You Can't Play Ping Pong By Yourself

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
by Ashleigh Weeden RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Ashleigh Weedentwitter / ashleighweeden

Ashleigh is a mischief-maker, bridge-builder, barrier-smasher, and dot-connecter. She blogs hootnhowl.tumblr.com. Kent and I have been asking her to post here for some time now, she finally took us up on the offer.

In start-up circles, culture and unique work environments are used as celebratory beacons for what are meant to be progressive, interesting companies. Employers with these cultural signifiers of awesomeness are usually defined in contrast to the perceived rigidity and restrictive nature of organizational behemoths like large corporations and government institutions. What these companies seem to be saying is that they think the work they do is different, that their people can and will influence big changes and that they purposely use specific work environments to support differentness, creativity, collaboration and other qualities promised by the shift toward profit-for-social-good model of doing work.

But someone has to build that environment. It doesn’t just pop into existence. People do that.

Reading Nick's reflections on leaving the Public Service for a different kind of public service at the Institute on Governance (See: Thoughts from the Other Side of Interchange), and noticing the discussions and patterns that seem to be surfacing amongst some of the public servants I admire most, I've been thinking about how much of an impact good people have on an organization and how a critical mass of good people is what creates or changes an organization's culture. This is not a chicken-and-egg scenario to me - you can't have the culture without the people. Public sector renewal, then, seems to hinge on exceptional human resource management.

First, I hate the term "human resources" - it makes my skin crawl. It makes me imagine bad coffee and worse ties and the feeling of being called into the Principal's office. We have got to come up with a better term for individuals whose core function is finding the people that will build the kind of public service we say we want. I'm not sure what that term should be, but it needs to recognize a modern approach to people-first team building. Because that's what an exceptional recruiter and staff developer does - they build teams and build organizations, block by block, by finding and placing the kind of person that will help steer a team, a department, and an organization in the direction it wants to go... Or, at least, that's what they should be doing.

It strikes me that we need a fundamental shift in our recruitment and retention philosophy. I read Karolina Szcur's piece about "Where to Work" (inspired by Paul Jarvis' excellent "You are not a corporation") and, while the entire piece reads as a pretty solid basic course in "great work environments 101" and makes up what I think should be the basic job description of every people-manager in the world, the quote she pulled from a Basecamp job posting hit me like lightning:

"We are not looking for someone who’s already expert in everything they do. We’re looking for someone great who demonstrates the interest, drive, and desire to keep learning new things and continually get better." (from here)

When Basecamp includes this statement in their recruitment ads, what they're saying is that they are an organization that hires character and curiosity, not just credentials. It doesn't fit neatly in arbitration-ready evaluation grids and pokes holes in our flawed meritocracies - but it's the spark that says "Let's build this together."

It's something that I think Tariq touched on when he wrote about letting ideas shine without a prescriptive formula for diversity (See: Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out - Planning and Idea Generation in Government). Kent also hinted at it with his GOC 3.0 takeway. And it's something that I see in the virtual community of practice of public servants in the social media sphere. These are folks with that essential nugget of the virtuous schemer, who are challenging, appreciating and nourishing each other as whole persons, not just cogs in the production process. Remember all my talk about whole-hearted public service? We can't get there if the official channels that manage the employment relationship refuse to acknowledge the important part that our human subjectivity plays in creating our professional realities.

Talent management is tantamount to a very long game of chess with a generous dash of fortune telling and an element of The Labyrinth thrown in for good measure because the chess pieces have minds of their own and are likely to move about the board whenever they want. Overly prescriptive and technical hiring processes may seem like equalizers, but they take humanity out of the picture. The assumption is that everyone with a certain list of qualifications is an interchangeable, blank-chess-piece-widget instead of a highly changeable weirdo (which we all are, really. “Weirdo” is a compliment, I promise). So we’re left without the practical magic needed to create and sustain the kind of professional culture we crave.

Large organizations could learn a lot from ongoing exit interviews of all staff - not just executives, and not just when someone leaves permanently. Think of the gold mine that culture-builders could access from asking George or Nick for their honest reflections - and expand that out to asking similar questions of those who move teams or departments, whether on secondment or for a promotion or for a lateral change of scenery. Extrapolate that outwards to interviewing people moving between levels of government or between sectors. Imagine if everyone completed a “first impressions” review after a month in their new positions, and again six months in, and after the first year and so on. Imagine if your performance appraisal included a culture appraisal that actually contributed to a regular readjustment of the corporate sails. We’d become constructively introspective. My nerdy little social-scientist’s heart beats wildly at the thought of all that deep data collection. We’d have the start of a pretty radical public service ethnography.

Cool culture is not about a ping-pong table in the office, endless coffee or even a keg in the fridge - it's a function of the work you get to do and the people you get to work alongside. Spend too long working amongst too many people who just don't "get" you on some fundamental level, and you're bound to burn out and seek shelter elsewhere. But find yourself on a team of wildly productive sparkplugs who see the same sparkle in the world and in each other that you do? Magic. Because you can’t play ping-pong by yourself.