Friday, March 28, 2014

The question Blueprint 2020 should have asked but didn't

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

On Wednesday Kent put forward the notion that the perceived lull in Blueprint 2020 might be hitting the trough of disillusionment (See: Blueprint 2020, Renewal, and the Trough of Disillusionment) and while I hope he's right and that there is a slope of enlightenment around the corner, I'm not so sure. I was in the same place as Kent on Friday, but a part of a very different conversation.

The issue with Blueprint is that put forward a pre-conceived vision and invited people to comment. In so doing it actually built on the assumptions of the day rather than challenge the validity of those assumptions now and in the future.

A perfect example of this was when someone from the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) asked something like (and I'm paraphrasing) "How can the school best serve the needs of the Government of Canada in 2020" to which I replied (again paraphrasing) "Does the CSPS even need to exist in 2020?".

I'm not trying to throw the school under the bus here. There are at least two sides to the argument and it merits full discussion — that's not the point. The point is we need to get meta, not perfunctory. We can't carry flawed assumptions forward, no one builds on quicksand.

The most common criticism I have heard to date of Blueprint – from civil servants from all levels mind you – is that it is a process more concerned with getting us to where we should have already been by now rather than where we ought to be in 2020.  If the criticism is merited (and I think it is) it leads us to question why we would expect anyone to put forward anything more courageous than that which is already common sense (and commonplace) in other organizations. Flexible work arrangements, workplace WiFi, better bandwidth and open access to the Internet are yesterday's concerns not tomorrow's innovations. Who is doing the hard work of trying to figure out what actually happens when Westminster meets digital? Do we need to change the machinery? Do we need new policy levers? Should we be more aggressively pursuing alternate service delivery models (e.g. social impact bonds)?

It's precisely the same problem I put forward in On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons and Innovation Labs. To be clear, I'm not arguing that these things can't be valuable but rather that they risk doing more harm than good if there isn't a clear way to turn their outputs into throughputs.

In fairness, I'm not on the inside right now. I'm disconnected, and as a result I have no idea what, if anything, is currently happening with Blueprint. I'm working from what I've seen prior to leaving, and what I've heard since. Blueprint is obviously something I'm still thinking a lot about, when I read the Open public service in a global marketplace report earlier this week something clicked. I want to share something that Damien Venkatasamy said in the report because I think it's precisely the question Blueprint should have asked but didn't:
“... something does have to change in terms of the way that public services are delivered in the future, and I guess there is no one answer to that, and it depends on what the function is. But I think there is a very difficult question that every government department, every government agency and every local authority probably needs to ask which is: ‘what is our core function?’ By that I mean what are the functions that only we, the Civil Service, can fulfil, either because of a legal requirement or because, frankly, there is so much knowledge embedded in that function that it would be ludicrous for anyone else to even attempt to do it.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blueprint 2020, Renewal, and the Trough of Disillusionment

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

Recently one of my colleagues pointed out a perceived lull in Government of Canada chatter. On Twitter, blogs, and GCconnex, they felt a noticeable absence of conversations about public administration, innovation, and change. I’m inclined to agree. We bandied theories back and forth about why that might be, and last Friday landed on this possibility:

The current wave of public service renewal, launched by Blueprint 2020, is hitting its trough of disillusionment. If you’re not familiar, that term refers to the Gartner Hype Cycle for new technologies: people start talking about them, then everyone’s expectations get unrealistically high, and when they can’t possibly deliver, the technology slides into the trough. People start questioning its value. Eventually, things level out and people find the genuinely useful applications for the technology, and it enters a plateau of productivity.

If the hype cycle can apply to public service renewal - that is, if the current wave is entering a trough of disillusionment, and can be mapped like a technology in this way - it means a few things.

For starters, it would mean that Nick (and others) may have solid grounds to question the promise of Dragon's Dens, Hackathons, and Innovation LabsThat it is time to question our expectations and ensure that we are pursuing the right ideas, and that they make sense for our organizations. And that John Kenney may be right about the tension between innovation and ongoing operations (see his review of Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization).

(For the record, I still think highly of hackathons, but I agree with Clay Shirky about their actual sustainably productive application.)

It would mean that some of the ideas that have surfaced since Blueprint 2020 launched in June won’t see the light of day, at least not in their current form, or applied to the problems proposed. Which is okay. Some of them shouldn’t.

Most importantly, it would mean that we, as an organization, are becoming more mature about innovation and the prospects for renewal. That we are questioning our assumptions, and moving towards those ideas that will actually create value in the long run. It would mean that we are actually on track towards implementing these ideas and reaching the plateau of productivity - which has always been the goal, whether we've known it or not.

That said, it would not mean that the champions and advocates for ideas can stop championing and advocating. These people are present in every stage of the hype cycle. That’s how it works.

The goal, now, is to focus on the problems that our organizations are persistently facing, and to find opportunities for alignment between problems and solutions.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Book Review: Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization

by John Kenney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / HonestJuanK

It would seem that it is completely natural to frame the innovation challenge as a battle between an innovation hero and a bureaucratic octopus. In the real world, however, innovation heroes get strangled, almost every time. Therefore, we need a more productive approach… 
... what is needed is mutual respect between innovation leaders and performance engine leaders…innovation leaders must recognize that conflict with the performance engine is normal. It is not the result of people being lazy or unwilling to change. Quite to the contrary, it is the result of good people doing good work, trying to make the performance engine run as efficiently as possible. Performance engine leaders, for their part, must remember that no performance engine lasts forever…(Beyond the Idea, p. 48).
Blueprint 2020 generated a lot of ideas and maybe just as many questions regarding if and how they will be implemented. What follows is a summary of Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization and a few thoughts with respect to public sector innovation.

First, a few things about what the book is not:

With the exception of a couple of brief appendices on strategy and change, which I’ll discuss below, it’s not a guide for strategic or systemic approaches to innovation.* It picks up where the generation of ideas leaves off so doesn’t explain (directly) how innovation supports desired outcomes, needs and/or solutions to problems. It also doesn’t speak to innovation diffusion. There’s a deliberate focus on project-level innovation initiatives based on the authors’ survey of the field, which was primarily private sector the public sector is not the intended audience. The book, therefore, does not tell a complete innovation story, nor does it attempt to.

If I haven’t lost you after that preamble, I think the authors have some important insights with respect to managing innovation initiatives vis-à-vis ongoing operations. There are a number of jumping off points for further reflection and discussion.

The book’s premise is that orgs must shift time and energy from a focus on generating ideas to executing innovation initiatives. An innovation initiative is defined as “any project that is new to your organization and has an uncertain outcome.” The definition is intentionally broad.

The way the authors see it, most orgs are not built for innovation. They’re set up to deliver ongoing operations via the “performance engine.” “…Innovation execution is its own unique discipline. It requires its own time, energy and distinct thinking.”

Three models for executing innovation initiatives are presented. Orgs can have any number of innovation initiatives on the go; what’s crucial, say the authors, is to match each initiative to the proper model to ensure they are executed effectively. “The criteria for choosing the right model are internal. They are tied to the physics of getting the work done.”


Strategy for Dealing with the
Performance Engine
What It Delivers
Squeeze It In
Squeeze innovation into the slack in the system.
A very large number of very small initiatives.
Make It Repeatable and Predictable
Make innovation look as much like day-to-day operations as possible.
A series of similar initiatives.
Separate It
Separate incompatible innovation tasks from day-to-day operations.
One unique initiative at a time.
- Beyond the Idea, p. 15

Model S, for small initiatives, “squeezes innovation into the slack time” of the ongoing work of the performance engine, spontaneously and organically. This model is largely dependent on motivated employees, individually and/or collectively, doing their regular work plus the work to innovate, but only part-time given the performance engine has got to keep chugging along. For that reason, Model S can work for small initiatives only, but the cumulative impacts can be significant. E.g.:

Model R, for repeatable initiatives, is all about the process and making innovation systematic for a series of similar initiatives, big or small. It aims to make innovation as repeatable and predictable as possible. “…for all of Model R’s strengths, it is also its own worst enemy. Its drive for efficiency eventually becomes its undoing.” Systematic, process-driven innovation for specific initiatives requires some flexibility (e.g. time, budget) at times to allow for breakthroughs to occur. E.g.:

  • Product development teams that pump out the ongoing series of your favourite smartphone,
  • An HR team that develops and implements a new performance management directive using a similar process and people as the previous year’s exercise.   

The bulk of the book is dedicated to Model C, for custom initiatives, which is the most difficult and robust model. This model is used for all other initiatives beyond the limitations of either Model S or Model R. Model C initiatives require a structure for disciplined experimentation that is incompatible with the performance engine. Each custom initiative has a “Special Team” and a “Special Plan.” The Special Team is made up of “Dedicated Staff”, who work full-time on the initiative and “Shared Staff”, who provide part-time support (as needed) and continue their role in ongoing operations. The Dedicated Staff is assembled as if you’re putting together a new, custom-built organization: the culture, ways of working and make-up of the team, which could include external talent, is designed for the specific initiative. The Special Team and Special Plan emphasize rapid learning to design and execute the initiative, and the work of the team is evaluated more so on that basis. E.g.:

I buy Beyond the Idea’s argument that we have to acknowledge and manage the inevitable tension(s) between our ongoing operations and innovation initiatives. There’s some truth to “innovation heroes get strangled, almost every time.” Often, the performance engine is busy doing other things. Motivated employees with brilliant ideas get swamped or directed to work on other priorities. Or, the culture and ways of working of an established org unit (or an entire department) do not lend themselves well to adapting to new ways of working to achieve desired outcomes. The book includes info on the roles a Chief Innovation Officer and/or innovation support team can play in coordinating initiatives, providing support and guidance, and managing the potential conflicts.

There’s more to it than that though.

Beyond the Idea’s focus on using the right model for an innovation initiative is important, but is it the right initiative? A scattershot approach to innovation via idea generation will only take an organization so far, and possibly in an unknown direction (See Innovation is the Process of Idea Management and Why your innovation contest won’t work). We need to commit to the long game and take the necessary steps to get there. That may include taking a step back, looking at the big picture, and ensuring our overarching frameworks, business processes, and ways of working enable innovation and its diffusion. Check out You can’t impose a culture of innovation for tips on investing in long-term change and consider moving from incremental fixes to systemic innovation.

An argument that innovation requires “its own time, energy and distinct thinking” doesn’t mean that it happens in isolation of everything else. Alex Howard recently wrote about the launch of 18F, a startup within the US General Services Administration that is setting up to “hack the bureaucracy.” “18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services.” Also mentioned in Howard’s post was Clay Johnson’s response to 18F: “Is 18F a complete solution to the US government’s IT woes? No. But, like RFP-IT and FITARA, this new office is part of a broader strategy.” Ah, strategy.

Buried at the back of Beyond the Idea is an appendix on “Strategy.”. The authors claim that “everything a company thinks and does can be put into one of the [following] three boxes:
  • Box 1: Manage the present;
  • Box 2: Selectively forget the past; and
  • Box 3: Create the future.”
Most organizations spend a lot of time on managing the present. Blueprint 2020 and the recent planning push have got us thinking about the future, but as we do that, are we making deliberate, well-informed decisions and challenging the enduring assumptions of the performance engine to selectively forget the past? We need to address the underlying problems and (sometimes perceived) barriers to new ways of working. Innovation is not just about doing new things. Sometimes it’s about making deliberate choices to stop doing old things.

The guidance in Beyond the Idea will not get us there alone, but being mindful that innovation initiatives come in all shapes and sizes and require appropriate models to effectively execute them is timely advice. Managing the tensions between ongoing operations and innovation initiatives and selectively forgetting the past will be crucial if the federal public service is expected to meet at the desired Destination 2020 rendezvous point.

Friday, March 21, 2014

More thoughts on the Copernicus formula

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

A while back I presented a model demonstrating what I consider to be the future of public policy (See: Blending Sentiment, Data Analytics, Design Thinking, and Behavioural Economics). Kent later observed that the model could in fact describe the more encompassing idea of governance writ large (See: Building Distributed Capacity). At first I agreed with his observation but it's something I've been quietly reflecting on a lot lately and the more I think about it, the more I get the sense that what I've put forward is more precisely a formula that informs governance. Or perhaps more rightly, could inform a particular way of "doing" governance, because governance is – as Kent himself recently noted (See: People Act, Technology Helps) – what people do.

Recapping Copernicus

If you didn't catch the original post (again, see: Blending Sentiment, Data Analytics, Design Thinking, and Behavioural Economics) here's the TL;DR recap of the formula:

(Public Sentiment + Data Analytics) / (Design Thinking + Behavioural Economics) = Future of Evidence Based Policy

It's a back-to-basics model that argues that the sum of what the public wants (sentiment) and what the evidence suggests is possible (data) is best achieved through policy interventions that are highly contextualized and can be empirically tested, tweaked, and maximized (design thinking + behavioural economics) while simultaneously creating new data to support or refute it and facing real-time and constantly shifting public scrutiny.

Naming Copernicus

I chose to name the formula Copernicus for the following reasons:
  • it speaks to the fact that the formula represents a significant reorientation in the field of policy development and execution; 
  • it infers the amount of effort that will be required to overcome the inertia that is inherent in current frame of reference; and
  • it conveys the sense that once the formula becomes the new frame of reference the old frame is no longer tenable.
You may have noticed that I sense "once the formula comes the new frame" and not "if the formula becomes the new frame"; I did so subconsciously, noticed, paused, reflected, and kept it as is because my gut feeling is that it is only a matter of time before the formula's elements become as ubiquitous as the social media that we used to talk about in similar veins.

Copernicus is a means

It's a frame that helps you lean into the hard work of figuring out the variables. What do people want? What does the evidence suggest is possible?

It's a frame that helps you lean even further into the harder work of structuring the execution. What policy levers are most likely to work? How do you design the interaction? How do you build adaptability into the prototype?

It's a frame that helps decision makers gather rich information points and brings them to a series of decision points.

Copernicus is not an end

What I'm trying to get at is the fact that the formula isn't a panacea of simplification but a lens through which to better understand complexity. It doesn't tell you how to weigh the variables against one another, or what choice(s) to make, but rather it helps identify that which you ought to consider when doing so.

To be honest, I was planning on writing a series of posts elaborating each of the formula's elements but every time I sit down to do so I get lost in the complexity of each of them. In short, I'm still learning, thinking them through, running them up against real world examples. I still plan on doing so, but I need to dedicate more time to think it all through.

To this end, I'm considering convening a small discussion to test the model against recent policy choices made by different organizations (e.g. Canada Post' decision to end home delivery) to see precisely how it could help me both understand and explain a policy choice if I was in the position to make one. If this is a thought exercise that you are interested in participating in, drop me a line, I'd be happy to run through it with you as a thought exercise.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

People Act, Technology Helps

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

This quote from South by Southwest was making the rounds yesterday:

Which dovetails with Nick's post last week (see: Dragon's Dens, Hackathons, and Innovation Labs. Nick questioned whether such approaches are being used as innovation band-aids, plastered over more fundamental problems:
If pressed to offer a TL;DR of the problem I would say that the core challenge facing public sector institutions right now is that industrial age organizational models don't jive with digital age cultures and technologies.
I don't know if I can fully back the idea that it's the core challenge, but I'd agree that it's a major one (see: We Don't Make Widgets Any More or as a Case Study in the Digital Analog Divide).

We mistake the use of digital technology as evidence that we know how to use digital technology. Really, we're still very much so learning this world and discovering its potential and limits. We absolutely should continue to push the boundaries, but it strikes me that we're undervaluing reflection on what our recent history has meant.

And, for that matter, what it has not meant.

Humans are still human, if not more human than ever. Mid-century economic models assuming rational actors with perfect information have given way to the understanding that humans are not just irrational, but predictably irrational. Face-to-face canvassing impacts voter turnout at 5-8 times the rate that mail or phone calls do. Humans respond to what is meaningful to them, particularly connections to other humans.

With that in mind, here's a heuristic I've been considering. As government representatives and as employees of large organizations, we're faced with many situations in which we want to get feedback from stakeholders and colleagues. When thinking about how to design that interaction, consider how you'd ask a good friend the same question. If the answer is sitting down for coffee, email probably isn't the best approach. It might be the practical approach all things considered, but make sure you're aware of what you're losing in going a particular route.

As Nick asked, it's "What does governance look like in a digital era?" Not, "How do we use digital in governance?" Governance is still the key element of the idea. Some fundamental assumptions about governance have changed; many haven't. In the end, it's still about what people do.

Consider the Sandy Carter quote. Similarly, technology has helped people unearth many, many problems that always existed, but were hard to see. And the inadequacies of many of our solutions.

Technology will not revolutionize government, society, or democracy. But people might. Technology might help them realize that they have to, or help them find the people and tools they need to do it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons and Innovation Labs

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

I was asked recently to give a talk on injecting creativity in the civil service. The timing of the request is somewhat ironic given that I just left on an interchange and that one of the reasons I left was because I wanted more opportunities for creativity in the workplace.

Irony aside (and in fairness the invitation was issued a long time ago), the more I thought about the metaphor of injecting creativity, the more compelling I thought it was as a frame for discussion. As a metaphor, it speaks not only to the core challenge of creativity in the civil service but also to the underlying problem of how we think about solving it: We don't treat the underlying cause, we treat the symptom.

But the lack of creativity in the civil service - if you agree such a thing exists - isn't a structural problem per se but rather is the result of a myriad of other structural problems: hierarchy, risk aversion, group think and all the other usual suspects that round out the gamut.

There are surely creative people working for governments. I have met many, but the environment within which they work simply doesn't foster their creativity.

What's the solution?

The short answer is simple: fix the underlying problems.

The long answer  how to actually fix those problems  is much more complicated. If pressed to offer a TL;DR of the problem I would say that the core challenge facing public sector institutions right now is that industrial age organizational models don't jive with digital age cultures and technologies.

I would say that things are breaking.

Everyone kind of understands this, even if only implicitly

Leadership knows it. It's implied in their discussions about how the civil service is losing its monopoly on policy advice and evidenced whenever they turn a wilful blind eye to the established hierarchy or the machinery to better accomplish their goals.

Grunts know it. They exploit it whenever they use flattening technologies to reach across reporting structures, jurisdictions, geographies, languages, and ideologies.

Citizens know it. They are solving building solutions faster, better and cheaper than governments ever thought possible, let alone have the capacity to deliver (See: The Solution Revolution by William Eggers and Paul Macmillan)

Things are breaking and governments are struggling.

We're on our heels when we need to be leaning in

Despite these immense pressures, the cultural bias of bureaucracy is to subjugate new ideas to old principles (and processes) while thoughtful re-examination is anathema. That said, the former leads to press release by Twitter and extends industrial age thinking to digital technologies. The latter leads to a discussion about how democracy changes in the wake of communications technologies like Twitter, and in so doing it asks: "What does governance look like in a digital era?"

Where's the vein that runs through all of that?

How can any one individual reasonably expect to navigate such a complex system?

Distributed governance. Overlapping institutions. Supercharged technology. Agile citizenry.

Leaning in takes courage. Who among us is ready to stand up and take decisive action when the court of public opinions sees its public service as an ignoble profession (See: When did the Public Service Become an Ignoble Profession)? When the predominate discourse is about eliminating rather than creating (See: One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure)? When pundits and politicos jump on every miscue, and citizens are quick to scream "not in my back yard"?

Perhaps we need a different metaphor.

How do you eat the elephant?

There is an emergent patchwork of solutions that leadership seems increasingly interested in. It seems like you can't even have a conversation in this town without someone mentioning Dragon's Dens, Hackathons, or Innovation Labs. The patchwork is interesting, promising and even problematic.

It is interesting because it's evidence of my earlier claim that leadership knows something is amiss; it is promising because it demonstrates their willingness to try something different; and it is problematic because it's born of the same thinking that asks "how does one inject creativity into the civil service". It's additive, it doesn't address the underlying issues and if done in isolation is little more than another check mark in the column of innovation rhetoric.

However, if strung together under a larger plan the patchwork becomes something very different, and while I'm hopeful that those embarking down the path of dens, 'thons and labs have a vision of how these pieces fit together now and how they will be integrated into the larger whole (and what needs to change in order for that to happen AND how they plan on changing those things), I haven't heard anyone articulate it yet.

But maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. After all, the answer to the question is one bite at a time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Idealism and Pragmatism for Organizations

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

Chelsea recently walked through some considerations about loosening hierarchy, and put a question to her "renewal-minded" audience about how every change impacts each person differently. So for several weeks I've been thinking about the difference between the theoretical ideal and the practical ideal for an organization. I commented on Chelsea's blog that it's possible that the goal should be a system that we all know is sub-optimal, but that is more reliable for more people. A rowboat's less effective than a speedboat, but much harder to break, easier to learn, and easier to repair.

The Best and the Best Possible

This leads back to questions I left hanging in my post about the changing demographics of public service, possibly leading to a different approach to problems and solutions (see: Lego, Millenials, and the Perimeter of Ignorance). Is that idea actually characteristic of the majority of people in an organization? Like the flat hierarchies that Chelsea explored, what's the impact on everyone involved? It's very likely that my anecdotal evidence, that people could work in such environments, is based on a biased sample.

I started imagining a graph with potential on the vertical axis and feasibility on the horizontal. Perhaps many organizational systems that would be speedboats - incredibly effective for their intended purpose - sacrifice too much feasibility and so are unreliable, expensive, or overly demanding on people.

Two Alternatives

Organizational pragmatism seems like a reasonable position, but I see alternatives.

One, I frequently think that we go too far sacrificing principles for outcomes, ignoring - even if we think we're being perfectly pragmatic - the long-term impacts, and how we're sending signals about what is important. I wrote back-to-back posts about the pragmatic and principled approaches, applied to the idea of hiring a generation of demanding, impatient employees:
Saying "I know this isn't right, but it's what we have to do for right now" is a dangerous road that gets walked too often.

Two, the rowboat-speedboat analogy is loaded - it implies that the effective system is expensive, complex, and involves many moving parts. It could instead be like a flock of starlings - a complex whole based on individually very manageable principles. The graph could be flipped on its head, and feasibility doesn't necessarily have to decrease as potential increases.

The organizational system that requires every employee to behave differently? That's a speedboat. It doesn't have to be like that.