Author: Stephen Karam

Stephen Karam is a Systemscope Partner with over 15 years of experience providing thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of government service transformation, multi-channel service delivery and related information management projects. Stephen has extensive experience in providing business transformation, project management, and business development services, giving him a unique background that allows Systemscope’s customers to realize the value of feasible service solutions within the context of their business. His in-depth understanding of the Government of Canada’s policies, practices, and culture contributes to his ability to propose workable, reliable, and repeatable business solutions for Systemscope’s public sector clientele. Stephen has more recently focused on government service transformation initiatives, including business vision & strategy, service delivery strategies, enterprise architecture, information management and project management consulting services for Systemscope’s clients.


Five Strategies for Moving Forward on Digital Transformation for Government

How government interacts with its citizens and stakeholders, particularly through digital channels like Canada.ca, is creating an opportunity to think about digital transformation in a new context. What does it mean for government to change the way it organizes, processes, engages and makes decisions about its online services and information? read more

If Sun Tzu Were Consulting for Government, He Might Say…

Know your enemy, know yourself, and opportunities multiply as they are seized.  Wise words for those about to live through one of the most significant transformations the Government of Canada has undergone in a generation.

For over 9 years, Systemscope has been a proud GTEC sponsor and offers presentations that showcase Systemscope’s collective approach to helping federal government departments and agencies find efficiencies and deliver better outcomes.  As part of 2012’s presentations, Innovations from the Systemscope Lounge was a journey though each of Systemscope’s different practice areas united by a theme of “Thinking in Threes”.

Think in Threes

In my introduction to this unique presentation format, I discussed how GTEC’s theme this year – innovation and collaboration to make a difference for Canadians –  is part of the message that we who work in or with federal government receive.  Innovation and collaboration, however, are ideals that have to be translated into the current context of our actual working environment.  We all form perceptions of the current environment through newspaper headlines announcing job cuts, through the Administrative Services Review or the Deficit Reduction Action Plan.  How then, can we, as stated in the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee Report, “Get used to a new world”?

The habitual response is to rely on theoretical approaches and survey best practices or conduct environmental scans.  The useful response is to bring and share with you insights founded in lived experience.  If you’ve lived through major government or departmental changes and been part of transformation at all levels, you might agree that the useful response trumps the habitual one.  Our first seminar aimed to highlight the multi-faceted experiences from our various transformation architects and equip you with practical and applicable information.

I was proud to see each of our Systemscope presenters provide our audience with knowledge, whether from Denis’ personal experience with brain surgery and transformation to Kathy’s outlining of how to harness all efforts to enable change or Linda Daniels-Lewis’ Blinding Flashes of the Obvious about Electronic Data Records Management Systems (EDRMS) and Denise’s view on the new Treasury Board Web Standards.

Seemingly disparate in topic areas, each of the eight presentations were views into how many different components of any organization are involved in transformation.  My conclusion, and one I hope the audience walked away with, was a call to action to understand the true message and opportunity that innovation and collaboration bring as concepts for all of us.

I framed this call to action with three guiding Sun Tzu principles:

  1. Know yourself: Understand your own limitations, your organizational culture and capabilities and how you deal with the personalities around you.  Also know your strengths and use these effectively to build and maintain momentum.
  2. Know your enemy: Consider the enemy within – your fears, not just of failure but of success; mistrust; inertial attitude, e.g. “it’s not my job”; understanding real vs perceived barriers.
  3. Opportunities multiply as they are seized: Each of the presentations offered opportunities to innovate and collaborate.  By seizing those opportunities, you will be able to demonstrate value and success, which in turn will bring you more opportunities.  You never know what’s around the corner unless you journey to the corner.
Ultimately, what all of us have to decide is whether the glass is half-empty or half-full (yes, I know, not a Sun Tzu quote, but I’m sure he would agree).

I would like to extend a sincere thank you to our GTEC audience.  GTEC is a meaningful and significant event at Systemscope as it offers us the opportunity to collaborate and celebrate our long-standing relationships with our federal government clients.  We appreciate your support and look forward to our continued innovation and collaboration together.

By Stephen Karam, Partner and Practice Lead, Government Service Excellence (karam@systemscope.com)

Make Your Boss Love You!

Using Agile Prototyping to Increase Client Satisfaction and Internal Efficiencies

By Stephen Karam

What if I told you that you could design, create, test, and document a winning business solution – all while fully engaging partners and senior executives – in 3-6 months, leading to significant client uptake and risk reduction? Before you call me crazy (or presumably worse), read on…

It’s intrigued me how so many Government of Canada (GC) investments labelled with the ever-sexy moniker of “transformation” never really realize their originally intended benefits, and usually cost a fortune: the type of fortune that attracts unwanted attention from the OAG and media. This does not make the boss happy.

Here is a typical example: Department “X” creates a business case for an IT-enabled business initiative that sings to senior management. They receive several million dollars in TBS funding. They build the business solution. Corporate and program areas in the department find it difficult to use said business solution and disengage. Department “X” then spends an exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars maintaining an IT solution with eroding business value and little goodwill amongst its target users and stakeholders, both internal and external.

This scenario sheds light on a series of systemic flaws in the GC when it comes to creating successful business and service transformation outcomes. One of those flaws is that many departmental IT organizations under the CIO still apply the waterfall methodology to the development life cycle. They move serially from requirements gathering (if done at all), to analysis, to design, to build, to test, to implement. Throw in a procurement cycle or two in there and voila! A two- to three-year timeframe has lapsed before there’s any output at all! Executives have little tolerance for this approach, since there are no “announcables” until the end of the waterfall.

We need to remember that success in the GC transformation space is not only about a strong business case, executive leadership, capable resources, solid governance, and a bulletproof solution; it’s about how you play the game. As Coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the ONLY thing!”

So here’s a game plan that has worked over the past couple of years for two projects: Industry Canada’s BizPaL 2.0 and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgPal. Both are similar content discovery systems that allow users to find relevant information and services from across jurisdictional boundaries via the Internet. One is aimed at helping Canadian businesses discover permits and licences; the other is for Canadian farmers and agri-industries to access available programs and services. Both have employed the same agile prototyping approach with the client’s understanding that these projects are about solving the data/content/process challenge, and not the technology challenge.

The prototyping allowed for early engagement of partners (i.e. provinces, federal programs) to “kick the tires” on the requirements before one line of code was written or a single dollar was spent on technology. The method was pretty straightforward:

  • Scope the prototype (who are the partners/contributors, scope of content, ideal timeframe to produce “release 1”, preliminary architecture);
  • With partners, define client scenarios to be addressed by the prototype;
  • Identify and gather partner content within scope, aggregate and categorize;
  • Develop user interface, based on client scenarios;
  • Iterate prototype behaviour with partners;
  • Usability test the prototype;
  • Document business and functional requirements, as a direct reflection of the prototype;
  • Validate requirements with partners; and
  • Engage implementation team.

While a simplification of the actual process, it’s easy to see the key steps that can be systematically employed to every implementation, whether it is a client-facing web service offering, or a critical internal business system. This approach significantly reduces risk of the final implementation since the stakeholders (partners and clients) have actually had a chance to use the solution in practice, rather than react to wireframes or written scenarios.

Hey, if you were building a house and you were given the chance to experience it before the foundation is even poured … wouldn’t you take it?

Hear more about agile development during Stephen’s presentation on Top-Down Implementation in a Bottoms-Up World at GTEC 2011, October 18, 1 p.m., at the Ottawa Convention Centre.

Stephen V. Karam can be found on LinkedIn, and reached at karam@systemscope.com.

What do wines and apples have to do with Service Innovation?

I tweeted the title of this Blog recently and left the answer hanging as it does here.  Due to the raucous response of my fans begging me for it, I have decided to satiate their inquisitive appetite and finally post this Blog entry.  Ok, so if you replace “the raucous response of my fans begging me for it” with “a few of my friends asking if I’m actually going to post the Blog” you’re probably more accurate, but let’s not digress too far.

If you have read any of my posts, you will have recognized an underlying reductionist theme.  I often find myself trying to simplify things.  My posts about Service Innovation and Transformation carry these reductionist tones as well.  My most recent post, “The Fallacy of the Innovator’s Ambition – A Call for Tinkerers“, was very specifically a discussion of how innovators need to simplify their ambitions to protect being overwhelmed by them.

What does this have to do with wines and apples, you ask?

Well, I recently read a brief article in the New York Times about a restaurant in Atlanta called Bone’s that had integrated Apple’s iPad into the dining experience.   They had simplified their view of innovation and added a simple element to their service experience.  When patrons are greeted at the entrance for a table, they are handed a menu and an iPad.  The restaurant purchased 30 iPad’s and built an application that housed their wine inventory along with descriptions of the wine and expert ratings to help diners understand and select bottles.

(Pause: for those who haven’t made the connection, “Apple’s iPad” and “Wine Application” and “Bone’s Restaurant in Atlanta” is the answer)

Device inspired moment of truth

Customers to date (it’s been about two months since they have been offering the iPad experience) seem to be pleased by the twist to their dining experience, and if an 11 percent increase in wine purchases per diner is any indication, so is restaurant management.

What was interesting to me about this story was the simplicity of the addition of the iPad to the restaurant experience, the appropriate “fit” for the device at a table, and the utility of the application for a restaurant context.  Setting aside those individuals who know a lot about wine and wine pairings, wine lists at a restaurant for many represent an opportunity to use random selection as an efficient decision making tool (hold menu up – close eyes – point index finger somewhere on page – press against page – choose wine).   While the iPad and the wine application don’t turn patrons into wine connoisseurs overnight, it does empower them with knowledge so that a confidence is instilled in the choice that is made.  This confidence translates into positive emotions, and thus, a better dining experience.

The restaurant hasn’t disrupted the restaurant industry business model or invented a new food.  They have not redefined the dining experience or significantly altered the value proposition.  In fact, their location, staff, and menu likely hasn’t changed at all.   So, have they shown us a great example of Service Innovation?  Absolutely.

The Fallacy of the Innovator’s Ambition – A Call for Tinkerers

Innovation and Transformation.

Wow. Just saying those words conjures up images of wildly successful business models that disrupted industries, technological prowess that stole market shares, visionary products or services that relegated competing and highly capitalized companies into shells of their former self, and even the creation of mega-millionaire pop star phenoms overnight.

How can people tasked with transforming or innovating in their respective organizations perform under this kind of weighted expectation? Indeed, they probably don’t.

I just finished reading a book called “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home” written by Dan Ariely. In it, Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University, recounts a number of experiments he has crafted which lend insight into human behavior at work, and at home. One of these insights is particularly relevant when considering the often daunting task of transformation and innovation.

Ariely ran several social experiments to test an individual’s inclination to donate to a cause. He varied, however, the stimulus presented to individuals to elicit a behavioural response. One group of individuals were given a broad stimulus request such as “help the millions of people below the poverty line in Africa” (in our context this would be the dazzling innovator’s ambition) while others were given a specific, and personable, stimulus such as “help Andy, a young boy living in poverty, this is his story”). No surprise, that those in the latter experimental group donated more than those in the former.

What this tells us is interesting. In the face of a large scale problem, people can’t identify with the problem nor contemplate how their small actions contribute to a solution, so they balk under the expectation and don’t act. But, broken up into more personable, and less sizable problems, people will persevere and perform – they will react with a feeling that they can indeed make a difference. The transformation and innovation buzz – the discourse surrounding innovation’s criticality to organizations and the examples used to define what they mean – has done a disservice to the people who are tasked with doing the transformation and innovation. It has placed sizeable expectations on them, increased the distance between today and the goal, and placed the yardstick so high that taking the first step en route to improvement seems futile. The mumblings of “where do I start?” are audible.

The broad domains of service and product innovation, new product development, service transformation and service improvement – call them what you will – need a new image. In almost all cases, transformation or innovation represents “incrementalimprovements to ” or the introduction of something “different”. Indeed, when you look at the synonyms for transformation or innovation, words like “alteration”, “modification”, and “deviation” are supplied which provide a more palatable ambition to strive for. These ambitions are more practical, and more achievable. What is required to succeed is discipline in terms of business analysis rigour, strong leadership of people, direction underpinned by thoughtful road-maps, and the execution of plans. Individuals viewing their ambition in these small steps will look back on their efforts and realize that, from where they started, they have more than likely made significant transformation progress. The significant barrier of a huge expectation will have been removed.

For the Government context, this is a worthwhile thought exercise. Innovation in the public sector context is difficult, oftentimes due to the consequences of failure and the lower tolerance for risk. But this is likely a function of the ambition of innovation being akin to those dazzling examples which I referenced above. Well of course, when viewed in that light, failures can be big because the goal was commensurately large and virtually unattainable under the best of circumstances. When considered in a more more practical context, innovation and transformation efforts can become the byproducts of a disciplined approach to “tinkering”. Yes, tinkering.

So, this is a call to tinker. Tinker with your processes. Tinker with your assumptions. Tinker with your business model. Tinker away in a planned and disciplined way, and when you’re done tinkering, add the tinkerings up. And then tell me about your transformation success story.

Employee Innovation Program Considerations

On June 14th Stockwell Day announced an Employee Innovation Program to incent public servants to find cost savings in government.  The program would see public servants with a “creative or practical idea” receive a cash award of 10% of the cost savings, up to $10,000.

Directionally, this is positive movement for the GoC.  No matter the discipline, aligning rewards to the behaviours you are seeking is a classic management approach.  Without a profit motive, and particularly given the heightened political risk of failure (see previous post Failing Forward), public servants often have little incentive to push forward ideas for improvements that might lead to cost savings.  This costs the public service dearly.  If you also layer on the fact that with a knowledge based economy it is invariably at the employees’ discretion whether or not they want to contribute their knowledge for the betterment of the organization, it is important to stack as many cards as possible in favour of the employee wanting to contribute what they know.

While the Program is directionally sound, running internal innovation programs can be very challenging.  Here are a list of issues Mr. Day and the Pilot Departments will have to consider as their Programs become operational:

Resourcing: one of the biggest challenges with internal innovation programs is how to free up the right resources to work on new initiatives.  In my experience, these programs create what I call “incremental work packages” to the organization which create a burden often seen as surplus to an individuals’ “9-5” job.  Each department will need to come up with a strategy that balances the need to free up resources from their current tasks with the need to complete what was originally planned.  Similar to aligning behaviour through incentives, ensuring the contributing to Innovation Program work is on the performance scorecards of resources, and those who own them, is one approach to finding the necessary resource support.

Intra-preneurship is not one size fits all: related to the above, not all individuals who have a great idea are fit to lead its implementation.  Conversely, not all great implementers are creative minds.  Any internal innovation program needs to take into consideration the skills required to pull the idea off.  This may mean, in some cases, that the idea submitters’ involvement in the implementation is not in a leadership capacity.

Governance: while the notion of an innovation program conjures up images of amazing ideas being submitted in terms of their quality, clarity, and alignment to organization objectives, this is often not the case.  Usually, ideas submitted have not had the benefit of time to be fully thought through, and they often miss the mark in terms of their ability to satisfy the organization’s objectives.  A Governance process that uses criteria to evaluate ideas and make portfolio decisions is important to ensure that investment dollars flow to the right kind of idea for the organization, that the organization has a good distribution of ideas, and that the ideas where possible related to one another to amplify their benefits.

Process: as I’ve said before, Innovation is both a product of a process and a process itself.  While an idea often requires random creativity, the implementation of the idea requires an innovation process that is disciplined.  Discipline doesn’t necessarily mean rigid, but structured enough to ensure that an organization can practice and habituate.  There needs to be rigor behind the execution but notional flexibility to ensure the implementation can move in the direction it needs to to realize the benefits originally sought.

The Right Incentive: given the size of government, as well as individual departments within government, the potential for large cost savings for good ideas is significant.  Capping the incentive amount protects the government, yet it could also limit the amount of creativity.  In the public sector context, the reward needs to outweigh the career risk of failure.  There is a risk that a $10K reward cap may limit the ideas to smaller improvements as the reward may not justify the risk of trying to implement larger ones.  This is where leadership in the department needs to step in and begin to change the culture to one that is more tolerant of risk.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat: Employee Innovation Program

Embrace the Buzz

I recently received a subscribed-to update email from the American Management Association (AMA).  The first piece of content, titled “A new leadership role model: honeybees” struck me as an interesting one so I delved a little deeper.

It turns out that professor Michael O’Malley form the Columbia Business School has written a book called The Wisdom of Bees where he aims, among other things, to demonstrate that bees have much to teach the business world about how to be productive.

As I read the abstract in the AMA newsletter and browsed other Blog articles where Michael’s work had been discussed, I couldn’t help but make the link between the lessons Bees teach us and their applicability to an organization’s attempt at being innovative.

According to Michael, bee colonies teach us 3 important organizational lessons:

1.  Protect the future

2.  Permit individuality

3.  Promote stability

Let’s consider each in turn in the context of Innovation.

Protect the future

One need only look at the graveyard of brand name companies to know that many don’t protect their future.  With the average life expectancy of a multi-national/Fortune 500 company at about 40-50 years, it’s clear that even the biggest and best don’t do it well.

An organization’s innovative capacity is critical to its longevity.  Organizations that orient themselves to their external environment and are hyper aware of, and adapt to, its changing circumstance are better equipped to protect their own futures.   There is a direct correlation between your ability to protect your future and your ability to innovate.

Permit individuality

I see two dimensions to this lesson.  The notion of permitting individuality is both about the distribution of decision making as well as the diversity of personnel.  While innovation is both a product and a process (see below), ideas themselves are usually the byproduct of individual creativity and group collaboration.  Permitting individuality at both layers in an organization increases its agility and creativity, thus boosting its innovative capacity and ability to protect its future.

Promote stability

In an earlier Blog post I talked about the barriers to innovation in the public sector – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – and how public sector organizations need to better embrace failure and ensure that the learnings from those failures are harvested and harnessed.   The lesson of promoting stability is again one that has two dimensions to it.  First, and related to the above barriers, organizations need to create stability in the minds of resources within the organization that innovation is indeed important and will be supported both politically as well as with resources.  Because innovation entails risk, particularly political risk in the public sector, psychological stability needs to be created by senior management by demonstrating a higher risk tolerance and an acceptance of failure in support of learning.  Second, organizations need to promote stability by trying to habituate innovation.  While ideas are creative, innovation itself is a process that requires practice.  Building an innovative process capability in the organization promotes stability in execution which will, over time, increase innovative capacity and once again better enable protection of the future.

 

Failing Forward

A recent article by Lee McCormack in the May 2010 issue of Government Executive Magazine discussed innovation in the context of the public sector (PS).  His key barriers to PS innovation – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – are not unfamiliar to anyone who has tried to transform or create an organization, product, or service.

What struck a chord as I read this article was the phrase “Fail Forward”.  Many practitioners, including myself, within the product or service innovation space will have used the term “fail fast” and/or “fail often” at some point in time to convey an approach to innovative work where an organization progresses initiatives at a pace that allows them to know quickly whether or not that initiative will fail so that investments are minimized.  But to Lee’s point, and to the chagrin of many within the PS who have attempted to do something with good intentions but who have failed, failure often presents negative and significant career ramifications for public servants which is one of the key reasons why the PS has had challenges innovating.  The notion of Failing Forward – accepting that sometimes innovation will fail and that it shouldn’t hamper an employee’s advancement – is critical.

As I thought about this further, I couldn’t help but equate this situation – the mandate to innovate and improve but the lack of a cushion to fail on – with the situation parents face almost every day.  With children, it is our job to facilitate our children’s development; their mental and physical growth.  If we define innovation as at-least incremental improvement to <something>, we are indeed the shepherds of our children’s innovation.  Their improvement at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano is directly related to our practice as parents to ensure they know there is a cushion to fail on.  For mistakes made at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano are good mistakes because they learn from them and get better because of it.  In fact, after guiding them through a few mistakes, we know they eventually won’t need us any more.  In an organizational context, this is a path to efficiencies and employee engagement.

Don't take the bike away if they fall a few times

We usually don’t take the bike away after a couple of falls.

A culture of risk intolerance can be such a disservice to an organization.  First,  it creates so much fear of failure that even the “right thing to do” is not done.  Second, when failure occurs and people are subject to negative consequences, the learning from the failure is lost and not applied to the next situation so organizational learning grinds to a halt.  While changing a culture built up over decades is a significant challenge, when approached one thought at a time it becomes more manageable.  So for PS executives and leaders, one thought exercise to engage in when facing decisions about how to deal with failures and learning in the context of an innovative/new work initiative is to picture a young child on a bike with training wheels and remember the approach you’d take to shepherding their improvement.