The role between us and them

Finance doesn’t understand Operations. Engineering rolls its eyes at the mention of Marketing. Customer Service and IT aren’t what you’d call on the same page. The only thing the Western and Eastern regions agree on is how dumb Central is.

We don’t intend to build barriers between people, groups, or functions. We believe we function more effectively as an integrated community. Yet step outside the smoothly-running core of one process or team and you’ll find silos. Silos aren’t inherently bad. They provide a crucible for excellence that flat, highly networked, and matrix-structured organizations cannot because specialization and inter-role operability don’t readily coexist.

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist best known for his work on group sizes. A group, community, society tends to dysfunction above a point where it’s safe and useful to appreciate each other as individuals. We are doomed to splinter into groups, build firewalls to isolate ourselves, and fail to understand each other’s needs and strengths once our organization grows beyond a comfortable size: above one hundred to two hundred individuals.

Or are we?

Do we have to include everybody in the organization in our tribes so we can function? No. We can use mediators: individuals or small groups who act as connectors between larger groups. Ari in Finance and Jessie in Operations understand enough about each other’s role in supporting the integration of their system in the broader work of the organization that things work beautifully when one or both of them shepherd interactions that fall outside accepted, documented, regularly used procedures.

When we build mediator roles into our larger organization, whatever the underlying structure, we create networks through which we achieve better handoffs and mutual appreciation between people who don’t interact regularly because of the nature of their roles or their location. Mediators provide a channel between groups and bring groups into closer alignment with each other.

Are formal roles necessary for effective mediation? It depends on the organization’s leadership, resources, and capacity to use interdepartmental support consistently. In a culture that builds walls rather than bridges, clear support from senior leadership through line management is vital to lasting, effective handoff between subsystems.

Humans are inherently tribal. Mediators are the diplomats who respect our nationalistic tendencies while opening routes to exchange of ideas, best practices, and an appreciation that, however different our methods and focus, we are committed to common goals.




Change management: infinity war

You need to change how you do your work. You don’t perform consistently. You make too many mistakes. You’re not meeting standards.

How does that make you feel? Does knowing it comes from people who have little familiarity with the day to day expectations of your job change that?

Over many years, individuals developed and entrenched their own methods for doing their job in ways that were comfortable for them. Others in the same group, and in other groups across the organization, did things differently. Not disruptively different, but enough to make coverage over multi-day absences a challenge. The people in charge decided a process-oriented change manager was needed. Lucky me got the call.

The first thing I did was insist on quantifying the work, the systems, and interactions. Everything that could be measured got reviewed. Shouting and power suits might be effective in the Marvel Universe, but not in a bureaucracy. Besides, even a superhero story is built around metrics. Six infinity stones. Fourteen million alternatives. One victory. Half the people on the planet. I used existing reports, built reports on existing data, looked for information, to identify what gets done, how much of it, where the handoffs were, look for oddities, and build a baseline to measure improvements against. In addition to finding some gaps in the data that I can explain, I demonstrated that some of the assumptions about the way we work are basically true while others are visions of some alternate reality.

Data is not enough, especially in a human system. People daily make decisions based on policy, procedure, experience, and expertise. I pull up a metaphorical chair beside the people I’m ideally here to help. They’re not used to being listened to. With permission, I watch and listen. I keep my observations as free of judgment as I know how. I ask questions. How do you do this? Why? I learn to do the work of as much of the organization as I have access to. I make it clear: my goal is to find ways to take the best of what we do and build on it, to learn and apply institutional and individual knowledge, to make your job noticeably better. I help out by making myself useful within the limits of my privileges and the permission of the person who approves my time entry. I make it clear I’m willing to step outside of my box to learn and to get things done but nobody who isn’t me should have to transform and give up all their old ways.

I communicate. When I create a new report or discover new findings, I share it with the team I directly support and the team of my peers — agents of change that have recently been embedded throughout the organization. I build organizational capacity for people to seek out and evaluate information. I encourage them to question assumptions and incomplete data, and to believe it when their spidey sense is tingling. I check in with people in all the functions that have to work together to find out what they need and who can provide it. When I learn something, or do something, I figure out who needs to know which parts and provide as close as I can to what they need. When I stumble, when I fall down because I’m only human, it’s my error. When it’s clearly someone else’s error, I exercise my own brand of diplomacy.

I don’t agree with all the changes I have to make. Sometimes the only choice I can offer is pain or pain. Less than a year in, I am seeing signs that people who have strongly resisted change are opening up to other ways of doing their work. Sharing their tricks and tips on improving efficiency and effectiveness. Working as a team. It’s a slow start. I’m happy with that, because it’s a sign of the kinds of change and growth that endure.

There’s a time and a place for swinging a fist and making demands. Those circumstances are few and far between in this universe, so I take a low key approach. Here we build change by quantifying, identifying, and collaborating on sustainable improvements. When it works, it’s marvellous.

[The version of this talk I gave earlier this week contained several other Marvel Universe references which I’ve cut.]

Gaming blame

Point fingers. Acknowledge our flawed humanity. Then be true to the principles of a fair and just culture: move on to building a solution together.

If you work in IT security or operations, you have probably heard of the blameless postmortem. When it’s done well, in a just culture, individuals and the organization as a whole are held accountable for the circumstances that lead to problems and teams work on designing and implementing reliable improvements.

Unfortunately, worthy ideas are often incompletely understood when they’re implemented in complex situations or ingrained cultures (which can exist in organizations of any age and size). We see this in DevOps, Agile, Scrum, and the blameless postmortem. There’s a new framework. Some people do a great job of implementing it. It grows in popularity. One or more critical aspects of what makes the framework effective are ignored. The framework may develop a bad reputation. Someone comes up with a new perspective that re-centres the essence of the original framework.

In the case of the blameless postmortem, we must recognize that we will assign blame as well as responsibility. I am the rushed guy who pushed an untested change I was confident in through to production. You are the busy person who always skips that pointless extra step in the process. He opened the door for someone who isn’t allowed in the area. She turned the warnings off on the monitoring system because they’re just noise 90% of the time. Point fingers. Acknowledge our flawed humanity. Then be true to the principles of a fair and just culture: move on to building a solution together.

When there is a failure and space for a postmortem, I try to ask why the combination of the human, the system, and the environment worked together to achieve an error. It’s been my experience that failures tend to cluster around the parts of a system that are too simple or too complex for their environment. I’ve found a reliable adjustment often requires understanding and finding flaws in all three aspects.

When the postmortem doesn’t happen, is superficial, or gets delayed, that’s a sign that the systems we rely on to learn and improve our systems are failing. It’s an opportunity for a postmortem on the failure of postmortems. Accept the blame, take responsibility, and make a plan for improvement that everyone affected can and will follow.

Service Safety Net

VeriSM™, a framework for service management, is a little like Canada’s health care system. It sets standards to meet common challenges. Measurability of results and consistency among providers are important. It supports delivering services to meet a broad range of needs.

The Canada Health Act is based on core principles of public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and flexibility. Patients are assured of a consistent, standards-based level of accessible care that covers most needs regardless of their location or social status. VeriSM focuses on an end-to-end view of all service functions in an organization, based on the Management Mesh. All services are provided in a consistent framework that applies regardless of the details of how the service is provided, selecting and leveraging appropriate resources and management practices.

Details of the Canada Health Act holds all jurisdictions to standards in delivery of care. Funding from the Canada Health Transfer is contingent on demonstrably meeting those standards and meeting common regulations. Details of how services are provided are in the hands of the provinces and territories. VeriSM’s Define; Produce; Provide; Respond framework fits service provision of all types into an overall organizational context to meet different service management situations consistently.

Medicare covers necessary services such as cancer care, preventive medicine, emergency services, and paediatrics. Whether the provider is a radiologist, midwife, or a nurse practitioner, services are provided in the most responsive, effective way to treat the patient. Organizations provide, internally and in some cases to customers, services such as project management, technology, manufacturing, and financial management. Whether the practice is DevOps, Lean, Six Sigma, or ITIL, service is delivered in the most responsive, effective way to identify and meet changing needs.

The creation of the health care standards at the core of Canada’s social safety net is credited to Tommy Douglas. VeriSM’s chief architect is Claire Agutter. Each of these visionaries has identified systemic problems and worked with experts to define and refine effective solutions that are both worthy models and continually evolving in complex environments. It will be interesting to see how both health care and service management respond to pressures in the times ahead.

An elephant in the room

Bell Canada runs an annual one-day campaign at the end of January every year to raise awareness of mental illnesses. Some people believe Bell Let’s Talk makes the world a little bit better. Some people find the company culture or their choices of recipients problematic. Both truths are valid.

Bell’s leadership making an ongoing, visible direction of funding and community engagement to support mental health is admirable. Spending a high profile couple of million looks good on their annual report (see pages 9, 22, 23), especially since it’s effectively a rounding error compared to their profits (numbers starting around page 133 of the same report). When you factor in the resources Bell dedicates to their campaign, they’re probably devoting more proportionately to the public good than a standard billionaire.

Infographics, lists of statistics, and comprehensive reports have a common message. Whether it’s us, people close to us, or those who do not disclose due to stigma, we live with the effects of mental illnesses. It affects some of us profoundly. It seems as inconsequential as an occasional sniffle or passing headache to others.

When I look at the people who speak publicly about mental illness and the need to reduce stigma, I see celebrities who have chosen to put their health in the spotlight, professional speakers who earn their living sharing information about mental health, and a gradually broadening cross section of society. I don’t see a lot of CEOs or leaders on the world stage. I see few people in the upward trajectory of their careers.

The stigma is pernicious.

My life has intersected with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, autism, schizophrenia, suicide, attempted suicide, intrusive thoughts, obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoia, psychosis, addiction, and that’s just the ones off the top of my head. I spend a lot of time in environments where some or all of these illnesses are unmentionable. Odds are you do as well.

I’m not going to ask you to speak up about mental illness today. I do ask you to spend a few minutes, today and from time to time in the future, considering why you don’t.

What would the world look like if we could discuss mental illness and causes or preventions as freely as we talk about getting the flu shot every year?

Motivating bureaucrats

In five months working for the civil service, I’ve lived some of the stereotypes of bureaucracy. I’ve also experienced profound motivation in myself and others.

In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, Pink examines research into the factors that motivate people to achieve great results: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Where does a public servant, required to follow procedure manuals to the letter to deliver a program, find these factors in the workplace?

Autonomy seems incompatible with an environment in which mandates are set by Parliament and its constituent political parts. Strict adherence to process and standards is required for certain work, but that is also the case in the private sector. We must abide by a code of ethics, but codes of professional conduct are also common in professions with a high level of autonomy. We have spaces to exercise our judgment, recommend improvement, and collaborate. It took me less than a fortnight to discover internal channels where staff are encouraged to innovate and communicate within and across departments. The energy in these environments reminds me of internal innovation forums, formal and informal, that I’ve used in the private and broader public sectors. For those of us who choose to participate, the satisfaction of making a difference in areas we are passionate about is its own reward.

Mastery didn’t take the shape I’d expected, given my prior prejudices from interactions for services like passports and income tax reporting. In the service, people in all types of job take pride in learning new skills and applying them, if anything to a greater extent than in low-skill and low-pay jobs in the private sector. I can name individuals in my office, in other regions, in other departments, even in our centralized IT, who regularly strive for and achieve excellence. It’s a pleasure and an inspiration to work with them. I have a concern, however, about our reliance on the mastery of individuals in the context of succession planning. When one of these worthies moves to another job, a different department, or retirement, any knowledge they haven’t codified is sorely missed.

Purpose often comes from alignment of employees with the department’s mandate. I’ve already touched on my own fulfillment in this regard. I’m taking a classroom-based course this week, my first significant exposure to public servants outside my day-to-day horizon in a work environment. The sense of doing work that has meaning for our personal values is as strong as I’ve seen anywhere outside volunteering. We may not enjoy high pay, lavish bonuses, and well appointed offices, but we more than compensate for those deficits in a match between our values and the services our jobs provide. That match starts at recruitment (competition for jobs is fierce) and continues through good management, both in senior leadership and with supervisors.

One of my neighbours works for Canada Revenue and he loves his work. Another is a mail carrier who recently went through a rough period when he couldn’t show up every day at the job he enjoys. A colleague in my office identifies her greatest strength and joy as persistence in solving difficult problems.

It’s no more universal than motivation in other large organizations, but highly motivated bureaucrats are here, in all the branches of the civil service, driven to excellence.