Friday, August 28, 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dissent in Public Organizations

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

Last week Nick and I delved into the long-term arc of communities and the people that comprise them. I was thinking about how public servants of a certain stripe will spend their careers navigating tension between short- versus long-term results, their intuition versus their instructions, and even different tenets of the Values and Ethics Code versus each other (see: Tricksters, Hackers, and Schemers). Nick explored the arc of the #W2P community in particular, summing up and offering theories how such communities evolve (see: The Gentrification of #W2P).

It’s important for a couple reasons. It’s partially because #W2P, even from my biased perspective, was significant in the Government of Canada. The community was tightly coupled with the learning curve into digital, and particularly social, communication. Many “members” of the community are now involved in transformation and innovation projects. (Ryan Androsoff started a wiki to map the community timeline - I encourage you to visit and contribute.)

But mainly? I just think that public organizations really, really need a healthy culture of challenge. Now more than ever.

In defence of challenge

When talking about challenge, I’m referring both to organizations systematically fostering dialogue and deliberation, as well as individuals being willing to step up when they feel something is awry - the tricksters referenced last week. But, first a quick word on that latter option.

At it’s worst, this could be seen as a rationalization for questioning others’ experience or judgment, justifying roguish behaviour. Perhaps anyone who thinks in trickster terms isn’t actually a prime candidate for public service - we all know the rules of the game we’ve signed up for. But that all depends on the interpretation of those (and many other) rules and a philosophy of public service (try Dwight Waldo’s Twelve Ethical Obligations of public servants for an alternate take). Over the last few years the Values and Ethics Code and The Ethics of Dissent have been common topics on CPSRenewal. This is not taken lightly.

And truthfully, the "rules of the game" are often somewhat uncertain. The relationship between elected officials and the public service is explicit, but the relationship between members of the public service is murkier. It seems as though the rule of “fearless advice, loyal implementation” is applied throughout organizations, exapting the political-bureaucratic rule to a different context.

Why challenge is needed

Public servants' ethical obligations (to stewardship, respect for democracy, respect for people, and integrity) always require a culture that welcomes challenge. But the "now, more than ever" part is because our governance algorithms are better suited to some decisions than others. For the most part, everything gets the same treatment. The organizational structure for, say, policy advice is largely identical to that for process improvements, administrivia, communications, and manufacturing.

I’d argue that it’s often borderline unfair to ask people to make decisions under these parameters, expecting an authoritative direction in areas where there’s no experience, best practices, or precedence (see: Innovation and Rigour). For instance, I wrote a few months ago that essentially everyone - in and out of government - is only beginning to climb the learning curve for online collaboration (see: The Promise of Online Collaboration). In this view, few if any people are experts, and we'd be crazy to think that anyone would singlehandedly have the expertise to solve something truly complex that had never been tackled before.

We see symptoms like this: in any large organization, people often talk of “picking their battles,” the logic of which is uncomfortable. It’s essentially shorthand for “I believe we’re about to make the wrong decision, but I’m choosing not to say anything because I think things are such that saying anything will make everything worse off in the long run.” I think public servants in particular have a duty to avoid or mitigate such dilemmas.

This is where the challenge culture is required. We often hear that the pace and complexity of the world is increasing (the Clerk of the Privy Council’s speech yesterday is an example), and that we must be agile and responsive. I think there’s a compelling case that where a decision is characterized by complexity, novelty, and a diverse range of stakeholders, we might want to consider trading speed for diligence (see: What We Lost in the Fire We Gain in the Flood). In some cases, the appropriate role for government may be the slow, deliberative space. A space where challenge is welcomed, and we are cautious and intentional in how we manage power dynamics and systemic biases.

Or, as Rosemary O’Leary put it in The Ethics of Dissent

“Some [moments of dissent] are canaries in the coal mine telling us that something is awry… [employees willing to challenge assumptions]  just may become creative assets to public organizations if their dissent is listened to and channeled appropriately. 

That can happen is public organizations strive for a culture that accepts, welcomes, and encourages candid dialogue and debate. Cultivating a questioning attitude that encourages a diversity of views and encourages staff members to challenge the assumptions and actions of the organization is important.”

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Gentrification of #w2p

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

Earlier this week Ryan Androsoff stood up a post on Storify entitled "Wither #w2p?" where he reflected on the origins of the '#w2p community' and its (not so recent) decline. Yesterday Kent circled back to Ryan's post in his piece Tricksters, Hackers and Schemers and in so doing linked to an article entitled The Hacker Hacked: How yuppies hacked the original hacker ethos. The article is long but essential reading for anyone looking to understand – as Ryan is – what happened to the #w2p community.

First, what is #w2p?

#w2p - standing for Web 2.0 Practitioners - was one of the first widespread online communities of public servants in the social media era, first launching in 2009. It used the #w2p hashtag on Twitter combined with regular in-person happy hour type events to build a community of Canadian federal public servants (and some non-governmental folks as well) interested in online technology, innovation, and public sector reform. Unique for government, it was a completely grassroots and organic network. Members organized a number of Collaborative Culture Camp "un-conferences" starting in 2010 and the work of the #w2p network was featured in the Clerk of the Privy Council's 2012 report to the Prime Minister. - Ryan Androsoff, Wither #w2p
Essentially, #w2p is the hipster hashtag of yesteryear. It was #gc2020 before #gc2020 was a thing, before the mainstreaming of hashtags into popular culture and public service culture, back when being on Twitter (et al) was a still 'risky' proposition. We traded tactics, strategies, documents and shit stories about the use of social media and collaboration technologies in government over drinks once a month. No single person was in charge and we rotated hosts and venues, there was only one rule: we are open to anyone, but there's no selling.

It didn't spontaneously spring into existence from nowhere; there's whole rich history full of different players who are likely to remember events differently. Amanda Clarke – a long time friend – from Carleton University has studied the rise and fall (evolution?) of the Government of Canada's unofficial online communities and has pulled together a rough timeline based on her work:
  • 2007 Public opinion research on social media for communications
  • 2007 GCPedia developed
  • 2007 Clerk: information revolution
  • 2007 NRCan wiki starts
  • 2008 Bar Camp (social media and technology in government)
  • 2008 Gcpedia launch at GTEC
  • 2008 Clerk: wikis for internal collaboration/engagement
  • 2008 Guideline to Acceptable Use of Internal Wikis and Blogs Within the Government of Canada
  • 2008 CPSrenewal blog starts
  • 2009 Communications Community Office (CCO) develops Considerations for the Government of Canada's Use of Social Media to Communicate with and Engage the Public 
  • 2009 Clerk: wiki and collaboration
  • 2009 #w2p starts
  • 2009 Collaborative Culture Camp (C3)
  • 2010 2010/11 PSR action plan demands collaboration and experiments with web 2.0
  • 2010 Clerk: wikis, Gcpedia, veterans affairs Facebook page
  • 2010 Change Camp Ottawa
  • 2010 Gov Camp 
  • 2010 Policy Ignite
  • 2011 TBS policy on social media and external engagement
  • 2011 Signed onto Open Government Partnership
  • 2011 Open Government Action Plan announced by Clement (three streams)
  • 2011 Open Data Pilot under Day at TBS
  • 2011 Clerk: wikis, social media for policy development
  • 2011 Policy Horizons report on Governing by Wiki
  • 2012 Open Government Action Plan commitments announced 
  • 2012 Clerk: SM for external engagement, mentions PD and SD
  • 2012 Clement's Twitter townhall
  • 2013 DMSMPD
  • 2013 Blueprint 2020 launched
  • 2014 DMSMPD becomes DMCPI
Understanding all the moving pieces is too complex an undertaking, and quite frankly I'm not sure they all matter. For what it's worth, I was personally involved in:
  • GCPedia (advisor)
  • NRCan wiki (observer)
  • Barcamp (participant) 
  • Guideline for Acceptable Use (advisor)
  • CPSrenewal Blog (founder)
  • Collaborative Culture Camp (organizer)
  • Change Camp Ottawa (organizer, and coincidentally, how I met Amanda Clarke)
  • GovCamps in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Victoria (speaker/organizer/participant)
I also hosted many #w2p meetups, the highlight of which was the one were I worked quietly behind the scenes to get Wayne Wouters, then Clerk of the Privy Council, to attend one of the meet-ups. I mention it not to show my '#w2p cred' but rather to disclose my own involvement in the community itself.

Second, what happened to #w2p?

Well, there's a few theses floating out there:

1. Unique Circumstances /  Natural Evolution: 

#w2p was the result of a unique combination time, place, circumstances and actors. When those unique elements were no longer in place, the community simply dispersed. That's just the natural evolution of a community.

2. Evaporative Cooling
[Evaporative cooling] occurs when the most high value contributors to a community realize that the community is no longer serving their needs any more and so therefore, leave. When that happens, it drops the general quality of the community down such that the next most high value contributors now find the community underwhelming. Each layer of disappearances slowly reduces the average quality of the group until such a point that you reach the people who are so unskilled-and-unaware of it that they’re unable to tell that they’re part of a mediocre group. (Thanks to Meghan Hellstern for putting this on my radar.)
When I first saw evaporative cooling put forward as a possible theory, I pushed back against it. However, I've since re-evaluated my position, especially in light of a second, closer reading. First, one of the community's core tenets was openness. Open communities are more susceptible to the effects of evaporative cooling than closed ones. Second, there was also a considerable amount of social gating (mechanisms that allowed people to self-select out of the group). If you weren't on Twitter your weren't really #w2p (recall this was earlier days for Twitter, before mass market adoption). Moreover, few executives participated because it was a place where influence came from being online rather than traditional organizational/hierarchical authority. Third, when the community was small, recognition and reputation was actively managed through the social layer. As it started to scale up it took on new members (and/or attracted 'tourists') these social controls broke down. Cooling accelerates when people don't understand/value the established social hierarchy of community. (Caveat: yes, despite all the collaboration rhetoric, social hierarchies, loyalties and even factions did exist; the retrospective memory of a homogeneous community is a myth). Fourth, there was some complex interplay between what happened on Twitter (the community's plaza) and what happened at the meet-ups (the community's warrens) that was complex and impactful beyond any explanation; again see my caveat above.

3. Gentrification
[I]n subcultures ... we find a rebel spirit succumbing to perhaps the only force that could destroy it: gentrification.
Gentrification is the process by which nebulous threats are pacified and alchemised into money. A raw form – a rough neighbourhood, indigenous ritual or edgy behaviour such as parkour (or free running) – gets stripped of its otherness and repackaged to suit mainstream sensibilities. The process is repetitive. Desirable, unthreatening elements of the source culture are isolated, formalised and emphasised, while the unsettling elements are scrubbed away.
Key to any gentrification process are successive waves of pioneers who gradually reduce the perceived risk of the form in question. In property gentrification, this starts with the artists and disenchanted dropouts from mainstream society who are drawn to marginalised areas. Despite their countercultural impulses, they always carry with them traces of the dominant culture, whether it be their skin colour or their desire for good coffee. This, in turn, creates the seeds for certain markets to take root. A WiFi coffeeshop appears next to the Somalian community centre. And that, in turn, sends signals back into the mainstream that the area is slightly less alien than it used to be. 
If you repeat this cycle enough times, the perceived dangers that keep the property developers and yuppies away gradually erode. Suddenly, the tipping point arrives. Through a myriad of individual actions under no one person’s control, the exotic other suddenly appears within a safe frame: interesting, exciting and cool, but not threatening.

Much like the article about the hacker subculture quoted above, what I think we are witnessing is the gentrification of the #w2p subculture. Having reaching the tipping point, its original tricksters are being pressed into the service of more traditional authorities. There has been a significant de-risking of the online environment and the ethos of widespread collaboration in the wake of the formation of the Deputy Minister's Committee on Social Media and Policy Development (now the Deputy Minister's Committee on Policy Innovation) and Blueprint 2020.

In short: #w2p went mainstream. Or, more correctly, its subversive elements went mainstream. Accordingly, those who managed to build influence outside the system have since traded it for a more mainstream form of influence. This is precisely what Kent was getting at when he wrote:
So you believe in change and doing things right. But do you do things less than right for the opportunity to do things right in the future? Or dogmatically stick to your guns, but end up alienated from the organizations and people that can facilitate progress? Do you stay as a garage hacker, or join an organization that limits your freedom but expands your impact? 
Ryan Androsoff was recently musing about whether the W2P (web 2.0 practitioners) community in the Government of Canada had withered, and he captured the discussion. It seems I'm not alone in viewing the people in that community as innovators and schemers, but that they've moved on to "operationalizing" their goals or simply "doing."
Or as Brett Scott puts it in The Hacker Hacked:
Any gentrification process inevitably presents two options. Do you abandon the form, leave it to the yuppies and head to the next wild frontier? Or do you attempt to break the cycle, deface the estate-agent signs, and picket outside the wine bar with placards reading ‘Yuppies Go Home’?
To be clear, there's nothing sinister about this mainstreaming. It's a perfectly legitimate career move if you are willing to accept the inherent trade-offs.

Third, my take

My own personal view is that its actually a combination of all three of these things. First, there were some unique circumstances coupled with some natural ebb and flow. Second, there was some evaporative cooling. It was an open community. It had some unique social gates, but eventually grew too large for social controls and a disconnect between the online and real life components accelerated the gentrification of the community. People took on operational roles precisely as the issues they championed mainstreamed.

Fourth, the Elephant in the Room

All of that said, what hasn't been addressed is the underlying notion of of competition among the gentrified. Opportunity to mainstream is limited. The competition is fierce and the stakes are high because careers rooted in tricksterism are hard to sustain. Surely one of the contributing factors to the fall of the community was the undercurrent of the competition among an otherwise collaborative community. It's something we don't ever talk about - but its real, omnipresent and important.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tricksters, Hackers, and Schemers

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

In literature, trickster characters are the rule-breakers. They cross boundaries, put others outside their zones of comfort, and question authority. They "playfully disrupt normal life and then re-establish it on a new basis." They're often set in a world such that the rule-breaking appears, to the audience, to be understandable - if not downright virtuous.

In society, the tricksters might be the civic tech, NGO, social entrepreneurship, and hacker communities. Hackers, in this view, are those who take things apart to understand them and reconstruct them to suit their needs, be it technology, institutions, or machinery (try these pieces by Tanya Snook or David Fleming for this take). Dealing with government is just one lever to pull towards achieving their goals.

Inside organizations the tricksters may be called innovators, or perhaps mavericks or "rebels at work." Less flatteringly, they might be called "headstrong" or "naive".

There's always conflict between tricksters and those around them, including other tricksters with different levels of willingness to break the rules. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (the character in the image, above) revels in tricking farmers out of chickens until he realizes that his actions are endangering the other animals in his community by provoking the gun-toting farmers. In many stories, a common theme is discord between members of the counterculture: some people are willing to do anything to reach their goals, and their friends have to stop them from compromising their principles. Ideals and goals don't always get along.

Wither rebels?

Brett Scott's recent piece The hacker hacked gets into the conflict faced by the first group, those outside large businesses or institutions. 
"We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.
 In this setting, the hacker attitude of playful troublemaking can be cast in Schumpeterian terms: success-driven innovators seeking to ‘disrupt’ old incumbents within a market in an elite ‘rebellion’."
(See also: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." - Jeff Hammerbacher)

I highly recommend reading the full piece. For one, it's as a fascinating take on the arc of the technology and digital world - once considered a disruptive, democratic, playing-field-leveling force. Two, there's an obvious parallel for anyone trying to remake an organization around themselves.

The trickster's dilemma

Akin to hackers being subsumed into the tech entrepreneurship scene, change-wanters will face a practical dilemma in efforts to drive change. Sometimes, after years of suggesting X project, someone will say "Ah, now you have your chance to put your money where your mouth is: we'd like you to do X. But by our rules." This invariably means that you won't actually get to spend much of your time on X, instead worrying about HR, finance, proving the value of X, building partnerships, and navigating internal politics. And you'll realize that they're using a different definition of X. But, you're finally getting the chance, so you can't rock the boat now. You need to succeed, even if it's not exactly what you wanted to succeed at, to gain the credibility for future such projects. Besides, if you decline the opportunity they'll ask someone else anyway, and it won't be done as well. You're stuck.

Last year I had the opportunity to speak on a topic I was passionate about and I was pumped. When I accepted, I heard the parameters: it was an "un-panel," and I'd be "randomly" selected from the audience to ask a question and then join the panel. My question was scripted and a speaker would magically have a presentation ready to answer it. I backed out, but the principles versus impact debate is rarely so lopsided.

So you believe in change and doing things right. But do you do things less than right for the opportunity to do things right in the future? Or dogmatically stick to your guns, but end up alienated from the organizations and people that can facilitate progress? Do you stay as a garage hacker, or join an organization that limits your freedom but expands your impact?

Ryan Androsoff was recently musing about whether the W2P (web 2.0 practitioners) community in the Government of Canada had withered, and he captured the discussion. It seems I'm not alone in viewing the people in that community as innovators and schemers, but that they've moved on to "operationalizing" their goals or simply "doing."

In the US, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program exists to get bright and talented tech experts into government to revamp systems, build tools, and shake established mindsets. My anecdotal evidence from conversations with public servants south of the border is this: one, that the "not-quite-in-government" position allows the freedom to question established practices and push through solutions. Two, that institutions have had problems following through and maintaining Fellows' projects after they leave. The program was made permanent this week, which could help the latter problem - but might hurt the former advantage.

For the Fellows and W2P, there's a power in being distant enough from portfolios that you can truly speak your mind. Once institutionalized, operationalized, or made responsible, these Fantastic Mr. Foxes may realize that other animals are counting on them and that playing with the rules - even if virtuously done - isn't the right approach anymore.

Which is not to say that accepting positions of responsibility is inadvisable. It's actually the core of the public service ethos. It's why we're here. If you have a meaningful job and your work actually impacts citizens then it comes with responsibility. But there will be constant tension: is the value you had as a trickster being left behind?

A last word about naiveté

Naiveté is the true enemy of tricksters, hackers, and schemers. But it comes in two different flavours.

  • Failing to understand or appreciate the value of "the way things are". Ever complain about something and have a friend respond "Actually, there's a perfectly good reason for that"? The more you learn about something, the more you'll see both its flaws and its virtues. If you're trying to change things, you have a responsibility to understand them.

  • Failing to understand or appreciate the value of ideals. There's a reverse-image naiveté to the above and it manifests in Machiavellianism, acting as though everything is strategic, pragmatic, and political. As bad as the naive tricksters, the naive institutionalist can't tell when the tricksters are right, and falsely believes that the rules of the game can never change.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A blast from my own personal past

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

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting in on a presentation by Gilles Paquet as a part of the Institute on Governance's (IOG) Executive Leadership Program. It had been almost 7 years since I last saw Gilles and he's still a firecracker at the age of 79.

I first met Gilles back in August of 2008 when I was asked to sit as a discussant at an internal seminar about Leadership as Governance at what was then HRSDC (See: Speaking Notes on Leadership as Governance). At the time I was less than 2 years into my career in government and only about 4 months into blogging about the public service. At the time I was both nervous and excited. It was the first time I was ever asked to speak publicly about the public service. It was also one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I can honestly say that Gilles sent me down the path that has lead me to where I am today. What is most impressive is that he did it with a simple challenge. He simply asked me to put my money where my mouth and scheme virtuously.

Scheming virtuously not only immediately became the tag line for the blog but also inspired Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants which I published a few months later. The handbook was well received and everything just kind of snowballed from there. A year later Gilles called me out of nowhere to tell me that he dropped a note into his latest book entitled Scheming Virtuously: The Road to Collaborative Governance pointing people here, telling them to visit the site to gain greater insight into the practical application of the book's findings. A few years later, I took the time to review the book and I've been trying my best to keep scheming virtuously every since.

When I found out Gilles was the speaker for the evening I was naturally excited. I hadn't seen the man in years and was eager to take some time to speak with him and share my appreciation for his little nudge early in my career. Much to my amazement he took the time to speak with me prior to giving his remarks, made a handful of references that only I would understand given our past, and generally made me laugh aloud. I hadn't realized how much of Gilles style, attitude and ethos I had appropriated until I saw him speak to a crowd again.

There were two things that really amazed me about my interactions with Gilles that night. The first was that he had details about my career path that I hadn't given him, that he must have gleaned from others. To me that signalled an interest that I didn't know was there, and to be honest it was incredibly humbling. The second was that he knew exactly how to push me again on the way out:
"You think Nicholas is dangerous now? You should have seen him when he was young. What I love about him is that you can push him a bit and watch how far he runs."
Time to dig in I suppose.

Keep scheming (virtuously) everyone, I'll see you on the road to collaborative governance.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Ottawa Bubble(s)

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

I was home in PEI for the last week, which means that public service renewal hasn't been on my mind much. But the one thing that strikes me every time I go is how it momentarily pops the Ottawa bubble.

The "Ottawa Bubble" isn't necessarily restricted to the city itself, referring more so to the people that interact with the government. These are the people that know, work with, lobby, report on, or are politicians or public servants. There's a certain jargonous way that those in the bubble talk about things like the politician-public servant divide, the writ, election campaigns,and jurisdictional boundaries.

There's a degree of self-awareness. It's noticeable when, for instance, journalists flip back and forth between a policy's actual merit and its political merit, recognizing that many Canadians will interpret things differently than they do. It's also why Aaron Wherry can easily spill 3,000 words explaining the counter-intuitive way our elections work. It's also worth reading this explainer on how the government works during an election: the Caretaker Convention.

Our governance structures are not exactly intuitive. Recently I quoted the Clerk in a tweet and then thought to clarify that the Clerk of the Privy Council is the head of the entire Canadian federal public service; to many the term would be confusing. So much of the ebb and flow of public administration in Canada is based on a long, quirky history, much inherited from the UK, and with all of the very un-plain language that follows (the (Queen's) Privy Council (for Canada), the Usher of the Black Rod, the Governor General, and on and on). There's only ever one context in which you hear about a "writ" and even then, some think we're all using the term wrong anyway. Can we reasonably expect most people to genuinely understand how their government works?

Do our rich governance traditions come at an public understanding cost? A civic engagement cost?

In the Public Service

On top of that, there is a general "public service bubble". Nick noted as we were discussing Tragedy in the Commons, a collection of interviews with outgoing or former Members of Parliament, that in discussing Canadian governance they rarely mentioned the public service. We all have a tendency to see our fields and functions as more important than others do, but before reading the book we drastically overestimated how much the public service would play into conversations. (I joke that CPSRenewal is written for a niche market of about twelve people.)

And we have our own (actually) Ottawa bubble: 41.7% of the workforce is in Ottawa and, as of 2007, 71% of the executives. This doesn't seem to be an accident - the question of whether or not the public service is better centralized or decentralized was asked in a 2005 Library of Parliament paper and it seems the lower travel costs argument won out. (For reference, the UK has 16.6% of its civil service in London; Australia, 35% in Canberra; and the US, 16% in Washington.) From the paper:

"The high concentration of federal employees in the NCR is considered to be undesirable because public servants at all levels run the risk of losing sight of the interests and concerns of the regions and the people across the country they have a duty to serve."

It's not just a matter of us getting outside of our bubbles periodically. It's hard to write in "plain language" when the subject matter simply isn't plain. Or if what seems plain to us is incomprehensible to others. It's hard to put things in terms that would be meaningful to citizens if we don't understand what's meaningful to them in the first place. And its hard for citizens to trust a system they cannot be reasonably expected to understand.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Innovation Feels Like (Part 1: Fear)

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

There was a comment on my last post by Martin (See: A Government that Learns By Design), and while I was nodding my head at the whole thing, these two bits rang very true:
We need to move away from a culture of CYA and learn to speak frankly of the barriers and risks associated with change.
Let's all start speaking real-talk.
So here’s my real-talk. I'd like to explore a series of barriers I’ve encountered being a public servant for more than seven years, and suggest some ways to overcome them.

A primary barrier to innovation is fear

I recently read something by Seth Godin, and the opening sentence is probably what permeated my subconscious and has driven me to write this blog post:
The opposite of creativity is fear.
Inside the public service, fear takes the shape of deeply entrenched risk aversion, and defaulting to a (very broken) status quo. Fear leads to bad decision making, ignoring opportunities for growth/change, and oppressing diverse talent and voices in the organization.

I’ve seen fear in action. I’ve seen leaders being chosen based on a system that favours the familiar – “safe1” choices who think and act the exact same way as the hiring managers. I’ve seen managers “check in” with staff 50 times a day, to prevent any straying from the official plan or processes (effectively removing any possibility for creative – or even critical – thinking). I’ve seen peers mindlessly do work they’re asked to do and complain in the staff room how little sense it makes, without speaking up about it.

Each of us, at every level, is responsible for the culture of fear we’ve created (and we’re all responsible for fixing it, collectively).

What innovation feels like: a principled, shared fight

My solution to remedy the culture of fear has always been to challenge the system, to be hyper aware of illogical requests and/or politics-driven (big “P” or little) decisions, and to push back against them whenever and wherever I have the energy to put up a fight.

A seemingly benign (but, really, insidious) way to do this is to simply speak up and ask "why." I find that this simple habit seems to disarm people, and challenge them to think critically. It also creates space for others to speak up – if one person speaks up, it gives permission for others to do it, too.

More actions to fight fear

Here are pro tips that have worked for me when starting a principled fight against things in the system that make no sense.
  • Pick your battles wisely. Choose to challenge nonsensical things that will have the most meaningful impact, for the most amount of people (called leverage points in systems thinking).
  • Partner with at least one ally. Walk away if you’re alone in the battle. If you’re the only one who sees a problem, either there isn’t a problem; the amount of effort outweighs the potential impact (i.e., the leverage point is weak); or you’re surrounded by people who are willfully or unwillfully blind, and/or unwilling to be the change we need to be to fix this culture of fear2.
  • Try infiltrating official networks/communities. There are usually some safe spaces to experiment and learn from others. If there aren’t any, grab your ally and start one yourselves. (All it takes is two people).
I recognize that all these suggestions take energy and some dedication (and maybe a little bit of nerve), and an ability to look at the long game. I think I've resolved that I'm a lifer, and if I don't try to live the kinds of values I want to see our organization demonstrate (at least, some day), I should pack up and move to Hawaii and spend my energy saving whales instead (hold on... why am I not doing this instead?)

Is there a culture of fear where you work? What shape does it take? If you could imagine how the culture should be instead, what might that look like?

Next barrier to attack: lack of trust.

1. Not safe at all. The status quo, and hiring people who are doing things the way they have always been done, is a major part of what is keeping everything (including the workplace culture) in an unsurprisingly bad state.
2. In which case, I’d say don’t just walk but run away from your job entirely, if you’re able to.