What Innovation Feels Like (Part 3: Try Honesty)

Monday, November 16, 2015
by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

Actual conversation.
Me: We need to project manage this thing; it's pretty complicated. The problem is we don't have tools to collaborate beyond our own team. Why don't we use Google Drive for the project tracking?

Them: It's against IT policy.

Me: There's nothing confidential or sensitive in a tracking doc, and we won't have a public link.

Them: It's better to follow policy. Let's just use what we have.
Let's just leave that here for now.

When saying "no" to absurdity is not an option

I've written in this space many times (and on other spaces internally) about our risk averse culture, which is rooted in fear. Nick has a blog post from several years back on how risk has become an excuse to do nothing (see: Risky Business: Deputy Minister or Bust). This passage describes a culture that still exists today:
I think we have created a cultural safe haven for poor decision-making at all levels. A metaphorical space where public servants of every type can throw up their hands in resignation, claiming they didn't do it, like children standing over a broken cookie jar in the kitchen attempting to absolve themselves of their responsibilities.
The thing is, a cover-your-ass culture not only supports bad decision making by managers/leaders, but has the added perk of completely disengaging staff in the worst way: over time, it takes away our natural instinct to ask "why" when being asked to do things that are absurd. When staff become afraid – or worse, apathetic – to critically questioning things that don't make sense, the cycle of stupid decision making is never broken.

There's a great blog post by Matthew Taylor, who provides advice to the UK government, that talks about the outcomes of a cover-your-ass culture: "you could see the officials wrestling with the need to provide a reality check but all too often deciding it was better to nod sagely than look career-threateningly unhelpful."

The pernicious impact of self-censorship at management levels is how it seeps down to staff. I felt compelled to write this post because I've noticed that I'm catching myself self-censoring more often these days. I'll be tasked with writing a communications strategy for some announcement, and while drafting the key points about the announcement, I'll find myself writing things that I know our minister's office wants to hear, because I know that if I try to get the plan through approvals without that language, my manager or someone above him will change it anyway. This is pernicious because at that point, there's a real possibility that my role as an apolitical public servant is being compromised; I'm unconsciously weaving in political language into a non-political product.

Seek Forgiveness, Not Permission

When asking "why" makes you the thorn in people's side, or the odd-man-out, or the "complainer" – and/or when you ask "why" and people agree about the absurdity of things, but nothing changes – something is deeply wrong. A culture that makes "why" a dirty word is a place that has stopped thinking critically.

Barriers to asking higher order questions means the policies you're writing might be solving the wrong problems because nobody spoke up to ask whether we're asking the right questions. It means the key messages you're writing might be totally off base, because nobody spoke up to ask what audiences we're really trying to influence, and what outcomes we want to achieve from the messaging. You can't move hearts and minds when your heart's just not into it because you've been beaten down into the role of some ineffectual yes-man.

The Google Drive example I started this post with is just one small manifestation of the inability (or, perhaps, some learned behaviour of willful blindness) of many people in this system to weigh the cost-benefit of taking certain risks. In truth, there were valid reasons for not using Google Drive (e.g., cultural problems – you'd have to train people on what a "google" is, most likely). Still, the message was "we don't want IT to find out and..." what, exactly? Tell us to stop using it? *Feigned shudder and best Hazel McCallion impression*: Do I look scared to you?

Seeking forgiveness rather than permission should be our new guiding principle inside government. In a place where IT policy doesn't give us the ability to set permissions for our own shared folders so we can work collaboratively beyond our own teams, there's room for some honest to goodness personal judgement about when workarounds are the only way to function effectively. I know that this mildly anti-establishment attitude might be a lot to ask of managers/leaders. But in general, a little bit of it would be hugely beneficial, because by bending a few rules – and demonstrating that the world inside can be a more productive place if our hands were just marginally less tied – maybe we could prove to The Rule Making Overlords that their rules are kind of stupid and need to be re-written. Or, at the very least, we could use modern tools to do our work within our small silo and do things more effectively without anybody being the wiser.

"Stop Whispering; Start Shouting"

When I started this series of blog posts, the language I used to describe how to break down these barriers to innovation was a bit startling to one of my former colleagues. He wondered why I described it as a "battle" or some kind of virtuous "fight." He cautioned me about using such language, I think because it implies the kind of relationship where I'm pitting myself against something, and in a way, that sort of plays right into the hands of the system. Instead of pitting against, or being a yes-man, maybe there's an alternative. Maybe the third way is creating the marketplace for new ideas/mindsets within the system, in some parallel structure that acts as one big workaround to the unnecessary layers of bureaucracy (people who know me know I'm doing this, too).

But the truth is that I tend to use combative language because that's exactly what the experience feels like, day in and day out. The process of bringing new mindsets into a very entrenched system is an ongoing challenge. Sure, it's a bit of persuasion, a bit of generating goodwill/allies, and a bit of art. But mostly, it feels like a bloody fight, and some days I'm so exhausted I want to give up.

And the real truth is that the work of changing cultural norms within the system isn't one person's job. There's no way I can do this alone. I wonder sometimes if anyone else is up for this fight.