Systemscope returned to GTEC October 5, 2010 with three informative workshops from our consultants paired with innovative public servants. New this year was a fast-paced, provocative Ignite-style session as well as two other workshops showcasing how public sector leaders are using new approaches and methods to address the persistent challenges within Government Transformation and Performance.
Presentations Now Available!
Igniting Government Transformation: With Ignite-style presentations from Systemscope experts and client partners David Eaves and Ron Surette, DG of Information Technology Branch, Library and Archives Canada.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) website supports the organization’s regulatory activities by providing timely access to public proceedings documents and general interest content particularly suited to consumers of broadcasting and telecommunications services. Its most frequent visitors are representatives of the two industries it regulates, who need the site content for research purposes and to participate in regulatory proceedings.
In the spring of 2009, Systemscope delivered a Performance Measurement Framework and an accompanying research program to support monitoring and reporting on the CRTC site’s performance. The Framework outlined performance indicators with respect to user experience, content and web operations.
Using the Framework as a guide, the Commission worked with a Systemscope analyst to benchmark its existing site performance to understand traffic patterns to the site among new and returning visitors, and then use analytics to improve the user experience.
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.
After watching this video, I found that this is often the starting point for RACI sessions we hold with the public service. Or put another way, who’s going to get the call if things go wrong? Often times (after arms become uncrossed) we see one of two reactions – those who see the advantage of coveting additional accountability and those who would prefer to stay under the radar and defer the accountability.
The simplicity and clarity of the RACI helps us cut through these types of challenges and by the end of the session, we often strike the right balance of accountability, remove any overlaps (perceived or real) and fill in any organizational gaps, such as needs for new or enhanced skills and competencies. The RACI model gets our clients to the interim outcome they want – a self-identification of functional roles and responsibilities as a starting point to governance and organizational redesign. Simply put – it starts to fix what’s broken and fine tunes the organizational engine. More importantly, a RACI matrix is more than tool; it’s the fuel that fosters the right dialogue between the right stakeholders.
Luckily Abott and Costello didn’t have a RACI matrix in front of them. If they did, there would have been no confusion and we would all have one less thing to laugh at in this world.
Denis Barbeau is Partner and Practice Lead, Strategic Business Consulting. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Systemscope returned to GTEC October 6, 2009 with a full day of open sessions focused on top-of-mind issues for public sector leaders: making appropriate and effective use of emerging technologies to support employee collaboration, citizen engagement, and government transparency; improving information management maturity in an enterprise setting; and delivering results in a time of unprecedented challenge and transition for the public sector.