Friday, May 29, 2015

Pulling the Trigger on Chekhov's Gun

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

Anton Chekhov was a Russian author and playwright and is largely considered one of the best short story writers in history; the term 'Chekhov's gun' is said to have come from a piece of advice he shared with other writers:
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Chekhov's warning is simple: guard against extraneous detail
Guns are powerful images. They invoke a particular meaning, they carry with them great potential for danger and death. To give something as symbolic as a gun attention within a narrative is to signal to people that they should pay attention. However, if nothing comes of it, if it is never used, they can feel confused or let down. Chekhov's view is that every detail must have purpose and if you as an author give something significance early in a story, it is incumbent upon you to follow through and actually use it as a plot element.

The way of the gun
However, Chekhov's advice is neither limited to guns (it could be equally applicable to any detail, object, setting or circumstance) nor narrative story telling. As a principle, it applies equally well to both employee/stakeholder engagement efforts (e.g. Blueprint 2020) and innovation infrastructure (e.g. Innovation Labs). These are both highly charged areas where expectations run high and even the fine details matter.

The decision makers shaping these initiatives are no different than Chekhov's short story writers. They are responsible for crafting the narrative. They introduce elements, set the tone and set the action in motion. In so doing they create meaning and expectation, whether they intend to or not. If they don't pay close attention, a misstep or misleading detail will undermine the experience (and thus the resolve) of those working along side them.

My advice is simple
Success in these endeavours ultimately hinges on the willingness and ability of leaders to pull the trigger on Chekhov's gun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Heritage Moments Had It Right

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

I had high hopes for a long deep dive of a post today, but got caught at a fascinating debate (and post-debate pub debate). So, for today:

In one minute, here's a Canadian innovation from 1980:

They had it right.
  1. Understand and consider both old and new approaches.
  2. The solution that's easiest for people to implement and maintain is often better.
  3. What works beats what shines.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Open gov, values, and the social contract

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

The following is the first in a series of guest posts by Melissa Tullio, a friend and fellow public servant; its a cross post from one of the internal platforms within the Ontario Public Service. We are trying to convince her to join the blog as a regular contributor so if you like what you see please share the post, leave a comment or contact her directly; you can find Melissa on Twitter @CreativeGov.

There’s a great line that may be familiar to you from Yes, Minister – a BBC show from the 1980s that followed the life of civil servants in the office of Administrative Affairs. It frequently comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase open government: “You can either be open, or have government!”
I'm not a cynic, but being in government for more than seven years, it seems like this sentiment continues to be deeply embedded in the way we do things. We create silos to restrict who gets what information. We typically need to ask permission to share draft work with colleagues outside of our office. Some of us even password protect documents (eek!) to add more layers of security because we don’t want to be caught as public-servant-zero who accidentally leaked information to the press about some potential decision.

It’s time to have a conversation about values.

Open government will not work if it does not start with public servants exhibiting behaviours that demonstrate values that align with it. If we’re going to achieve transparency, and if our goal is to have truly open dialogue with citizens, we need to examine if what we say aligns with what we do.

The other night, I went to Design with Dialogue – a monthly event hosted by OCAD university. The topic was timely: Cultural Values and Social Change. Our facilitator, Aryne Sheppard, took us through a number of exercises to identify what kinds of values we think we need to have in order to tackle some of the biggest problems we’re trying to solve – climate change, homelessness, and poverty/inequality, to name a few.

values circle.png
A graphic that visualizes groupings of values as a circle. Click for full-sized image.

The framework she used is from the Schwartz values theory. It divides values into sub-groups like universalism (valuing equality, wisdom, social justice, etc.), tradition (valuing devoutness, moderation, acceptance of the way things are, etc.), power (valuing wealth, social influence over others, preserving the public image, etc.) – among others. Values on opposite sides of the circle are inherently in conflict, while values that are close to each other are complementary.

She emphasized throughout our conversations that there are no bad or good values; studies show that cross-culturally, and around the world, there are a consistent set of values [PDF] that emerge. The key is how each of us prioritize our values, and what to do with the cognitive dissonance that results when values are in conflict with each other.

For example, like our Yes, Minister quote suggests, if we say to the public that we value openness, but inside government we behave in a closed manner, the underlying tension this causes makes it seem like we’re not being genuine (hence, we can have one or the other; not both). Not only that, but it makes it difficult for staff to feel engaged with the priorities we say publicly that we're supposed to be exhibiting.

It’s time to revisit our social contract with people.

Kent Aitken from the federal public service has an interesting blog post from early this year that starts digging into the question, “What is government for?” He mentions the social contract: the “deal or arrangement we can expect from the institutions, people, and environments around us, having been born into a society.”

Kent shared with me a Mowat Centre initiative on this very topic: Renewing Canada’s Social Architecture. The premise is that while we haven’t changed our institutions much since the 1960s (suffrage for Aboriginal peoples was finally granted in 1960, for example), societal values and expectations have changed dramatically.

I believe, like he does, that it’s time we start thinking about a new social contract. And I believe it starts with values.

So the question is, how might we, inside government, start shifting our culture (rooted in the values we exhibit) to become more aligned with social values?

What might a “cognitive government” look like?

One of my contacts recently shared this Nesta post on “cognitive government” with me, which is what got me thinking about all of this. A core element of a cognitive government – a government that adapts more rapidly to emergent shifts – is that “Governments should do more than just opening up; they need to become parts of co-creation ecosystems.” Among other things, this implies the end of the siloed mentality from the days of Yes Minister.

These new ecosystems Nesta refers to are being created and recreated all the time, and outside of any perceived control we think we have inside government. The capacity people have to self-organize and start movements has grown ever more rapidly since the birth of the internet and technologies that bridge geographic barriers to seek out and collaborate with like minded people. To become an activist these days, it’s as easy as clicking “retweet.”

We need to start asking deeper questions.

Are we playing in these spaces? Are we connecting with citizens in a meaningful way – in a way where they have a real stake in decision making, where they’re empowered to co-create policies alongside us, where we truly value their experiential knowledge and apply it to the way we deliver programs to them?

And what about inside government? Do we create safe spaces for experimentation and collaboration across ministries? Have we made an attempt to map the employee experience and identify where risk aversion comes from, and where we can intervene to fix some of the bottlenecks to innovation?

Systems visualized as an iceberg (source). Click for the full-sized image.

Are we thinking beyond the surface level to change our patterns? Have we taken a look at those lower-iceberg levels where our mental models and unconscious or conscious biases continue to define our behaviour?

Who’s willing to try to figure this out with me?

Friday, May 15, 2015

On Prioritizing Policy Innovation: Wicked or Tame Problems?

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

Last week I shared the 10 criteria that define wicked problems (See: On Wicked Problems) and ended with a comment about how it's important to define policy innovation and that garnering a better understanding of the nature of the problems we are trying to solve (or ought to be trying to solve) is an important step in that direction.

I felt as though stepping back for a minute to lay the ground work in that regard was important because I'm of the view that there is a fundamental difference between pursuing a policy innovation agenda that prioritizes the creation, experimentation and application of novel solutions aimed at wicked problems and one that prioritizes incremental improvements aimed at tame problems.

Admittedly, this may be a false dichotomy. In actuality, there is nothing that physically precludes governments from pursuing both agendas concurrently and in complimentary ways. That said, I want to walk down that path today as a bit as a thought experiment because I think that how people answer should inform not only the types of innovation infrastructure (e.g. Innovation Labs, Innovation Contests, etc) we build but also how we evaluate whether or not those pursuits are producing the desired results. In many ways I think this is akin to policy innovator's dilemma and the notion that policy makers need to choose between disruptive and sustaining policy innovation options (See: Policy Innovator's Dilemma).

So, here's the hypothetical question I want you to ask yourself: if governments could only pursue one policy innovation agenda – one focused on novel ideas aimed at wicked problems or one focused on incremental improvements aimed at tame ones – which one ought they focus on and why?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fighting Mental Health Dragons

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

The Clerk of the Privy Council recently released the 22nd Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. Which, as everyone else has noted, we should all read.

One of the three priorities for the coming year is mental health: "building a healthy, respectful and supportive work environment." I'm glad that it's being flagged as a public-service wide issue. The statistics and figures are jarring. But the change will come at the person-to-person level, through empathy with what individuals experience — or at least, understanding that what others experience will not, cannot, and should not match what you experience.

Reasonable orders

In the movie How to Train Your Dragon, there’s a scene where Gobber (a big, burly viking) tells the protagonist, Hiccup (the only non-big, non-burly viking), “If you ever want to get out there to fight dragons, you need to stop all... this.”

“But you just pointed to all of me.”

He can't follow that advice, and it's crazy to ask him to.

People see the world in different ways. People experience the events and environment of the workplace in different ways. Susan Cain’s book Quiet argues that modern Western culture — including our workplaces — is built around an ideal of extroverted people. Demographic divides have long played a role in success, and people tend to hire people that look and think like them. Mental health is definitely not yet fully understood or appreciated in the workplace.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the status ladder was created by big, burly vikings for big, burly vikings. Likewise, certain types of people have built our institutions in their image.

In the workplace, we run programs, develop internal policies, restructure organizations, navigate relationships, manage employees, and provide feedback and advice. There are times when we do these things fairly and constructively. And then there are other times, when our demands sound to the recipients like “Y’know, it’d be great if you were a different person altogether.”

Telling someone with interpersonal anxiety to speak up more in meetings. Suggesting that women adopt male stereotypes to get ahead in their career (hat tip to Suzanne Huggins for a great post). Telling someone with ADHD to focus. (And it doesn't even need to be telling. Norms and culture do the job.)

"Stop all... this."

Over the last few years I've had more and more conversations with people that are on the short end of a workplace built for the average, not the distribution, of people and personalities. It does not surprise me that mental health is the problem it is today, and it will require a massive leap forward on all of our parts to improve. And we need to do it.

Imagine someone telling you that to be a public servant, to respond to that calling, “You need to stop all… this,” and pointing to your whole life.

Friday, May 8, 2015

On Wicked Problems

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

It struck me recently that while there's a lot of talk about addressing 'wicked problems' in policy spheres I've yet to hear anyone define the term beyond the relatively simplistic: they are hard problems to solve, they are complex, they have a lot of moving pieces.

Perhaps the lack of definitional clarity doesn't really matter because at their core wicked problems are defined by interdependencies and systems thinking – the idea that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of their relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation – is already the cornerstone of modern policy making.

Or is it? The omnipresent problems of bureaucratic inertia, regulatory capture and silos could be taken as evidence that systems thinking isn't quite as pervasive as some may think it is.

Perhaps its time to take a step back and do some definitional work. What do we actually mean when we talk about wicked problems?

Wicked Problems Defined

According to Rittel and Webber's 1973 paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, 'wicked problems' are actually defined by ten specific characteristics:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. 

The formulation of a wicked problem is itself the problem because the specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which treatment is considered.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. 

Wicked problems have no natural stopping points but rather those who are working on them have to pick and choose when to act, when to withdraw and when to do nothing.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad. 

Many people are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgements are likely to differ widely based on their interests, value-sets, and ideological predilections.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. 

Every solution generates waves of consequences that extend over an extended period of time. As a result the full consequences of a given solution cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and there is no way to trace all the waves through all of the affected parties.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. 

Every implemented solution has consequences and cannot be undone. Whenever actions are effectively irreversible and whenever the half-lives of the consequences are long, every trial counts. And every attempt to reverse a decision to correct for undesired or unforeseen consequences poses another set of wicked problems, which are in turn subject to the same dilemmas.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

There are no criteria by which one can prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered. Feasible plans of action relies on realistic judgements, the capacity to appraise novel or foreign ideas and the willingness to select a given course of action.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. 

The art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply. There are no classes of wicked problems. Despite seeming similarities among wicked problems, one can never be certain that the particulars of a problem do not override commonalities with other problems already dealt with.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. 

Marginal improvement does not guarantee overall improvement. For example, improving an administrative process may result in reduced cost or ease of operation but at the same time it becomes more difficult to make structural changes to the organization. Technical perfection reinforces organizational patterns and tends to increase the cost of change.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution. 

Often the analyst's "world view" is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy and, therefore, in resolving a wicked problem.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong

Policy makers are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate.

To be continued ... 

In short, I think we need to start to better define what we actually mean when we talk about policy innovation and felt that helping garner a better understanding of the nature of the problems we are talking about (or should be talking about) in the context of policy innovation is a concrete step towards doing that. More to come.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Risk Aversion in Hierarchies

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

This is essentially a two-year delayed corollary to Where Good Ideas Go to Die, about the nature of hierarchies and how they influence decision making. I'm not suggesting that either model is an ironclad rule - they're simplifications with much room for exceptions, but hopefully worth considering as food for thought.

A central feature of large organizations is delegated authority: establishing a mandate and structure within which officers can exercise authority on behalf of the organization. For instance, one might have authority to spend money on certain things, up to a limit, without additional approvals.

That said, not much "big" stuff is left to delegated authority. It may be for reasons of accountability or importance, or because "big" stuff either impacts different parts of the organization or requires cooperation for implementation. So many proposals get approved at each level, then continue up the chain of command.

However, refusals are almost always left to delegated authority. That is, if a level of management decides that a proposal should go no further, it stops. The level above does not necessarily hear about it. So a given level of management makes very few final "go" decisions on behalf of the organization compared to the number of "stop" decisions. For instance, an executive will know every employee's proposed training plan, but not what was struck off the plan by the level of management below.

False positives (poor ideas that get recommended) get caught by the system, by a higher layer of management. False negatives (good ideas that get stopped) don't.

Accordingly, false positives result in feedback for the person who recommended approval. That is, proposing an idea up the chain of command and getting a “no” provides information on which to base future proposals. Those who are too risk-tolerant will get reined in. However, false negatives get no such feedback. Managers who are too risk-adverse, wrongly making “stop” decisions on behalf of their organizations, will remain so. This also means that senior executives will systemically underestimate the level of risk aversion in their organizations.

Alternatively, instead of it being different managers' styles, it could be individual managers who propose too much in some areas and too little in others. A manager could be risk-adverse on communications but overly ambitious on staffing requests. The latter would get corrected, the former would go unchecked.

I'm sure that when a decision-maker is uncertain, they'll often check in with their management. But given the scale of organizations, the desire to minimize demands on senior executives' time, and the sheer volume of proposals moving on a given day, there's room for error. In a large enough organization, over enough time, tiny breakdown rates still mean a lot of breakdowns. Small asymmetries in the forces influencing decisions add up.