Monday, November 25, 2019

Group Hugs and Stating the Obvious

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitken

In 2010 I attended an event variously called GOC3/Collaborative Culture Camp and Collaborative Management Camp. This was back in the halcyon days of our youth when events had tweet walls, displaying the inner workings of the hivemind. Some of this was insights and connections between speakers’ points, though most was essentially live-tweeting quotes from the on-stage conversation. At one point, the tweet wall showed someone’s assessment that the event was “So far, mostly group hugs and stating the obvious.”

Which serves today as a launching point for thinking about that community, how it has changed, and where we are today. (Crowdsourced timeline here:

At one point in 2006, there were zero public servants on Twitter – because there was no Twitter. By 2010 it was probably in the scant hundreds; you could reach the end of the community, so why not follow everyone? We could figure out the “why” out later, but for the time being it was good enough to be connected around a general ideology of sharing, collaboration, experimentation, and openness (see: Millenials, Lego and the Perimeter of Ignorance). I wrote about the value of writing in the open as a way to create “rough edges” that could create connections with people learning the same directions or trying to solve the same problems (see: On the Importance of Being Earnest (and Open)).

That was before the era of information overload and much need for Twitter hiatuses or culling who you follow (though one of Nick’s most popular posts, a full decade ago, was about using Yahoo! pipes to fast-filter articles shared through social media (see: Signal to Noise)). The community matured, grew, and one of the driving common problems – bringing government into the social media era – started looking like a solv-ed/able problem. So people started subdividing into more niche and specialized sub-elements, and taking the natural step of expanding networks across sectors (though there’s still a serious core of “people on Twitter outside government that people inside government know”).

In parallel, the double-edged sword of asking “What problem are we really trying to solve?” emerged as a guiding principle. I say “double-edged” because an impact focus is, of course, a healthy lens. On the other hand, it may have undervalued community-building efforts where the “goal” was really a Venn diagram of many different goals for different people. In many ways, “group hugs and stating the obvious” was exactly what many people needed to start growing into a new and wider community. The first time I heard this question answered really well was Heather Remacle in the BC gov: success for a collaborative community is “growing people who fulfill the vision.”
Which roughly leads us to why posting on fell off for me. Like Nick (see: Fully, Completely), it was a combination of factors: new and challenges roles in my career, a busier personal life, but there was also an element of the GC collaborative community changing. Where once I agreed whole-heartedly with Andrew Kjurata’s “Shut up and say something” call for people to raise their voices in public spaces, the other increasingly plausible lens was that additional voices were as likely to just be uninformed bellowing into a cacophony. My standards for what I posted about and why went up.
So now, in a cacophonous environment characterized by information overload, Nick and I have both returned to posting at around the same time, and again for some of the same reasons. A little bit more professional and personal space, but at the same time, I think there are some useful things to discuss about the cacophony. One of my strongest conclusions from a year of interviewing people about digital-era governance was how warped our discourse can be about technology and change. Talking points can enjoy years of repetition before critical voices and evidence emerge to correct them – and even then likely don’t stand a chance against the ingrained memes.
Which I don’t purport to be able to correct, but it does mean that I continue to find this space interesting. And I wrote way too much stuff a couple years back (see: Governance in the Digital Era) that I had always intended to chop up into somewhat more digestible sections, which seems like a worthwhile project. I enjoyed Laura Wesley’s description of writing in open spaces as talking to her future self, and I’d like to keep making deposits in that collection rather than just withdrawing all the time.
And if we’ve met recently and you’re new here, here’s a few starting points from the past years that I think remain non-embarassing. Also, holy shit. The current count is 715 posts (more Nick than me and the other contributors). I’ll leave Nick to note his own, if he so chooses. 



Friday, November 22, 2019

Two pieces of unsolicited advice

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

I give these two pieces of advice often and have come up repeatedly in recent conversations and they apply both personally and professionally: (1) don't make other people's decisions for them and (2) have the conversation with the other person rather than about the other person.

Don't make other people's decisions for them

The only way people get better at making decisions is by having to make them. Decision-making is a key learning activity, and you do your team members a disservice if as a manager you take that decision making away from them. Similarly, if you don't ask your management team to make tough decisions (say by preemptively deciding that they are likely to say 'no' so why bother asking) you deny them the opportunity to experience making them.

Have the conversation with the other person rather than about the other person

Often we spend time trying to understand where someone is coming from by speaking to people we trust about them, validating our thoughts, and reflecting on how to address the situation (conflict? issue?) at hand. While I would never advocate against confiding in and seeking the counsel of those you trust, I would argue that more often then not we fail to close the loop with the actual person about the issue at hand. This is inherently problematic as far more can be achieved by speaking directly with the person than by speaking about them. This requires a certain amount of courage but establishing more courageous and direct interpersonal relationships will always solve more issues than meandering through or around the issues.

Putting the advice together

Weighing trade offs, making compromises, and being able to both give and take 'no' for an answer are important skill sets that will serve anyone well in their person or professional lives. This of course means that we also need to get better and giving and receiving direct feedback, understanding our biases, and being comfortable disagreeing openly with others when its appropriate to do so.

In short, engaging in difficult and direct conversations and their resulting decisions -- while at some times can be painful -- makes everyone better.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Our Search for Meaning

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Understanding how you derive meaning from your work is incredibly important. But that understanding only comes with experience, or more rightly experiences — breadth, depth, variability, trial, error.

It takes both successes and failures.

Exposure. Reflection. Self awareness. Vulnerability. Honesty, with yourself but also with others.

Understanding what brings you meaning in a visceral way — which is to say when you feel it in your bones — can be an incredibly empowering experience. It can help you dial in your career, cut the noise, and focus on what is driving you in the service of a larger mission.

It can also be frustrating. 

If you aren't deriving enough meaning from your work, you start to wander, get distracted, and lose sight of of how your work connects with those around you.

The easy part -- what I find meaningful.

Personally, I derive my meaning from — and forgive me if you've heard me pronounce on this before (i.e. See: Innovation is Tricky, Literally and/or Finding Innovation, and/or Book Review: Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes the World.) — from being a 'trickster', from being the conduit between different groups of people, introducing new ideas, translating knowledge between them, and bringing new ideas to life.

It's why I'm fullest when I'm meeting directly with stakeholders, briefing senior management, helping public servants scheme virtuously, or mixing it up with my team during times of personal and professional growth.

In short, I thrive in environments that are high volume and high velocity, in the collision prone spaces where new ideas and relationships flourish.

The hard part -- shaping meaningful experiences for others.

I've been thinking about the role of meaning not only in my own personal context but also in the context of managing a team. I feel as though — and views may vary — that as a manager I am responsible not only for not only finding meaning in my own work but also helping my team find meaning in theirs.

This latter part is complicated. What if what drives your team isn't what drives you? What if team members differ significantly when it comes to what they determine is meaningful? How do you steer work in a way that maximizes meaning and employee engagement on a daily basis?

Some incomplete thoughts.

First, you need to accept that shaping meaningful experiences for your team is a part of your role. Some managers would argue its not their job to worry about such things but I disagree, understanding that this is no small feat, that it takes work, and can often be resource intensive.

Second, you need to recognize that your ability to actually deliver on this part of your role is often severely limited. At best managers can help shape what people find to be meaningful experiences.

Third, you have to engage in explicit conversations about meaning and motivation with individual team members and reconcile the needs of each individual team member with the overall needs of the team. Again, no easy task, and honestly something I could be much better at.

I want to talk with more managers struggling with this issue because I'm not sure its something organizations are taking very seriously at the institutional level, that is to say helping employees understand and find meaning in their work might not be a widespread management practice.

As always, if you are interested in discussing these issues, please let me know.

Friday, November 1, 2019

5 things about people management

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Let me start by saying that I love managing people. I find it one of the most professionally rewarding things I've done in my career to date. That said, there's a number of things I'm still figuring out:

  • How much information to share. Ideally you want to give people enough context to understand the environment within which they are working without overburdening them with superfluous details or distractions. In practice I tend to share much more than was ever shared with me when I occupied their positions, my team seems to value it, though it has definitely led to a handful of more difficult conversations. 
  • How to balance individual needs with the needs of the team. Not everyone has the same work style or preferences, optimizing the work environment to get the best out of of everyone isn't easy, especially when some team members may feel as though they are either benefiting from or being held back by a more laissez-faire approach. 
  • How to best manage interpersonal relationships with people outside work. I'm a social being and bring my whole self to the job, but being a manager naturally creates a degree of professional distance that can be difficult to navigate in healthy and productive ways. I recall a conversation I had with a Deputy Minister who told me that the worst thing about their ascension was how the tone always shifted whenever they entered a room. I'm not there by any stretch, but that story still weighs heavy. 
  • How to measure success. It's not too difficult to evaluate whether or not you are delivering on expectations with respect to the work. You can ask simple questions, are we meeting deadlines, or are we meeting expectations? However its nearly impossible to evaluate whether or not I'm managing effectively with respect to the people. I have little to go on other than overall satisfaction / engagement of my team and the quality of their work. Moreover, we don't help people learn how to give constructive feedback. We are all kind of meandering through. 
  • How to turn good habits into practice. I keep telling my team that we need to build our practice up so that it can endure any shifting winds -- new hires, departures, re-organizations, change in mandates, etc -- and I'm mostly doing this by trial and error right now. I'm not even sure where to look for support on this and its always the first thing to fall off whenever duty calls.

Where is the conversation about thoughtful people management happening right now? 

It's got to be happening somewhere, I've been doing some reading but surely there's a place where there's a more active discussion about people's practical experiences.

Someone connect me to the conversation?

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The internet is up to things again: thoughts on

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitken

Way back in the early years of the internet, online political mobilization was studied as a question, a hypothesis, a phenomenon. 20 years ago the following was a novel, while perfectly reasonable, statement in academia: “Well into the twenty-first century, the Internet is no longer an exotic political medium.”
Since, we’ve gone through a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The internet would level the playing field and usher in a new era of democracy and a country-wide public conversation. Now we’re in the era of fake news, website content farms, bots scripted to vote en mass on public consultations, and, worst of all, newspapers’ online comment sections. But there's lots of good stuff, too. Today, it's not even a question; of course the internet can be used for dialogue and community mobilization.

The above is a dramatic, exaggerated, and unreasonably short overview in order to set the backdrop for a project worth note:

Some Thoughts launched with a social media push on that aforementioned 50th birthday. It’s a collection of just shy of 100 articles covering “an idea, policy, strategy, or best practice” for the future of cities, organized into 14 “conversations.”

Contributors span community organizers and activists, not-for-profits leads, think tank analysts, public servants, academics, CEOs, journalists, and beyond. There are names like Jim Balsillie and John Ralston Saul (whose contribution title takes a somewhat “didn’t I warn you all about this in 1992?” tone).

Skipping merrily past any assessment of the conversations themselves and into the meta, I want to describe a few reasons why this project is interesting within that history of the internet as a public discourse platform.

It’s coordinated, but independent

There was a time when Lead Now and might have been the likely bets for observers guessing online political game-changers: getting massive amounts of people to sign petitions with single, one-size-fits-all statements. Or, in the same vein, open letters penned by <10 people, but written generally enough to get general agreement from a large section of the general interest community. Some Thoughts makes no statements of solidarity, nodding instead at the idea that discord and contradiction are a part of the project. However, the collection and the collective networks of the contributors made this project impossible to miss for anyone working at the intersection of technology, governance, and community.

(Perhaps, one day, the  history of governance discourse in Canada may one day point to this coordinated but independent approach and recognize the humble but rugged Civic Access Listserv as a foundation.)

It aims deep, not shallow

While the internet permitted increasingly broad public discourse, it simultaneously encouraged brevity. You can interpret any number of votes, read a fair number of short comments, but full conversations and back-and-forths break quickly at scale. This feature of online discourse is common, replicating a feature of the public townhall, people-get-a-few-minutes-with-the-mic problem described by Dr. Robin Gregory:

"When hundreds or thousands of stakeholders are asked to (a) speak before a panel for ten to fifteen minutes, (b) submit short written statements to a government body, or (c) participate as representatives of identified interests, then the invitation contains an implicit request to be either superficial or one-dimensional."

While Some Thoughts was clearly designed for internet reading, and to encourage people to read multiple essays, it’s hardly one-dimensional. Some of the more academic contributors, for instance, produced short but reference-packed miniature journal articles.

Which, in a way, starts to return us to the public engagement pedigree of the GC: technical, wonky, and long papers submitted in response to proposed changes in federal regulations, every one of which has to be announced via the Canada Gazette and opened for comment.

It rejects the convened space

There’s an idea I think is wildly important for government public engagement, and accordingly I quote it (too?) often. It’s the reminder “that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.” This project was born out of the public engagement process around Sidewalk Labs in Toronto. For the last few years, organizations and governments have endeavoured to create and foster spaces for public discourse on issues, experimenting with new platforms and formats. However, the “official” spaces will always be situated in the much-less-controllable and much-more-densely-trafficked mass media, social media, and community spaces that already exist around those topics. Some Thoughts in this case, represents a parallel, community-generated but net new space for discourse. It’s not the first such platform, but noteworthy in its reach and execution. 

In sum

If you’re interested in the future of cities, go read and explore. If you’re interested in trends and ideas of how public discourse takes shape and can shape public engagement processes and policy option development, go explore and reflect.

I’m deliberately maintaining an observer stance with this post, but the one opinion I’ll offer is that models that create fuller, more thoughtful, and more constructively combative discourse should be warmly welcomed. We’re still experimenting with the best balance of reach versus rigour in online dialogue.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Fully, completely.

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

The last three-ish years have been busy both personally and professionally for me. In that time, I played a critical role in helping design a new challenge-based government program, took on management responsibilities within that program, and had the opportunity to assemble a crackerjack team that is absolutely crushing on its delivery. We're a weird hybrid of policy advice on innovation and impact, and experimentation with program delivery. Our team works well not because of a particular governance structure, but rather because of the culture we've been able to cultivate, the quality of the our team members, and our trusted relationship with our executive cadre.

Over the same period of time, I stopped writing. It was a slow but continuous denouement that culminated in me hanging up skates and declaring that I used to write things on the internet. I was a new manager, we were a new team, we were working on a new program. It was all very exciting and I wanted to dig into the substance of the task at hand. Doing that took significant amounts of time, mental energy, and was (at times) all consuming.

It was a tremendous learning opportunity, but entailed certain sacrifices. For example, I had always told myself that writing about my experience in the public service was something that I wanted to do throughout the course of my career. That being able to look back on this blog as a sort of journal of public service things would be valuable to myself and, if I struck the right tone or raised the right issues, to others. I thought it was an all or nothing proposition. I've always been an all or nothing kind of person, to quote the late (great, and highly influential to me personally) Gord Downie: "Either it'll move me or it'll move right through me. Fully, completely".

But careers are funny things, they ebb and flow, and while everyone's opinion may differ, mine has evolved to a place where I feel like there's neither a right nor a wrong way to go about making decisions about them. I was speaking to a friend of mine recently about relationships but his advice applies equally to careers and other human endeavors (paraphrasing): "You've only got some much energy to give, if you make a withdrawal in one place, someone else has to come in and pick up the slack. That or the relationship suffers." Or put another way by another friend (again, paraphrasing): "Time is your most valuable resource, and you once you've spent it you can't get it back".

I was so busy doing the work -- designing a program, delivering it, managing the day to day operations of the team -- that I simply didn't have the time to share what I was learning with others the way I had previously. Sure, I was still having conversations, exploring issues and positing solutions, but I was hyper focused on the immediate issues and people in front of me. Reporting back on what I was dealing with and learning along the way didn't seem as important, or if I'm being honest, interesting, or even fair to those who were living through it with me.

Often I was just trying to keep my head above water, but along the way I learned that solving real problems in front of you, and seeing the impact of their resolution first hand, is an incredibly meaningful experience; that helping the five people immediately in front of you can feel (and be!) more meaningful then writing some esoteric think piece that gets loaded into 5,000 anonymous web browsers (the impact of which is hard to quantify and more importantly, qualify).

Last year I also had the good fortune of being able to spend ~3 months in Denver, Colorado on a temporary duty assignment as a Trade Commissioner. The experience was unlike any other in my career and forced some introspection -- I'm in the middle of what I'm jokingly referring to my 'early' mid-life crisis.

When I got back I started to reflect on how much I've learned by doing, how many different people, ideas, and issues I've collided with over the past few years and what I find the most rewarding about my work.

Embracing interesting ideas and even more interesting people is what made me who I am today, it's what put me on the path, gave me the skills, and created the worldview that I continue to bring to bear on difficult but important tasks such as creating new programs, building new teams, and learning how to continue to be a positive influence on the our systems of governance.

I feel as though I'm emerging somewhat from the personal and professional ether, and if I'm being completely honest with myself, I'm not sure what this all means.

Maybe it means taking time to pause, reflect, and share more. If that's the case then sharing a new updated version of Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants.

The new version includes new content under both the Scheming and Virtue headings as well as hints for both employees and managers. You can also watch me deliver the handbook as a talk should you be interested. Thanks to the Canada School of Public Service for making the video available online.