On the Value of Vulnerability

Friday, March 27, 2015

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

Whether or not you read it earlier this week, Kent laid a lot on the line when he posted I don't have it all together. Prior to posting it he sent me a draft and asked if I thought it was appropriate to share, and if so, to share on this medium. To which I replied:

No one has it all together. We can trade notes some time. Showing others that you are vulnerable isn't easy but in my experience it usually ends up helping create rapport and trust. I'll leave the decision to post it to you, but I wouldn't hold it back if I were in your shoes.

I'm really glad he decided to share it.

I'm glad he shared it because he is right about our collective capacity for selective disclosure. When I'm at my most irreverent (on a stage or at the pub) I'm quick to throw social media en masse under the bus as a complete and utter waste time and effort; a never-ending stream of carefully curated lies we tell about ourselves while disdainfully flicking a thumb up as we scroll through the lies of others, somehow oblivious that others are doing the same to us.

He's right about falling behind too. I fall behind most on things I want to read and people I want to talk to. The nice thing about this one is that the things to read will still be there when you finally get back to them, and if you are lucky and have already invested in those people you want to talk to, they will be too.

Screwing up at work? Been there.

Self-doubt? Yup.

Mental health issues. Check.

Hell, I don't have it all together either. Neither do most of the folks I know and trust. Not everyone is comfortable with that imperfect state of affairs but they are working on being more comfortable with it every day. That's life.

There's a value in vulnerability that is worth preserving

While I have no empirical evidence other than my lived experience, I've always been of the view that showing vulnerability can be a catalyst for trust (see: Scheming Virtuously). Perhaps this is because we are often willing to put ourselves in the most vulnerable positions with those whom we trust. People seem to understand that sharing our secrets, our fears, and our tenderest of moments would be impossible without the level of trust borne out of vulnerability.

But I also get the sense that there is something that links vulnerability, trust and leadership. I don't have time to dive into the literature right now and obviously one ought to carefully consider the when, why and how of showing vulnerability in the workplace, but on balance I feel like we (as a society and a culture) undervalue vulnerability.

I Don't Have It All Together

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
I don’t have it all together.

Not that anyone is suggesting that I do. But it's easy to get that impression about others. We all have a capacity for selective disclosure through any forum - Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this one being obvious examples - so we have a tendency to see the interesting, virtuous, or easy sides of others’ lives.  (This can be seriously damaging to our mental health.) So I’d just like to put it on the record that I don’t have it all together.

Not by a long shot. Struggling to keep on top of correspondence and to-do lists? Always. I’m sure I’m letting some slip, too, without even knowing it. Feeling like I’m barely keeping my head above water? Often. Starting projects I can’t finish, that I really should know that I can’t finish? Afraid so.

Screwing up at work? Of course. For someone who spends so much time thinking about how the public service works (probably over-thinking), I completely floundered in a new position in the last few years. It was pretty bad for a while.

Self-doubt? I barely go a week without questioning my path in life, which includes my career. It’s the rest of my life. I think it merits that level of concern. I almost as regularly reflect on the appropriateness and usefulness of what I write on CPSRenewal.ca.

Mental health issues? Yes. (And I don’t mention this as an explanation or excuse for anything else.) Mostly social anxiety, but a few other quirks in the mix, too.

I don’t have it all together.

I don’t need to. That’s life. I’m generally comfortable and confident about my imperfect state of affairs, even on those days when it’s a fight to keep things between the lines.

And I’m certain that most people who suggest that they have it all together - by words, by deeds, or by the strategic absence of certain words or deeds - are chalk-full of shit.

We can Not Have It All Together together, and make some good things happen anyway.

A thank you and hat-tip to Dave Fleming. Specifically related to this post, also in general.

Impossible Conversations: The Longer I'm Prime Minister

Monday, March 23, 2015

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

While reading Paul Wells' The Longer I’m Prime Minister, a few of us debated whether or not we’d be able to post a reflection this time. A portrait of a current Prime Minister is distinctly political, no matter how fairly written or read. There are risks of either veering too deeply into political territory, or avoiding it so thoroughly that we water down our thoughts. As an aside, in discussions about a non-partisan public service, it's easy conflate “political” and “partisan”. In reality, understanding the political environment is crucial for public servants.

Wells joined us in Ottawa for the discussion and both reinforced and assuaged those concerns. On one hand, he agreed that people would view even the fact-iest facts of the story through their personal lenses. On the other, his approach to the book was simply to understand why things are the way they are. In that light, it seems like a worthwhile exploration, and it’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t part of the context for public service careers. 

‘Why things are the way they are’ is also a reasonable summary of the book’s approach. It's a thorough walk through the major events in (mostly recent) Canadian political history with a focus on the influences, drivers, and context for the decisions that were made along the way. For Canadian public servants, Wells provides a plausible perspective of your operating context - or at the very least, the perspective of a trusted and influential observer. It's also a solid read; Wells is an excellent writer full of creative metaphors and turns of phrase that making the read enjoyable, and has written a book full of insight and detail.

Nick Charney
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Let me start by saying that this book is worth reading if you are at all interested in Canadian Politics as the book paints a fairly detailed picture of the Prime Minister and many of the major political developments under his tenure.

One of the things I was curious about – and something that I asked Paul about during our conversation – was if he had any insight into the PM’s view of the civil service. I asked the question because, much like Loat’s Tragedy in the Commons, the book didn’t speak directly to the issue. My interest in the question is rooted in my curiosity about the degree to which elected officials are actively thinking about the role of the civil service in this country. The sense I get from reading both Loat and Wells, and subsequently speaking to Paul at book club, was that elected officials value their relationships with the senior folks they deal with but are far less inclined to be thinking critically about the role of the civil service. I find this incredibly interesting as the evolving role of the civil service is very much something that civil servants are interested in, give a lot of thought to, and as a result probably represents an opportunity for politicians looking to secure the civil service vote (if such a thing exists).

A core tension that we discussed was that between those who would build the state and those who would pare it back; it’s a thread that’s likely too political to discuss but worth at least putting a marker down on. That said, in our discussion we noted that talking about a “better” or “more effective” public service was entirely separate from any debate between “smaller” or “larger” government.

One of the key insights for me was when Wells made an argument around the massive impact a PM can have across the country by way of simply making hundreds of small small decisions on a daily basis. We often look to the large decisions and try to judge their impact, but sheer volume over time can also have tremendous impact. It’s something worth remembering, especially for senior folks in organizations who help set the tone of their departments as they plow through all the little decision points.

Finally, I just wanted to again thank Paul for taking the time to come by and discuss the book with us. We’ve been fortunate to have a number of authors participate in the conversations thus far and we always appreciate their time and insight.

RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

Who is Stephen Harper, and what leads him to run the country as he does? This is the central question of Wells’ book. In our conversation, Wells let us know that he wrote the book for anybody interested in Harper, regardless of political stripe. Wells’ purpose was to help you understand him.

I’m encouraged by the commercial success of Wells’ book, primarily because many Canadians form their political opinions based on limited information. Especially outside of Ottawa, many Canadians view the federal government with some level of disdain, regardless of who is in office. The office of the Prime Minister has incredible impacts upon the country, and Canadians should understand the motives of both the individuals and the political parties that seek to occupy that office. 

Wells largely achieved his purpose — I came away from the book understanding Harper in a more nuanced way. 

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Having sat on this review for a few weeks, I’m reflecting pre-posting that we definitely talked more about the nature of the book than the ideas discussed within - somewhat of a departure for this series, and a fairly understandable one. Wells’ book is full of political philosophy, motivations, and lenses with which one could view Canada’s political world - and to avoid even the perception of partisanship, it’s not for us to publicly dissect. But public servants would be well served by reading, reflecting, and dissecting themselves.

How Organizations Plan, and Why It Shouldn't Be Institutionalized Advice

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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

The last couple posts have been working through a question about how organizations plan. The long story short:
  • We've institutionalized oversimplification (a symptom being the "Elevator Pitch")
  • Correcting that oversimplification is likely an unrealistic goal
  • The solution (according to Charles Lindblom) is letting policy decision-makers throw rational planning out the window and "try stuff"
  • To avoid unfairness, policy proposals will be closely watched by an ecosystem of stakeholders: groups responsible for related goals in government, lobbyists, NGOs, and think tanks
On the surface, this sounds like the zeitgeist: experimentation, innovation, and collaboration. However, the "try stuff" here refers to large-scale national policy, not pilots: "trying stuff" on, say, tuition subsidies has a massive impact on people's lives. And the role of that "ecosystem of stakeholders" isn't collaboration: it's recommendation, or advice.

Recommendation-Based Governance

In the last post, I linked to Yves Morieux, who breaks down the economics of multi-stakeholder decision-making: where one person owns the decision, but not the inputs required to make it. He paints a portrait of a car manufacturer, in which the lead designer must satisfy the organizations' experts in noise reduction, fuel efficiency, repairability, safety, and much more. It's easy to imagine how fuel efficiency and safety could be at odds: do you make a car lightweight, or an urban armored personnel carrier? So we have a designer, whose bonus but not core salary depends on performance pay that is based on competing goals decided by 26 different people. Which makes their incentive to care about any individual one of those goals very close to zero.

Recommendation-based systems do nothing to address the asymmetry between the incentives of those involved. Put simply: recommenders don't get paid to contribute to the best outcome. They primarily get paid to promote the variable they represent, as loudly and voraciously as possible. They do not get paid to look for compromises, concede when others make valid arguments, or even to develop long-term relationships and credibility. In the above example, the safety expert's concern is chiefly to understand the optimal outcome from a safety perspective; it's the designer's job to worry about how to square that with fuel efficiency. 

Why is this? It's partially innocent bias: people care about what they know about. I'm sure far more than 50% of the population thinks their expertise is of above-average importance. But more so, it's that the people that hold recommenders to account are a step removed from the decision space themselves, and likewise rely on oversimplified elevator pitches for setting goals. It doesn't help that recommenders rarely receive any feedback about the results of their role in the decision.

Recommendations exist in a partial vacuum, whereas decisions exist in an ecosystem. 

So what's the solution? Morieux proposes six elements (paraphrasing):
  1. Ensure that players in the ecosystem understand what the others do
  2. Reinforce integrators
  3. Remove layers
  4. Increase the quantity of power so that you can empower everybody to use their judgment
  5. Create feedback loops that expose people to the consequences of their actions
  6. Increase reciprocity, by removing the buffers that make [people] self-sufficient
In other words: make people meaningfully responsible for the outcomes of their work, make people responsible for collaboration, and make sure they can see and understand the ecosystem.

No amount of communication or planning can solve this issue entirely - the change has to come in how power is distributed and used.

On the diversity of perspectives

Friday, March 13, 2015

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

I'm the pen on a fairly substantive report at work; it's interesting work and I'd give you the details but can't due to the terms of the contract. As one would expect, the work entails ingesting a tremendous amount of information culled from previous reports, project documents, presentations, etc. But it also entails conducting, recording and synthesizing approximately 40 in person interviews up and down the food chains of multiple organizations. While I've generally always understood the implicit value of gathering diverse perspectives, this recent undertaking has driven the point home pretty hard.

What I've learned

A document review is one thing; documents are sanitized, on message, vanilla.People are something together different; messy, wandering, visceral.

You learn a lot more about a given situation by speaking to people than you do by reading what they've written. Yes, reading the latter may help inform your approach vector with the former, but if push came to shove I'd take 40 people over 40 pages any day of the week.

Interacting with people allows you to scratch beneath the surface, identify zones of disagreement, and pick apart people's perceptions of what worked, what didn't and why. You'd be surprised how views differ and how reconciling those views provides you with a picture that is far closer to an objective reality than any individual account.

What's the bigger lesson?

We spend a whole lot of energy on producing products, moving them up the line, and across organizational boundaries. But maybe if we were really interested in unlocking a deeper understanding of what we do, how we do it, what works and what doesn't, we'd be better off spending less time pushing paper through it and more time talking to people about how they experience it.

Rational Planning or Muddling Through

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

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

Last week's post was about how organizational language, culture, and processes encourage the oversimplification of both problems and solutions (see: Boundaryless Problems and the End of the Elevator Pitch). It makes it easy to ignore the context of problems, and hard to appreciate the indirect or long-term benefits of any action.

(I've written in the past about how this hampers innovation and restricts collaboration, and proposed strategies to overcome it. Further back, I wrote a deeper dive about its adverse effects. I'll stop hammering on this theme soon.)

But after writing the post, I kept wondering if the idea was remotely useful to on-the-ground public servants. So, we tend to oversimplify things. Is that a necessary shortcut? Especially given the competing demands on our time? Or a lens that can help improve our planning? I'm not sure.

There are a few possible scenarios for this "ecosystem of problems and solutions" lens:

  1. It's false
  2. It's true, but useless
  3. It's true, but only useful in some situations
  4. It's true, but requires a particular response to be useful

No plan survives contact with the enemy

I want to dig into 2 and 4, starting with 2. It's true, but useless. Yes, there's an ideal state, in which we tackle a given problem exactly the way we should. But day-to-day, there are multiple problems, approaches, and solutions competing for our time and attention (see: Idealism and Pragmatism for Organizations). Maybe an 80% effort is less than ideal for a given problem, but best for the portfolio of problems we're facing.

Paul Wells led us to an interesting possibility for 4. It's true, but requires a particular response to be useful in his book The Longer I'm Prime Minister. He pointed to Charles Lindblom's The Science of Muddling Through, the long story short of which is that yes, public policy is impossibly complex (zero hyperbole), so the only way of understanding one's own preferences is actually to choose a direction and run with it. It's ten pages long, and I highly, highly recommend reading it - first for the above, and second to note that the verbiage of "complex public policy problems" is not a new phenomenon based on modern global finance, terrorism, or digital interconnectedness. It fits as easily in this 1959 paper.

Lindblom's take would be that there's much merit in experiential knowledge and large-scale experiments in the form of jurisdiction-wide policy changes. Skip the theories, frameworks, and mutually-agreed upon goals. If you think big enough, everything can be an experiment (e.g., the 10-year tax breaks in the US).

Oversight and Results

However, I think that Lindblom's solution is insufficient. One, governments have a certain responsibility towards fairness, even at the cost of efficiency. The human impacts of experiments cannot be ignored. For instance, in both the UK and Greece, social scientists have linked austerity policies with increased suicide rates (see: this post on the importance of good public policy). And in the age of transparency, governments cannot just make backroom trades of fairness for effectiveness (see: The Social Contract). 

Two, Lindblom suggests oversight in the form of multiple actors with competing interests: watchdog groups, lobbyists, and other responsibility centres within government. However, as Yves Morieux has pointed out, when someone has multiple people lobbying them, the marginal cost of ignoring any particular one of them is pretty low. Worse, none of those lobbying are paid to lobby for good systems overall; they're paid to adamantly recommend the solution that maximizes the variable they represent.

So where does this leave us? If I'm to be believed, both rational planning and experimentation and oversight are flawed approaches to public policy, which is not particularly inspiring. But I'll  let it hang for today and pick it up again shortly.