation to the detriment of fearless advice (See: On Risk, Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation) but now I'm not so sure. My original statements track well with the thesis presented in Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (which I enjoyed very much and recommend reading) but perhaps my position needs some refinement given what I've cited above.

First, the very notion of balance between fearless advice and loyal implementation may be false; there is a relationship to be sure, but balance, not necessarily. In fact, the very notion of balance may be a rooted in the cathedral model and thus not conducive to the bazaar. Remember, the bazaar is defined by complexity, while 'balance' is rather simple conceptual framework.

Second, the relationship between loyal implementation and fearless advice will likely be determined (negotiated?) by leadership on an issue by issue basis. A give here, a take there, a meet in middle elsewhere, and even perhaps the odd all out yelling match somewhere in parts unknown. There are no hard and fast rules here, its like any other relationship, it defies simple logic and point in time analyses. I think we struggle with this mostly because we (bureaucrats) tend to privilege the comfort of routine, protocols and machinations rather than the complexity of relationships (again, see: The Real Problem of Facelessness).

Third, there is an assumption that the shift in focus towards loyal implementation somehow diminishes the value of the fearless advice. But to be honest, the focus of implementation jives well with hierarchical organizational models that excel at incremental innovation (keep doing what we do, but do it faster, better, cheaper) and fall down when it comes to disruptive innovation (do something different that displaces old ways of doing things). I suppose what I am trying to get at is that I don't know that the value fearless advice is being diminished in so much as the context within which it is provided is changing and making it dramatically more difficult to deal with.

Finally, we can - as we do here - continue to offer our best and most fearless advice on a regular and sustained basis, but ultimately must resign ourselves to the fact that it is ultimately up to leadership to decide what to do (or not do) with that advice.

Quite simple, it's not our job to govern, at least not yet, and until then, our responsibility to leadership - Ministers and Senior Civil Servants - is to provide the best possible advice we can while affording them the trust and respect they have earned to choose what's in the best interests for Canadians.

In many ways, we have the easy jobs; we simply put forward the advice, whereas they have the at times unenviable responsibility of having to choose.


Postscript

Right now there are a number of interesting threads happening behind the firewall as a part of the Blueprint 2020 exercise; one tackles this precise issue, an issue that I weighed in on very carefully:
The conversation I linked to in the tweet above is shaping up to be an interesting one, as such, I'd encourage you to check it out.

Making Maps and Sense

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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

I've been, perhaps ungracefully, transitioning from a conversation here about facelessness vs. authenticity (see: Embracing Authenticity Means Embracing Complexity) to an exploration of what a new professionalism looks like for the Canadian Public Service (see: Towards a New Professionalism in Government, Parts I and II).

I stand by my points: we need public trust to attract talent, and to create maneuvering room for policy options. We gain it through building relationships with those we serve, through stories and through authentic interactions. But none of that is particularly shocking, and professionalism contains many more moving parts.

So as I said, perhaps ungracefully. Two posts in, it's time to start at the beginning: this should have been Part III. But I can't go towards anything, without knowing where I am, and where I'm going.


Professionalism

My view of things will certainly change over time, but here is what I consider as my duty as a public servant:
  1. To do my job well and with integrity
  2. To continuously strive to build skills and gain knowledge; my ability to do my job will almost certainly, on average, increase in importance over my career (see: What You're Giving Now? You Can Never Give Less)
  3. To try to positively influence those around me through example and through fearless advice
  4. To look for opportunities to contribute to positive change in the public service
I'm outspoken about ideas that could improve the public service. I recently received advice that, instead, I should just find a good manager and I'd be happy. My response was that, if the public service could be made better and isn't, regardless of whether it directly affects me, “I'm not okay with that.”

The “it's not my job” approach has benefits and costs. As Seth Godin would point out:


The person whose job it was to make that sign? It wasn't their job to point out its asininity. So it got made.

Ultimately, our job is to serve the public interest.

For my list above, there are short-term and long-term elements, and there's a balance of “How can structural problems be fixed?” and “Maybe it's us? Maybe it's me?” Dr. Rosemary O'Leary argues in her book, The Ethics of Dissent, that if you're going to push against the status quo – and expect motion - you had better be damn sure you're right. I agree. We must be cautious about the direction we're pushing in.

The road to a new professionalism in government, though? I don't know exactly what direction it takes, or what balance of it, and us.

But here's my stab at it, and I welcome a conversation that corrects and lengthens the course. To start, I think we need to overcome the following ideas - and I believe they're that, and that only: ideas that have propagated, irrespective of basis in truth.


The First Step is Knowing Where We Are

I believe we've forgotten how important our jobs are. And once we forget that, it immediately becomes true.

I believe that we've forgotten how much is possible. And once we forget that, it immediately becomes true. As soon as someone says “there's no appetite for that,” they're immediately right.

I believe we've allowed ourselves to believe that processes can replace relationships in creating effective outcomes for Canadians.

And I believe that Ottawa, the concept, has to spend more time outside Ottawa, the city*.


Your Turn

Where do we start?




*Compared to the U.K., U.S., and Australia we're overepresented in the capital, and travel across this country is not easy. Removed from Ottawa, the concept, we'd understand better Canadians' needs. And we'd see our impact, which would motivate us to swing for the fences.

I wrote once that organizations need to attract talent like varsity sports teams. The bargain is this: responsibility, development, and status in exchange for dedication, sacrifice, and hard work. Near-mandatory rotations out of Ottawa for public servants would be one such sacrifice.

The Bazaar World of Fearless Advice 2.0

Friday, July 12, 2013
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

It's no surprise that our role as civil servants is changing. One can hardly browse a civil service centric publication from the developed world that doesn't start by framing drivers of change: big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and technologically driven disruptive innovation in well-established regulatory markets (e.g. AirBNB, Uber, etc) to name but a few.

But is there consensus on what the future looks like?

Seemingly. From the reading I've done and the conversations I've had or been privy to, civil servants seem to be grappling with the notion that the civil service no longer hold a monopoly on policy advice; that their role is shifting from that of a monopoly provider to something more akin to a sensor, sense-maker, connector and validator, that government is increasingly being disintermediated from its traditional roles in the face of greater complexity.

It's a Bazaar world out there

The commonly used metaphor to describe this shift in is as moving from the policy cathedral to the policy bazaar - a metaphor borrowed from Eric S. Raymond's seminal essay entitled The Cathedral and the Bazaar - which uses a case study to do a deep dive on the difference between closed software development models (the cathedral) versus open source development models (the bazaar). Another academic, Michael Gurstein wrote on this exact idea back in 1999, here's an excerpt:
"I think that it is inevitable that these artificial and scarcity (of the means of communication) derived barriers between the governors and the governed (the Cathedral based clergy and the laity) will break down and very likely sooner rather than later. The modern world and the broad environmental context for policy making is too complex to be "managed" by those responsible without having access to the most encompassing range of expertise and experience available to it. The alternative, which is the reliance on hired expertise through consultants and researchers and paid informants (lobbyists) is too restrictive and assumes as all Cathedral dwellers must, that within the Cathedral resides the full sum of useful knowledge."
The shift in modalities that Gurstein is describing (pictured left) is precisely what civil services around the world are grappling with. The best example of this is likely the UK's civil service reform agenda which deliberately sets open policy making next to constestable policy making as viable options for policy makers in an effort to better harness the untapped potential in public policy Bazaar. Just yesterday the UK announced some broad changes to their civil service that came out of the latter and are being heralded as near revolutionary.

What does that mean for you?

The shift from cathedral to bazaar started long ago and will likely continue to play out over the foreseeable future; meaning that the tension between those modalities is likely to continue define the frame within which we operate.

If this is indeed the case than my advice in the short term is to familiarize yourself with the new marketplace of ideas, actors, evidence and instruments because they represent assets that are going to increase in value over time. In other words, get more comfortable with the complexity, embrace your authenticity (See: Embracing Authenticity Means Embracing Complexity), and step into the Bazaar world of fearless advice 2.0.

Postscript

I may be wrong but here, my instincts are telling me that we - the royal Canadian we - are likely moving towards similar models to those being implemented or now under use in the UK. Often, we tend to look to the United States when considering comparators due to geographic proximity, but we ought to be paying close attention to the UK given that make up of our democratic institutions are more proximate. If this is a field you are interested in you'd be well served by watching the civil service reform agenda unfold in the UK.

Towards a New Professionalism in Government, Part II

Wednesday, July 10, 2013
by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I was hoping to get to the heart of how I view the future of public service professionalism. But the road turned out wordy, so I've split it into two posts, this one continuing the link between the discussion that's been going on here lately and professionalism (See: Embracing Authenticity Means Embracing Complexity).


Before I bolted east for vacation (and got that photo, above), I decided that I'd explore what a new professionalism in government would look like, and prefaced it with a post on the importance of authenticity and storytelling. I wondered if it would seem like a non sequitur (See: Towards a New Professionalism in Government).

Evidently not. Ashleigh Weeden handily beat me to the segue:
The amazing by-product is that when I am grounded in my own authenticity, I am in a much better position to receive the stories of the colleagues, citizens and agencies that I work with because I am open to hearing what they have to say and not preoccupied with the mind-reading that comes from filtering what I hear and see through the voice of my own gremlins. By engaging my wholehearted self, I am better able to connect with other individuals as well as connect the dots of concepts and see patterns in the anecdotes that lead to important questions about the way we do things.
In other words, we need to be open, authentic, and genuine with those we serve. In doing so, we'll understand the human context and feedback that will motivate us to swing for the fences – to which I'll return next week. And we'll understand people's needs and perspectives, how we need to communicate, and how complex our issues really are.

Professionalism is results. Results achieved sustainably, with integrity, and with a stronger public service emerging through their achievement. In the short term, solid policy and services. In the long term, a trusted and strong public service. Remembering that neither horizon is served by working in a vacuum.


Complexity versus Voltaire's Bastards

From John Ralston Saul's website, about his book Voltaire's Bastards
A simple truth which our elites deny: far from being a moral force, reason is no more than an administrative method. Their denial has helped to turn the modern West into a vast, incomprehensible, directionless machine, run by process-minded experts - “Voltaire's bastards" - whose cult of scientific management is bereft of both sense and morality.
I've referenced Saul before (See: Left and Leaving). He both chastises technocrats for oversimplifying things from ivory towers, and – related – laments the erosion of honour, status, and trust in the Canadian Public Service over the last half century. He paints a vicious cycle of the decline of professionalism.

This is the virtuous cycle I posted a few weeks ago. I discussed how public trust through authentic interaction is key for status and, thus, attracting talent. I'd propose that we add that such interaction bolsters the cycle significantly at the performance stage as well, because it helps us understand the complexity of what we're up against.


I don't think the world is much more complex than before. Honestly. It may be faster, but the force far outweighing increasing complexity is increasing awareness of complexity. We weren't spraying DDT on fields 50 years ago because ecosystems were any less complex – we did it because we had no idea how complex they were (See: What We Don't Know).  Now we have:
  • A better lens on complexity
  • The lessons learned that more or less every time we learn about something, we find out it's more complex than we first thought
  • Knowledge of the ramifications when we fail to appreciate complexity
And thus we have a duty to change our approach to problem solving, appreciating all that.

I feel as though we have fallen prey to various memes*. One is that we're smart enough to make decisions from Ottawa on behalf of those we're imposing them upon. We're not. The world is large; it contains multitudes. 


*To be returned to next week.