Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants


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1. Introduction

If you want to get to the good/practical stuff skip down, but if you’re like me and you think context is important, then this section is for you.

When I first started to write about public service renewal it was 2008. Times were different. Public service anonymity meant something.  Social media was new, engaging in it was fraught with ‘risk’. The rules either didn’t exist or were being metered out differently depending on who said what in what medium. We were just stumbling through, not knowing what the future would bring.

I published on a weekly basis, used my real name, and self-identified as a public servant. I offered constructive criticism, highlighted places where I thought we could improve, and explored how we could improve our organization. The website became a gathering point for others and my network started to grow, ideas started to flow, and I was connecting with other public servants across jurisdictions, organizations, hierarchies, age brackets, classifications, etc. Embracing the ‘risks’ of being outspoken (rightly and at times wrongly) online literally reshaped my career and introduced me to people I would have otherwise no business meeting, let alone engaging in frequent discussions with. Public service anonymity was changing.

In 2012, I published Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants, not knowing how -- or even if -- it would be received by others. I never anticipated that it would hurl me down a path that had me crisscrossing the country, visiting every major Canadian city in every province and territory to present my manifesto. It was truly an unprecedented opportunity that I was too young to appreciate at the time, but now look back on feeling incredibly blessed. I learned more about how public sector organizations work (or don’t) than I would have ever had I sat in my desk and focused solely on my day job.

That seems like forever ago and despite everything that has happened (some good, some bad) in the intervening years, public servants keep coming back to the handbook. I’m told it still resonates and that it's the closest thing public servants have to manual. For that I am forever grateful. It’s humbling to know that your work touches others, it’s certainly reached more people than I ever aspired to.

That said, it’s due for an update. I’m hoping this new version better encapsulates the history of public sector renewal in Canada, what I’ve learned as a working level public servant over the years, and what I’ve since learned as a manager. It will be no means be perfect, but let’s hope it's an improvement.

1.1 Mandatory Disclaimer

The opinions expressed are those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Public Service of Canada, its Departments and/or Agencies, or their employees.

1.2 Preamble

In its simplest form, the handbook is a collection of practical tactics that will help public servants foster a more collaborative and innovative public service culture while upholding core public service values regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy. It’s the philosophy of public service renewal made practical.

1.3 What Is Public Service Renewal?

"Renewal is not about fixing something for all time but updating what we do and how we do it in order to remain relevant and effective now and into the future.  It is about keeping the institution of the public service dynamic, fresh and respected.  And renewal is not something others do; the impetus for renewal has to come from within, and it has to involve all of us." - 2008 Report of the Clerk on the Public Service of Canada

This is meant to be a practical guide so we won’t bore you with a history lesson or hammer you over the head with what a former Clerk called the “dynamic imperative for renewal”.

We know renewal is important.  We live its importance every time someone shuts down a good experiment because they are risk averse or because saying why something can’t be done is easier than figuring out how it can be done.

While the vast majority of public servants may not have direct input into how the public service addresses the challenges facing it at the macro-level, all of us have the ability to address the challenges where they are most important, at the micro-level.

Addressing challenges at the micro is important because many of the high-level problems plaguing our institutions are the aggregate manifestation of working-level problems.  If we continue to absolve ourselves from the responsibility or resign ourselves to the lowest common denominator – “‘that’s just the way it is’ syndrome” – then we have no one to blame for our frustrations but ourselves.

So where does that leave us?

First, it is important to remember that public servants are connected by a common responsibility for the system as a whole.  This is why we choose to define public service renewal more broadly, asserting that its primary concern is not “staffing up” or retaining employees, but about cultivating a culture of stewardship and innovation.

Second, we must understand that stewardship consists of making us all active agents overseeing a constantly improving system.  At its core, stewardship is a combination of safeguarding what works and deliberately innovating to improve what doesn’t. Often, this entails taking, owning, and accepting calculated risks.

With this in mind, in this short guide, we propose neither a linear nor a mutually exclusive methodology you can follow to:

  • Engage in public service renewal on your own;
  • Integrate public service renewal into your work environment; and
  • Convince your colleagues (in all directions) to support public service renewal.

 The key to all of this is to not let your imagination and enthusiasm be dampened by organizational politics or institutional caution.  Be deliberate: look for weaknesses in your organization’s existing practices, maximize your advantage and create new opportunities to argue for change.

Remember that this guide is not a “what–to-do” manual, it’s a “how-to” manual.  That being said, whatever you decide to embark on within your own organization should be needs-based, and aim its impact within certain organizational boundaries.  However this doesn’t preclude you from working with others outside your organizational boundaries whenever it is merited.  Often, embarking on multidirectional initiatives spark domino effects across groups, directorates or departments.  If what you create is innovative and valuable it will be replicated elsewhere.

An important caveat: In the public service your relationships and reputation are your best assets.  Be conscious that your actions impact both of these assets considerably.  Make sure you take care in managing both, and use your judgment to make decisions that you, and others can live with.

Finally, creating a culture of stewardship within the public service is something that can be done equally and applies across all groups and levels.

You want to be branded as ‘an innovative ideas generator’ and ‘cutting edge’.  You do not want to be known as ‘goalless’ or ‘too quick to stir the pot’.

2 Scheming Virtuously

The term “scheming virtuously” was coined by Dr. Gilles Paquet and is the quintessential optimal modus operandi for public servants looking to make positive change and/or innovate in the public service.

  • Scheming: Given to making plans, sly, crafty       
  • Virtuous: Conforming to moral and ethical principles; morally excellent


Scheming Virtuously = Making crafty plans that conform to moral and ethical principles
Scheming virtuously steers clears of combative positions and analogies.  When you scheme virtuously you aren’t engaging in a firefight with “hard-line” traditionalists, nor are you a guerrilla soldier engaged in a culture war.  You are a public servant using your position, your insight, and your intelligence to identify opportunities for your organization that have yet to be identified, or supporting those that already have been.

Remember – find ways to scheme ethically and reinforce a culture of stewardship and carry out related duties efficiently, in a non-partisan manner, with the public interest in mind.  Read this document from your heart, because that is the spirit in which it’s written.

3 On Scheming

3.1 Within Your Team

Talk to the members of your team.  Seek direction, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and explore opportunities for improvement.  Be open and willing to learn from others on your team.

Try to involve your direct manager whenever possible, they may be interested in doing something more efficiently, getting involved in something larger, or delegating more responsibility.  Whatever your virtuous scheme is, try to get them on board.  You may be surprised by their interests and willingness, or you may find out that they are more likely to be adversarial in the future; but remember, just because your first idea didn’t fly, doesn’t mean that your second attempt won’t be more successful.

Hint for employees
Trying to involve your manager also has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out exactly what their level of involvement is likely to be, and where they sit on certain issues that may be important to you, e.g., work-life integration, learning, or performance management. Your relationship with your colleagues is incredibly important, you will be spending a lot of time with them in the immediate future, and like any relationship, you only get out what you put in.

Hint for managers
Create time and space for your team to meaningfully interact with each other. This can take the form of both structured meetings during work hours but also after work activities. Be present, protect your own time to attend, listen, and contribute. Come to the discussions with the mindset of a peer, not a superior. But also provide them space to speak without you around, your presence always has an influence, even if you are the best of the best. Make mental notes of who your ideas people are and encourage them to play that role wherever possible.

Schedule optional office hours rather than mandatory ‘bilats’ with all of your staff. Carve out 30 minutes each week for each and every one of your direct reports. If either of you have something to discuss use the time, if not give it back to them. These are meetings to resolve issues and exchange feedback, they are not ‘justify your work week to me’ types of meetings. Mileage will vary, as will how your employees want to use the time. Adapt to your employees needs and styles.

3.2 Outside Your Team

There are undoubtedly a lot of people around you with whom you share experiences – positive or negative – and whose experience with certain issues may be greater or weaker than your own.  You need to get out there and network beyond your team.  Take every opportunity you can to safely get away from the office.

If you’re a new hire, you are at a distinct advantage of being able to tell your manager that you are working towards expanding your knowledge and contact base, your workload is also more likely permit this.  Try to establish getting out of the office as a normative behaviour for both yourself and your manager. Actively work towards setting the expectation that you will be out and about and that being at large has a positive impact on your ability to do your job.

If you’re a not-so-new hire you may be at a slight disadvantage because your manager may expect that you already have a solid knowledge base, and be well connected; your workload might also be less forgiving.  However, managers should also have more trust in your ability to identify the good opportunities when they arise, and forgo the less lucrative ones.  Use their faith in your judgment to your advantage.  Be selective and be prepared to explain why a particular networking opportunity is especially important to you, your team, and its work.

Hint for employees
If your manager is reluctant to let you away from the desk to participate in other activities make sure your pitch includes why this particular activity is beneficial to your team, and offer to report back on the event.  As long as your work doesn’t suffer you should have no problem convincing them of the value of attending conferences, seminars, armchair discussions, etc., especially if these things are free.

Hint for managers
If you’re a middle manager, try to manage both your (and your team) time and workflow in a proactive manner, but don’t micro-manage it.  Find ways to increase the amount of time you and your team members have to step out and do some creative collaboration with others outside your team.  As a manager, you should understand the workload and operating capacity of your team members and thus be able to identify who may be willing and able to take on additional responsibility, and who can step away to participate in other activities.

If you’re a senior manager your chief concerns may revolve around the immediate operational needs of your organization and your days may be completely dominated by meetings and telephone calls.  That being said, you set the tone, you lead by example; you need to help create safe time and space for employees to scheme virtuously.  If you don’t do it, who will?

3.3 With New Arrivals

Want fresh eyes?  There is no better way to get a frank and honest question or opinion than to ask a new hire.  Who cares if they have no experience with the question?  New arrivals are likely to give you a gut reaction and more importantly, one that isn’t filtered through govspeak, established hierarchies, and false pleasantries. New arrivals are a great source of energy, so tap into it, and nurture it.  New arrivals are looking for creative outlets at work, they are opportunity seeking -- give them an outlet, harness their energy, and reap the rewards.

Hint for employees
Looking to network with other new arrivals?  Find out when your departments orientation session is and attend it.  Already attended one?  Find out when the next one is and show up at the doors afterwards, everyone coming out is potentially the person you are looking for.  Find out if your department has a young professional network and find a point of contact.  Touch base, signal your intentions and offer to help.

Hint for managers
Spend time with new arrivals. Stay fresh. Teach, don’t preach, stay open. Keep an active and caring eye on the talent pipeline. If your department has a recruitment or development program, volunteer your time, meet and interview candidates, get them excited about working with you, but more importantly a career in the public service. Circle back with them if you don’t get them the first time. Keep your door (and the lines of communication) open. If and when new arrivals say things that are slightly offside with respect to delivery but still valid on content, open the door the rest of the way. Say something like, “I know Nic is new here and that we typically don’t address the issue this way, but do you think maybe they have a point? Let’s discuss it”.

3.4 With Seasoned Vets

Limiting your scheming to the new arrivals is a big mistake.  Don’t assume that because others have experience with the system that they have resigned themselves to it.  Many experienced public servants are actively working towards cultivating a culture of innovation and stewardship. In short, not-so-new arrivals are full of valuable insight and are likely able to identify potential stumbling blocks down the road. They bring context, and context can be key to unlocking adjacent possibilities.

Hint for employees
You should be able to tell who these people are after only a few interactions.  They usually have open-door policies, respect and promote work-life integration, are facilitators rather than micro-managers and comma-moving micro-editors, and their discourse focuses on how to make things happen -- not how to keep things from happening.

Hint for managers
Be one of these people. Be someone people come to with everything from new ideas to old frustrations. Work to resolve both equally hard, both can have a demonstrable impact on others, their work, and those around them. You won’t be able to implement/solve everything that comes up but you can at least be there to absorb it and validate others.

3.5 Over Coffee (or Tea)

Never turn down an offer to have a cup of coffee (or tea) with another public servant.  An informal discussion now could easily change where you are a few months from now. Use exploratory opportunities to your advantage, and always be honest with people.  Public servants are incredibly mobile. Just because they can’t offer you an opportunity immediately doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to do so in the future.  Keep an ongoing list of people you could contact in a pinch that could provide timely advice or supporting evidence. Keep in touch with them as you move around the system, you never know when they could be valuable to you or vice versa. Know that you will inevitably get some doozies, thirty-minute coffees that feel more like three hundred minute coffees. Be polite, stick to your time limit, and get back out there, there’s lots of fish in the sea.

Hint for employees
Make connections and keep connections, drop strategically timed emails to contacts during slow work periods.  Create time and space to talk shop and put the feelers out for opportunities to get involved more actively or collaboratively in your organization. Public servants are now frequently using both internal and external social media channels to connect with others who share their interests, especially across departments. Just think twice about what you say where.

Hint for managers
Protect time in your calendar for informal discussions (over coffee or tea) with others. Set recurring meetings in your calendar so that people don’t book meetings against it. Obviously this doesn’t always work so set aside multiple blocks of time. For example, block your mornings before 9:30 am (10:00 am on Mondays!), your lunch hours, and an hour every afternoon that best suits your personal flow. You now have a morning coffee, lunch, and afternoon tea option available should someone want to take you up on it. Protect this time to the best of your ability. Time is your scarcest resource and you can never get it back.

3.6 Electronically

You may find them rigid or boring, but check your departmental newsletter and discussion forums, or scour your intranet because there are tons of free networking opportunities.

Use your access to almost limitless information.  Subscribe to newsletters you think would be useful, follow social media, read the news, use your departmental library (if you are lucky enough to still have one!).  But take care to tailor the incoming information flow to your own needs so as to not be overburdened by blunt email blasts.

Engage yourself responsibly in social media both internally and externally.  There are many public servants already having open and honest discussions there, sharing links, and opportunities to participate.  Explore the tools and connect with existing communities.  If you don’t know where to start, ask someone for help.

Hint for employees
When you do come across something useful, share it with others who may be interested and ask them to keep you in the loop about similar things – reciprocity is critical in terms of information sharing, especially in the absence of social media and bookmarking behind the government firewall.

Hint for managers
Encourage your employees to dabble with new tools and share what they are learning both about them and through them. You want your team to be connected internally, externally, globally, to expert information and the trusted advice of others. Their resourcefulness and interconnectedness is often what determines their worth to the organization. Foster their intellectual curiosity.

3.7 With Tools

Complete your personal learning plan and align it with organizational outcomes to help you get the skills you need for your next job while also moving your organization forward.  If you only ever train for the job you are currently doing how do you expect to ever get where you are going?  Select training that will aid you in your quest to implement innovative solutions to the problems you have identified. Should the need arise to explain something or justify any of your initiatives, having training materials in your back pocket will give you a solid foundation and make it easier for you to back up your work. Training opportunities are also a great way to expand your network.

Hint for employees
Talk to other people who have already completed their learning plans and involve your manager and your most trusted advisors.  Furthermore, take a course on how to write your learning plan (which should be free in most departments); oh and don’t forget to hold yourself and your manager accountable to what’s in it. A learning plan is especially important when your relationship with your manager needs improvement. It’s a mandatory, documented process, that opens up the opportunity for honest and respectful dialogue even if dialogue has historically been difficult. If you find yourself in this situation, resist the urge to make it a paper exercise and dig in, work until you are satisfied with what’s on paper.

Hint for managers
Support your employees with forward looking training. Go to battle for training budgets, sacrifice your own if you have to. Put your people first and help them get ahead, they won’t ever forget it. That said, be honest, don’t let expectations balloon out of control and put that control squarely in the hands of the employee. If they identify a need, have them identify the solution. When employees come back from training ask them to give you a debrief, not so you can check in on whether or not they were paying attention but so you can learn from their experience. If they are comfortable, ask them to teach the team what they’ve learned. Even if it's only an hour crash course covering what they did over the week. This will help them internalize the training while benefiting the rest of the team.

3.8 Safely

Much of the talk about innovation in the public sector revolves around the need to create a safe space. Safe spaces are places where you have latitude to speculate, and where creativity is encouraged.  Many private sector companies (e.g., Google, Disney) have really cool safe spaces designed from the bottom-up to stimulate people and the exchange of ideas. While we may now have some of these spaces in the public service, there is nothing preventing us from exerting more control over how we physically interact within the spaces we do have.

Before scheming, explicitly identify your discussion as a safe space.  Allaying the concerns of participants before the discussion starts will ease the flow of information.  So too will sharing a personal story of your own experience with the issue.  Building trust is the key to scheming safely.  Trust has to be earned, and it tends to be earned slowly.  But once trust is established you can really dig into the issues at hand. But be careful, it’s broken much more quickly.

Hint for employees
Try having your conversations according to Chatham House Rules: participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. In conflict with a colleague? Try going for a walk instead of meeting across a table. When you walk with someone you have to open your body to them to talk to them, you share a destination, you synchronize your pace. These small things help defuse tension and help create common ground.

Hint for managers
Consider whether or not you are creating safe spaces for your employees in either a one-on-one situation or in a group. Your presence can change the dynamic, your tone can make people feel unsafe. It’s unlikely that you can simply ask your employees if they feel safe around you, but there are some tell-tale signs. Do they confide in you, do you keep what they say to you in confidence. Do they speak to you about their personal life in addition to work. Do they come to you when they have problems? Is your office set up in an antagonistic manner? Can employees freely leave your office or is your back to the door and they need to physically get up and walk past you to leave? Re-arrange your furniture so that employees don’t inadvertently feel trapped in your office. Be a safe place for your employees.

3.9 Via Existing Channels

Your organization has a whole slew of committees, advisory groups and working groups.  Find out what they are, what they do, who chairs them, and how to get a seat at those tables.  They may already be working on initiatives you want to get involved in.  They may even be looking to expand their membership or recruit some fresh eyes.   Start talking to members, get more details, signal your interests, and offer to help.

Hint for employees
Start by reading the meeting minutes.  It will help you learn about what these groups do, and whether or not they are the appropriate mechanism through which to bolster your involvement.  This will also help you speak intelligently to the issues at hand and circumvent the need to catch up, which may create feelings of resentment within the group by those who consider bringing you up to speed as backtracking.

Hint for managers
Tell your employees what committees and working groups are important to you and your work and encourage them to participate. Delegate meetings to them whenever appropriate so they can see how the group functions. Trust them to actively represent your team at the meeting (i.e. don’t send them as note takers or tell them to sit on the outside ring). Encourage them to speak their mind at the meeting and provide you with honest feedback thereafter about how it went.

3.10 In New Channels

Can’t find a group that is tackling the issues you want to work on?  Create one.  Tap into your contacts.  Is there sufficient interest to have an informal meeting to discuss the issue?  If it doesn’t exist, build it yourself.  Organize an hour-long informal discussion over coffee or lunch.  Avoid headaches; it’s informal, no need for a stuffy boardroom or formal terms of reference.  You are simply having a conversation and being crafty.  See what the group can accomplish without adopting the rigid hierarchy of the bureaucracy as the default template. If things are moving well, endeavour to build on and sustain the momentum of the new channel you have created.

Hint for employees
Designate a small space in your own office as a safe space board.  Every time you have an idea, write it down on a sticky note and stick it to the board.  Whenever you have some time, pick an issue off the board and see if you can do some creative thinking around it.  If a colleague ever asks you what the board is for tell them that it is full of ideas that you have yet to try but are eager to work on, you might be surprised who takes notice.

Hint for managers
Support employees looking to create new things. Mentor folks around you. Provide context, but keep things light. When appropriate use your social capital and position to help others scale what they are creating. Be a much needed champion to that which you think has merit.

3.11 Opportunistically

Focus on the opportunities, not the problems.  Don’t let the discourse be dominated by the people afflicted by “this will never work because” or “we’ve always done it this way” disease.  Focus on why your idea is a good one.  Write down why it’s important, whom it’s important to, and how it will positively impact your organization.

Try to think like the enterprise.  What must the organization do in order to be more innovative?  Be specific – does your initiative take aim at your organizations service delivery model, internal processes, public image, or work culture?  Qualify and quantify the benefits.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t anticipate the potential problems.  Write down (on a separate sheet of paper) the problems you foresee with your idea – and I don’t mean perceived problems like, “Nick will never approve of this because …”.  I mean real problems, like potentially prohibitive costs, low return on investment, previous failed attempts, accessibility issues, potential conflicts of interest, etc.

If you can identify real issues at the forefront then you can scheme around obstacles by identifying potential solutions to anticipated problems.  Anticipating problems is important because it shows that you have thought the process through from start to finish and are able to make some adjustments if required. Nothing is more detrimental to your initiative (and your reputation) than repeating the same mistake in front of the same arbiter.

Hint for employees
Writing things down in plain English (or French) is important because it allows you to speak intelligently about your initiative when others are interested in it, or are interested in being critical of it.  Having something in writing helps you articulate your plan effectively and should make it easier to support.  Moreover, should your idea gain traction you can use it to quickly write a brief and capture the momentum of the buy-in, which may be fleeting unless pressed.  Furthermore, don’t omit important pieces of the puzzle simply because you think it may be poorly received.  Instead be prepared to speak to it intelligently.

Hint for managers
Be the right kind of gatekeeper. Your role whenever an employee is being opportunistic isn’t to be a blanket naysayer but rather ask the tough questions to ensure that your employee has done their homework and is ready for prime time. Be explicit about this role -- let your employees know that you want them to seize the opportunity but that there are a couple of other things that need to be considered prior to you coming on as a champion. Explain what those things are and set the bar in clear terms, then, help them get there. Then teach them to ask themselves those same questions.

3.12 With Your Head Up (and on a Swivel)

Make sure you keep your head up and take on new challenges.  If none are coming your way, start asking for them.  If you are told you don’t have enough experience to take them on, engage your manager in a conversation.

Explain that there is a mutual opportunity for both of you:  you to learn and apply new skills, and your manager to reap the benefits thereof.  Holding people back by refusing them stretch assignments isn't new, nor is it something that is limited to public servants.

People of all ages, within all vocations, with varying degrees of tenure and experiences are denied chances to face new challenges due to this experience trap.  Sometimes, disarming that trap may mean keeping your head up and initiating some tough conversations.

But don’t forget that not everyone is in your corner, or at least not all the time, keep your head on a swivel. Expect haters -- the public service is a little like the internet sometimes, (i.e. “haters gonna hate”) which means every occasionally you will need to adopt a “come at me bro” attitude to make it through. Judgement is the key to knowing when these apply.

Hint for employees
Ask your manager how they got to where they are.  If they say “by keeping my head down and following orders” start looking for a new job.  If they say “by facing and learning from new challenges” ask them how they got those opportunities and stick with them, these are the types of people you want to learn from.

Hint for managers
Keep your head up at all times. Model the behaviour you want to see and reward or encourage others when they follow suit. Take the time to speak to your team about how to keep their head on a swivel and when to swing their elbows. These are important traits that can only be perfected through careful calibration. It's not something that happens often so direct exposure to these experiences may be limited, share that which you have learned and continue to learn from others. Make sure you explore these issues delicately and thoughtfully, do it in a way that does not jeopardize your ability to provide a safe space to your employees.

4 On Virtue

4.1 Get Motivated

It doesn’t matter where you draw your inspiration from, be it serving Canadians more broadly, working specifically with your colleagues, or simply doing work that you love to do.  What matters is that you are actually motivated.  Nothing stops innovation and stewardship like indifference.

If you aren’t motivated, take time to be introspective and find your motivation.  If you are motivated – if you are driven – then show it proudly, celebrate it with others, and make it contagious.

Hint for employees
Periodically ask yourself: "Why am I here?" and make sure that if someone were to ask you that question, you could answer it in a heartbeat.

Hint for managers
Have an origin story, be able and prepared to tell others how you got to where you are today, and where you want to be tomorrow. Be proud of your achievements and inspire others. Ask your employees what motivates them and create those conditions to the best of your ability.

4.2 Marshal Support

You are not alone – there are a lot of people out there looking to make their organization more innovative and foster a culture of stewardship.  Whatever it’s you have chosen to undertake you shouldn’t have to start from scratch because there are most likely other people out there already scheming.  Schemers are, for the most part, largely approachable.  Not only are they willing to share their experiences but they seem to be obsessed with finding new ways to be innovative. Getting other people on board is incredibly important and will increase your chances for success.  You should be actively looking for opportunities to expand your network.

Hint for employees
Get support for your idea from within your organization, but also from outside of it.  You may need to be able to show that other departments have moved or are moving in similar directions. Gather support from both the usual and unusual suspects. Work across traditional boundaries or hierarchies, use the multiplicity of supportive views to demonstrate the value of the idea or initiative to the organization.

Hint for managers
Offer your support whenever and wherever merited but do your homework first. Make sure that what you are throwing your weight behind has legs, don’t be a champion for every potential initiative that comes across your desk. You have limited social capital (and time!), so spend it wisely.

4.3 Identify Blockages

When you hit a roadblock, keep track of the “why’s” and “by who’s”.  This will allow you to streamline your delivery and better anticipate potential blockages in the future.  It also shows that you are learning from the process and gives your work more credibility. If you make a mistake, adjust, adapt, overcome.

Hint for employees
Avoid creating an expectation of deficiency by continuously repeating the same mistakes to the same person.  Write things down, speak to others, test ideas or pitches with friendlies before going after potential naysayers. Listen to and consider their constructive criticism.

Hint for managers
Avoid blocking the ideas of others, temper them, help shape, make them better, accelerate them or even slow them down, but don’t be a simple yes/no gatekeeper.  Don’t push people to work around you, invite them to work through you. If you see employees doing an end around another manager, have the courage to have a difficult conversation with them about why that might be happening. Explain the value of openness and the energy of new ideas.

4.4 Isolate and Influence

When building support, strategy and sequence become incredibly important.  When you are shopping for support you should approach the early adopters first.  Isolate the roadblocks and keep them out of the equation for as long as possible.

Find the people in your organization that see the value of what you are doing.  Moreover, try to get a few of the key influencers who can help bring people down off the fence or exert pressure on those who typically say ‘no’.

Once you have a critical mass, approach the naysayers.  Show them what you are proposing, show them your support base, and ask for their participation.  The more pressure you can bring to bear on the naysayers, the less likely they are to continue saying nay.

Hint for employees
Go after the key influencers in your department and make them champions, unofficial or otherwise.  You know who these people are: when they speak, others listen. They may or may not occupy official positions of influence but will always know their worth and have social capital.

Hint for managers
Don’t let employees isolate you. If you are isolated and/or the last to know about something, you know something is amiss. If you were the last to be invited in on something, ask why, declare your preference to know sooner, not so that you can drop the hammer but rather so that you can help positively influence others or offer important information or insight that you have access to given your managerial position.

Tips for Anyone Marshalling Support, Identifying Blockages, and/or Isolating/Influencing
Keep a mental list of people whose buy in you think you need for your idea/initiative. Colour code the names: green, yellow, red. Green are folks who you are sure you will be able to get on board, yellow are those on the fence, and red, well you get the idea. Meet with all of your green allies first either individually or in a group. Then divide and conquer. Assign green tag teams to yellows for preliminary discussions (i.e. a ratio of 2-1 or 3-1) over coffee (or tea). Then assign a green tag team plus one former yellow (now green) to any discussion with a prospective red. There is strength in numbers as well as bringing former skeptics turned coverts along for the discussion; they can empathize better with the naysayers than the natural enthusiasts can.

Be wary of hierarchies, not all influence is created equal; some employees won’t be swayed by managers, some managers by employees. Sometimes you will need to find support at someone’s level to move reds off their objections. Often no one wants to be first in the public service but even fewer people want to be last. Use the fear of being last to your advantage. Create upwards pressure by having employees and managers in other units indicate that they are so interested in the idea that they are going to escalate it to those above. It will either stoke feed the fear of being last or provide enough comfort so that the blockage no longer feels like they would be ‘going it alone’ or ‘taking a risk’ if they were to support the initiative.

4.5 Gather Evidence

You are obviously behind your idea; there are obviously reasons why you are behind it.  State them clearly.  Write them down.  Support your argument.  Compile a list of all of the similar initiatives that are being implemented elsewhere.  Use your tools and your networks: find examples by searching the corners and back alleys of your organization and other (including private) organizations. Get their documents and whenever possible, find someone willing to give you a first-hand account of their experiences.

Ultimately you need to gather evidence and present it in a compelling way because you will need to reassure decision-makers and executives that your idea has merit and doesn’t pose an unmanageable risk.  You will need to feel out the situation.  If faced with reluctant or conservative decision makers, the best opening gambit might be: “All of these organizations (get your list out) are already doing it”.  Then again, mentioning what other departments are doing might actually make the situation more adversarial then it has to be.  Trust your instincts and in either case, be prepared to explain how your plan aligns strategically with the organization’s mission or vision.  In the end, you need to build a case without completely dismantling your relationships – remember this is most likely an iterative process, not a one-shot deal.

Hint for employees
Do your homework.  You need to have a good handle on how exactly your initiative dovetails into your departmental priorities.  Try linking it into mission or value statements, human resource actions plans, or departmental priorities.  If you can show how your initiative supports any one of these and offer evidence to prove it, you should be well on your way to getting larger buy-in from where it counts.

Hint for managers
You have more proximity to senior management and better understand how they like to receive evidence and what they find most compelling.  Share that knowledge with others. Be someone that actively connects with ideas generators and help them move things along the pipeline and provide key insights when possible.

4.6 Follow the Rules (Whenever Possible)

Whenever possible feed your idea into the system through the proper channels and in the proper format.  Make your pitch to your manager, the departmental champion, or the committee: whoever the next logical step is in the ideas chain.

But remember that ‘set it and forget it’ does not apply to innovation.  Make sure you stay tuned-in to the progress (or lack thereof) of your initiatives within the pipeline.  A good way to do this is to periodically touch base with those who have insight into the pipeline.  But don’t be too aggressive – you want to signal that you are committed to the idea and want to see it implemented.  You don’t want to be seen as a pest.

When your initiative comes back down the chain – yes it will come back, so you’d better expect it – take a good hard look at the feedback.  Write up your initial thoughts and then step back for a minute or two. When you are ready, come back to your proposal and start sharpening it by systematically addressing the concerns of those evaluating it, or supplementing it in a manner that answers their criticisms.  Remember, everyone has an opinion.  You don’t always have to change your initiative based on someone else’s reaction to it, if you move too quickly in response to others, you may never get to implement the idea.  Once your review is completed, send it back up the pipe again.

In the (hopefully) rare case that your initiative comes back down without any feedback on it, find out how far it went, why it came back, and what the reaction to it was.  Try asking the keepers of the pipeline.  Then follow up with the people who sent it back and start asking for answers, and be prepared to take whatever criticism may come.

Hint for employees
Befriending the administrative staff is almost always your best option in any office, they have more insight into the machinations of how files move, who’s meeting who, and what is and isn’t a priority. They also tend to be good people, which really helps, so don’t just continuously pump them for information. Take the time to create genuine and meaningful relationships with them and anyone else who enjoys similar positions of power and information. Pop in on them once in a while without asking them for anything; but rather ask if they are busy, how they are, if they need something, if you can you bring them a coffee. Be a good human to them and they will be there to help you when you need it.

Hint for managers
Be responsive and provide feedback. Don’t procrastinate or constantly sacrifice the new or difficult for the daily operations – sure sometimes you have to put the reactive in front of proactive, but your big picture role is to steward the strategic not simply dispatch tactical responses. Also, know that your admin’s time is highly sought after not only by you and your team but by others as they are ultimately your keeper. Treat them well.

4.7 Don’t Underestimate Small Victories

Big victories are elusive– at least on the time frame you probably have in mind.  Small victories are incredibly important because they are likely to be your only victories.  So, score early and score often. Small victories create momentum and give your name (or the name of your group) some street credit within the organization; this in turn gives you more creative space and greater creative license.  It also makes the people important to your success (the decision-makers) more inclined to lend their support since you have a proven track record.

Hint for employees
If you are interested in scoring a big victory why not queue up your small victories towards a larger goal?  Dream big and then scheme all the way backwards and try to map out exactly how you can get there. Leverage the sum of your small victories to promote your activities and get more people from your organization behind you.

Hint for managers
Set clear expectations about behaviour and then give employees the freedom to operate within those expectations, encourage them to use the space and rack up small wins wherever possible. Help seed successes when needed and don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do some dirty work.

4.8 Relish Victories (Privately)

One of the biggest stumbling blocks out there is the need for personal recognition.  Often, the need to be recognized for one’s work overshadows the value of what is actually being done. Don’t let your pride or need for recognition get in the way of the work itself, and never pull the plug on something because your work gets plagiarized by someone else who sells it as their own. In the end, you and those around you know exactly what happened.

Hint for employees
Relish your victories privately, with your friends or your partner, over drinks or a meal.  You all know the real story, and besides karma will sort all that out, don’t worry.

Hint for managers
Celebrate your employees and their work. Use your judgement as to whether or not it should be a one-on-one discussion, raised in a team meeting, marked with a departmental achievement award, or noted in a performance agreement.

4.9 Build a Narrative

While you celebrate your success remember that you are building narratives.  You are building your own personal story, but you are also building stories about your department, your directorate, your division, and its work for Queen and country. Work culture is simply the aggregate of the stories being told within the workplace.  So if you change the stories, you can change the culture.  Stories told in official emails and statements aren’t nearly as compelling as those told by peers. Moreover, keep an eye out for others who do story-worthy things that represent the culture you want to create.  Listen to their stories and tell others their stories as well.

Hint for employees
It’s hard to feel culture change when you are living in the middle of it. New stories and old stories are disconnected or worse, in conflict. Try to harness whatever tension is present in ways that support the new stories while historicizing the old ones.

Hint for managers
When Cortez landed at Veracruz beach he was fantastically outnumbered. Fearing his men would flee the fight, he set fire to his ships, eliminating any possible retreat and forcing his men into a literal fight for their lives. Sometimes you will need to stop doing certain things rather than start doing new ones. Killing old official processes or norms of doing business may be difficult but often it’s the only way to truly entrench new cultural norms. Have the courage to (metaphorically) burn the ships.

4.10 Bend The Rules (When You Want To Break Them) …

Even if you trust your intelligence, are able to differentiate the sense from nonsense, and can scheme in a virtuous manner, there may inevitably come a time when you are faced with a tough decision.  The organizational culture is hierarchical, and largely rules-based.  Sometimes the only way to change something is to bend the rules a little.

This may seem like a cop out, but it isn’t.  I can’t tell you what to do, or exactly how to do it, but I can tell you that you’d better be willing to live out the consequences.

Its cliché, however at the end of the day, you need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and feel proud of what you have accomplished and what is yet to come, and if that means bending the rules to achieve the results you believe in, then so be it as long as you are willing to own it, for better or for worse.

Hint for employees
The ends don’t always justify the means, especially when it comes to public service. If you are operating in a zone where there’s no clear answer and you need to bend, bend carefully and with the public interest in mind. Be prepared to articulate your justification to your chain of command right through to the top. Ask yourself, would I feel comfortable articulating my decision to the deputy head if required to do so?

Hint for managers
Don’t leave your employees over exposed, absorb the ‘risks’ they want to take. Be willing to take the hit if push comes to shove. You set the expectations, you created the space, your employee thought a particular course of action was justified, speak with them, understand their point of view, and stand by them to the best of you ability, even if you disagree with them. That’s your job.

4.11 Take Care

We are fortunate enough to live in a time where awareness of mental health issues is on the rise. We are increasingly comfortable talking about the impact of these issues on the workplace, and more importantly, the people within it. Make sure you take care of yourself along the way.

Hint for employees
Be aware of the services provided to you by your employer (i.e. the Employee Assistance Program) and don’t be afraid to use them. If you have a negative experience the first time, try again. Don’t be afraid to confide in those you trust, and remind others about these services when they confide in you.

Hint for managers
Encourage employees to take care of themselves and each other. Promote mental health awareness events and give employees leave to participate. Be familiar with the services provided by the employer and remind employees of them periodically. Dismantle any stigma about addressing mental health issues in the workplace by leading by example. Taking care of yourself is equally important.

4.12 Take Action

Engaging in dialogue about the issues within our culture is something we are getting better at. When I first joined the public service, we were quick to rationalize why we couldn’t have the conversation, even when we knew it was one that was desperately needed.

Let us continue to push forward. Choose engagement over avoidance.  Take risks and accept the consequences.  Have the courage, curiosity, and humility to get involved, to stand on points of principle, call nonsense by its name, and temper all of that with good judgment.

Hint for employees
If you are willing to raise your hand to complain, you’d better be willing to get off your ass and do something about it.

Hint for managers
Set the tone, be action oriented. Focus on making things happen, not stopping them from happening.

5 Don’t Be a Dead Hero

This should go without saying, but whatever you do – don’t be an idiot.

You are no good to your organization as a dead hero.  Sure you raised a stink about whatever, people cheered (in their heads), but in the end you have accomplished nothing because no one in their right mind is willing to collaborate or champion something that was just over-advocated by someone who stirred the pot with reckless disregard.

Remember that your relationships and reputation are your best assets, and that your actions impact both of these assets considerably.  They also impact those around you, so take care in managing them.

At its core, scheming virtuously is about using your judgment to make decisions that you can live with while creating a culture of innovation and stewardship within the public service.

6 Acknowledgements

This handbook is the by-product of hundreds of conversations with friends and colleagues all around the world. It’s been my absolute privilege to be able to share so many important conversations

Everyone who has visited the blog, left a comment, or dropped me an email. Since the initial publication of this whitepaper.

Thank you all so much for your ongoing support.