On Transformational Leadership in the Digital Era

Friday, June 19, 2015

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

On Monday I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of Ontario Public Servants about Innovation and Digital Transformation; my Prezi and speaking notes are below.

Good morning everyone.

My name is Nicholas Charney.

I am currently the Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Institute on Governance (IOG); which is just fancy way of saying I got to pick my title.

Before I launch into my remarks this morning I feel as though I should be a good corporate citizen and tell you a little about myself and the IOG.

We are small not for profit organization whose mission is to advance better governance in the public interest.

We pursue that mission through our virtuous circle of advisory work, courses and research programs.

I'm a policy professional by trade and am currently on a two year interchange from the Government of Canada where I've spent the last 8 years working at the confluence of people, public policy and technology.

My core responsibility at the IOG is to help build out or digital governance applied research program.

The program is based on the premise that two forces – digital and governance – are meeting like tectonic plates, shifting the landscape and giving rise to new peaks and valleys around key governance questions that all citizens need to be concerned about:
  • Who has real power?
  • How should decisions be made?
  • How can all players make their voices heard and ensure that account is rendered. 
We've divided the research into a number of applied domains: policy analysis, service delivery, regulation and accountability.

You can learn more about the project, how to get involved and even watch the star studded panels from our launch event at iog.ca/digital.

Now, with that out of the way, there are a number of things I could say to you about digital transformation. 

I could start by saying that having the right skills is essential.

Or, that a talent-focused culture is critical.

Or, that organizational agility is the key to effective outcomes.

But I could say all of that and have said nothing.

I'd rather start out by saying that digital transformation is what you as leaders make of it.

That there is no shortage of wicked problems, demand for ideas, or need to bring them bear.

That technology and the Zeitgeist are combining in some interesting ways and changing the nature of the public service.

That these changes are creating both challenges and opportunities that require us to think differently than we have in the past.

That's what I want to spend the majority of my remarks on today: thinking differently.

I'm often told that I think differently about problems than others do.

And to be honest I'm not entirely sure it’s a compliment. It gets me into trouble with my wife and it gets my children into trouble too.

Case in point, I have a very particular view on innovation (See: Innovation is Tricky, Literally and Finding Innovation).

My view on innovation is largely informed by a book by Lewis Hyde  – a cultural anthropologist – entitled Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture.

According to Hyde, Tricksters are classical cultural figures.

They represent a certain flexibility of mind and spirit, a willingness to defy authority and invent clever solutions that keeps cultures (and stories) from becoming too stagnant.
  • crosses physical and social boundaries
  • traveller / nomad
  • blurs distinctions between right and wrong
  • invents new cultural goods or tools 
  • sexually over-active, irresponsible, and amoral. 
  • creative liars 
  • tells stories that make people laugh and inspire
Wait – let’s just redact a couple of lines there to keep the FIPPA people happy.

There we go.

Tricksters have something to say about how culture gets created, and about the nature of intelligence.

They steal fire from the gods, give it to man, and remake the world. 

In contemporary innovation rhetoric: they break traditional trade-offs, create new markets, and reveal the art of the possible.

In collaboration rhetoric: they use flattening communications technologies to cut across hierarchy, create new channels for influence and show the stark contrast between the world out there and the command and control culture in here.

Admittedly that’s how I go my start: experimenting with social media for collaboration behind the firewall.

As you can imagine I fancy myself a bit of trickster. 

I think it’s an incredibly important role, and one that I've chosen purposefully, because I'm willing to accept the risks, bear the consequences, and reap the rewards.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of innovation as tricksterism is a cultural approach to innovation rather than an institutionalized approach to innovation – say in the form of innovation labs.

I prefer to focus on the culture because whenever someone points a finger at what isn't working in the bureaucracy its almost always the culture. 

I prefer prioritizing people to structure and think that in many ways the root of many of our problems is the fact that we often prioritize them the other way around.

But rather than get up on that soapbox I’d rather show you something that tricksters can get up to when you put a little technology in their curious little hands.

In the federal government there is this thing called the Treasury Board Policy Suite.

Essentially it’s all of the rules that all federal civil servants need to abide by and is commonly referred to by public servants as the web of rules.

Here's what it is supposed to look like according to Treasury Board.
  • 1 Code of Conduct - Values and Ethics; 
  • 8 policy frameworks; 
  • 73 policies; 
  • 76 directives; 
  • 56 standards; and 
  • 59 guidelines.
For a total of 273 different policy instruments. 

Now I took some time and went through the suite and mapped the actual relationships between these instruments (See: Redux: Visualizing the Entire Treasury Board Policy Suite). 

Truth be told the web of rules looks more like this.

As you can see the two are very different beasts.

First a note on methodology.

There's a 'related instruments' tab on each instrument that provides a hyperlink to instruments that ought to be considered in conjunction with that which you are currently reading.

The visualization simply represents those relationships.

Size depicts prevalence, e.g. the number of connections the instrument has to others.

Colour depicts instrument type.

Line type and arrows – which are there but impossible to see at this distance – represent directionality and type of relationship. 

The first thing worth noting is that the placement of Values and Ethics is not central as it was in the official representation.

The heart of the suite is right here in what I call the culture cluster is right here.

You can see how tightly wound up it is.

And why it might be so hard to innovate in these spaces, there’s simply too much oversight and control.

The cluster is pretty much exactly what you would expect: 
  • Policy on Government Security | 88# | 33%
  • Policy on Internal Control | 71# | 26%
  • Policy on Management of Information Technology | 59# | 22%
  • Policy on Privacy Protection | 56# | 20%
  • Policy on Information Management | 55# | 20%
Conversely, if you look at the periphery, where there is likely more room to innovate you will see that there is very little of consequence out there to innovate on.

Transformational institutional change is unlikely to be found in the Workplace Fitness Program Policy, the Uniform Directive or the Policy on Workplace Daycare Centres.

That said, I'm more than sympathetic to an argument that much good could come from innovation in those areas from an employee wellness perspective but that is likely a conversation for another day.

Now I put this thing together in my free time with some free online tools that I've never used before.

I published it to my blog along with some of my preliminary thoughts.

The thing went viral – or at least it went government viral, meaning that a couple of thousand people saw it.

I got a phone call from a Director General’s office whom I've never met who wanted a briefing on my work.

She just so happened to be the person responsible for the renewal of the policy suite.

I went in to brief her and her team.

Later I went in to brief her ADM.

Everyone wanted to know why I would do such a thing?

For me the answer was simple, because the opportunity was there waiting for someone to pluck it out of the sky.

Because I crossed social boundaries and knew the policy suite renewal was coming down the pipe before it was officially announced.

Because I was an outsider and was free to experiment.

Because I was curious and wanted to blur the lines a little.

Because I was able to use new tools and technologies to create a new lens through which we could look at the problem.

Because I was looking for an opportunity to be creative.

Because I wanted to be able to tell the story.

Because that’s what tricksters do.

Pretty impressive right?

Truth be told this data visualization is fairly bush league when you think about the scale and pace of changes that are on the horizon. 

I mapped something a handful of bureaucrats care about. 

It’s the wild west out there right now.

Governments services are being compared to private sector services.
The media’s business model has imploded and created a perverse incentive structure that rewards muckraking, click bating and faux outrage.

Your staff email, text, Facebook, Twitter and snap-chat, each other all day and can circumvent any attempt you make to limit their ability to communicate with someone else.

In many cases they can send a direct message on Twitter directly to a Minister. Directly to their Minister.

Their online profile can be analyzed, partisanship inferred, and then targeted for scandal through a freedom of information request

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. 

Everyone carries a government issued GPS device in their pocket, you could collect, aggregate and analyze that data to know exactly how big of a physical footprint you need, how to better plan public transit to your office locations, when and where elevators should rest in those office locations and even what unit should be located next to another.

And what about drones, don’t even get me started on drones.

An engineering student in Europe built a prototype of a drone that is equipped with a defibrillator.

There’s a great Youtube video, I suggest you go watch it.

This is a major technological advancement in public health.

But what about liabilities?

What happens when urban drone hunting becomes a pass time?

What about drinking and droning?

I could go on at length.

But instead I want to close out my remarks by giving you some advice on where I think you can find innovators in your organization. 

As leaders if you aren't trying to identify and groom people who see the world differently than you do you aren't doing your job effectively. 

Transformative leaders incubate the next generation of transformational people, curate their ideas and lay the ground work today for them to be successful tomorrow.

I want to close out my remarks by giving you some advice on where you can find innovation within your organization. 

Look to immigrants or nomads.

Those who are new to your organization or those who move around a lot may in fact be your most innovative.

New arrivals bring fresh eyes, instinctively connect their new experiences with their previous ones creating a new middle ground for the organization to explore.

Look to people who can take more than a single world view.

They have a diversity of interests that drives them to read things from and maintain relationship in different sectors.

As a result they bring in ideas that seem foreign to many but yet always seem to contain some kernel worth exploring

Look to those who are willing to start from square one, willing to walk away from sunk costs and challenge the fundamental assumptions that dominate the discourse.

People who don't accept that the answer "because that is the the way we've always done it here”

Look to people who are good communicators.

People who make you feel at ease about things that you are usually uneasy about, who easily bridge the gap between those at the working level and senior managers, knowing how to couch their words with either group.

Look to the people who are comfortable with change.

They see everything as an opportunity and welcome whatever the newly reshaped world has in store for them.

Finally, look to the troublemakers.

The peoples whose transgressive nature exposes the more deeply problematic roots of more systemic and pressing problems.

They use intellect, humour and satire whenever possible, nothing is off limits, and as a result they wind up getting into hot water now and again.

Your job as transformational leaders is to inspire, encourage and when necessary, protect, them.

The future of your organizations depends on it.

Thank you.