Two golden retriever dogs in a puddle as the sun sets.
Otis and Saul enjoying their deviance.

I was a “risky” hire.  Not quite cut from the same cloth. A slightly irregular education. A different sort of professional background. An advocate for better, maybe not anonymous enough…someone with an opinion.

The system, like any mature system, naturally tried to reject me. I failed exams for subjective reasons. Was disqualified based on narrow interpretations. Limited opportunities due to my background and maybe even gender and age.  In fact, I am pretty sure that if the HR System was a person I would have grounds for a complaint. Alas, the system is not a person and harassment only applies to people.

The people I have met are polite, concerned and friendly. Most of them want to do a good job.  Some of them have seen beyond the risk and helped me, and I thank you very much for that.

Now that I am in the system, I realize that I am a bit of a deviant for the same reasons that I was a risky hire.

If you imagine government organizations as living organisms and apply some biological logic, it is not hard to see how they would naturally try to reject anything foreign. And in some parts of government culture, I am definitely foreign.  Luckily in other parts of government culture, I fit right in, in fact, I am not as “deviant” as some!

Nevertheless, the places where I do fit in are generally bucking the system, or at least trying to hack it. Their directors and managers are committed to finding a way to do the right thing today, even when the rules are trying to force them to do the right thing for yesterday. It is not easy, they have to work hard, be persistent and continually challenge existing thinking. All before getting on with their mission. 

There is a point to this rant. In his seminal book on organizational culture, Organizational Culture and Leadership Paperback,  Edgar H. Schein talks about how people that first exhibit new traits become different than their co-workers. In most groups of people, this deviance from the norm results in marginalization—cultures by their nature seek the harmony of homogeneity.  Because of this human dynamic, if an organization wants to change it needs to protect the positive deviants from the forces that would see them banished.

The forces that marginalize deviants come in all shapes and sizes. Some are hidden in cognitive biases, others come out as classification, age, level, gender or discipline discrimination. Still, others manifest as well-intentioned policies and rules with narrow interpretations that result in prejudicial side effects.  Risk aversion plays a role here as well. Managers often equate risk with being challenged and the easiest way not to be challenged is to do things the way we have always done them. Deviants are risky by definition, even if they are positive, so the logical path is to get rid of them or not hire them in the first place. 

I think of myself as a positive deviant, and I know there are hundreds, if not thousands of public servants that feel the same way. If the public service is to remain relevant in a different world, it must be different and to be different it needs positive deviants, not former employees. 

Protect the positive deviants! 

Posted in Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Rant, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Conference report – culture, SNA and failure

IMG_20181121_100242Yesterday I was part of a panel at the Conference Board event on Public Service Transformation with Virginie Carrier, Senior Strategist, Future Workforce Strategies, DND, and Teresa D’Andrea, Director, GC Digital Exchange, Office of the Chief Information Officer of Canada, TBS.  

The topic was the Complexities and Opportunities of Culture Change and we went through a series of questions, the supporting deck is here.  I had one little epiphany in preparation for the session which I tweeted about, it might be worth some further discussion if you are interested in theory of change stuff. 

theory of change

The event was held on the 4th floor of the Museum of Nature and there were about 90 people there and some interesting speakers.  

I caught two of the speakers:

John Burrett, President of Haiku Analytics did a presentation on Using Network Analysis to Map and Drive Change. He closed with a very cool animated diagram of the day in a life of 1000 Americans, check it out.


The second speaker was Andrew Graham, Professor, School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. A former Public Servant turned academic Andrew has been researching failure and had a very interesting session on the Architecture of Failure—Why Learning How to Fail is a Necessary Step on the Path to Success. I tweeted out some highlights and he closed with a long list of Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet and what some strategies for reducing the probability of catastrophic failure.

tools to reduce failure

If you are into any of this stuff I am happy to chat.


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Collaboration eh? 

In honour of the FWD50 conference taking place in Ottawa this week, here is a post that seems relevant to the conference theme of “Use technology to make society better for all”.

It is a post about yesterday, today and tomorrow. There are quite a few words and no pictures.


Before the existence of writing, collaboration was strictly a face-to-face affair and probably centred around survival. About 5000 years ago writing came along, and information could now be preserved and shared independently of a human to remember it. For the next 45 centuries, written information was the domain of the elite.

When the printing press was invented, rooms full of scribes were gradually replaced with new technology — machines that could accurately reproduce information at an accelerated rate. Ideas could now spread further and faster than ever before. Collaboration over distance was possible although it took a long time. Information was very physical and real.

Around this time, Information geeks the world over began a quest for the ultimate classification system. Every great power had a great library.

More recently, the Cold War and quantum physics research produced the internet and the web. The “interweb” changed everything if you wanted it to. Information could be in more than one place at once, and it could literally travel at the speed of light. Physical artefacts became digital — making it at once more accessible and more vulnerable. Everything became miscellaneous. Digital networks evolved into complex adaptive systems, and Digimon appeared in popular culture.

The web was a new frontier, unregulated and exciting, a new crop of 20 something techno wizards rose in business fame. Apple was born. The Cluetrain Manifesto was written and there was a boom in tech stocks. At the end of the millennium, we panicked over a couple of missing digits (Y2K) and spent billions correcting the short-sightedness of the previous decades.

In the GC, Government On-Line occurred and the Funding Fairy provided the means for departments to put their information online. Canada became a world leader, but the paper-based mentality that prevailed caused many to completely miss the opportunity presented by hyperlinks and digital logic, instead “brochure-ware” prevailed.

At the top of the hype curve, the tech bubble goes pop and we are reminded that gravity works. After the crash, the Web was reborn as Web 2.0 with user-created content and social networking taking centre stage. The Long Tail made its appearance and command and control hierarchies began to sense a threat, while the educated masses saw an opportunity.

Government CIOs scrambled to keep the information plumbing from backing up while Amazon and Google raised the bar of citizen expectations for online service.

Tagging and folksonomies entered the vocabulary of information professionals, curating became something anyone could do. Librarians and archivists struggled to catalogue and preserve some of the exponential growth while the cognitive surplus emerged to build things like Wikipedia — making human knowledge more accessible than ever before. CIOs were either bewildered or excited at the possibilities.

GTEC played an important role by bringing together examples and people. It became an annual, milestone event. It was at GTEC 2007 that Ken Cochrane announced that the GC was going to build a “Collaborative Library” and it was at GTEC a year later that we launched GCPEDIA — bringing people and technology together.


GTEC is gone and FWD50 has taken its place and the gathering for technology hopefuls. The world is a scary place and we are not sure whom to trust.

High-speed wireless saturates the urban environment and ubiquitous network access is a reality. Digital natives experience continuous instant communication as part of everyday life while Government workplaces seem antiquated by comparison. The web and the collective forces that it enables are transforming all parts of connected society. Recorded information is produced at an accelerating rate.

Open source software matures and becomes a viable option for enterprise applications. Governments around the world join the Open Government Partnership, in Canada, the Federal Government publishes the Open Government Action plan.

Holistic User Centred Design begins to challenge solutions approaches to designing technology. Humanists and engineers are learning to work together.

The digital divide becomes a social issue, web accessibility becomes law and massive resources are assembled to ensure all GC organizations become compliant.

Bureaucracies built to manage people, work and information over the last couple of hundred years are beginning to show their age. New groups emerge in the evolutionary sea of information we know as the internet. Powerful forces compete to control the new territory — Anonymous becomes an entity.

The GC invests heavily in GCDOCS, SharePoint and other technologies designed to manage/control documents. The idea of knowledge as a product of interconnected networks and not just documents takes shape. Social innovation tools appear in pockets. GCpedia, GCconnex, GCcollab and other grassroots tools struggle for institutional support while gaining users. Something called the open accessible digital workplace is conceived.

Agile and Design Thinking is all the rage. Good ideas start to come back again.

Sometime after tomorrow

I originally wrote these words in 2012, it is kind of fun to reflect on the progress since then.

There is no Web 3.0, but something else emerges — a diverse, complex adaptive system, no, a network of complex adaptive systems. What seems to be emerging is a network dominated by motivations other than the public good. The government needs to step up.

Control of information becomes less important, the cultural default is to share knowledge. Government is a platform and publicly funded data is routinely visualized by an army of professional and amateur big data analysts. I see this happening, too fast for some, not fast enough for others.

In the GC, Shared Services Canada provides a reliable infrastructure, we share one email address across government, secure wireless is everywhere, non-government partners can easily and securely collaborate, the government cloud is a reality. Departmental CIOs become focused on transition and business improvement — information plumbing is rarely an issue. The government-wide technical architecture focuses on standards and interoperability, a diverse range of technologies and tools work together in relative harmony, vendors with “lock-in” strategies are shunned. Thrilled to see the idea of open standards and enterprise architecture come back, hopefully, they will stick this time.

GC Ideas is in constant use, the GC App Store is the first place departments look when they need software. Government developers routinely contribute to open source projects. The Open Knowledge policy is promulgated across governments around the world. The Marvelous Mistakes page on GCPEDIA competes with the Fabulous Failures page for most valuable lessons. Risk aversion all but disappears in an organizational culture that embraces experimentation and sharing lessons learned. Meh.

Tablet computers are everywhere, briefing binders disappear. The Golden Tablet program maintains a knowledge connection with departing employees. The GCTools suite is adequately funded. No Golden Tablets and the tools are frustrating to use, but big plans ahead.

Dreams of a digital nirvana don’t come true, but all is not lost. Networks of people who are comfortable connecting virtually emerge and disperse continuously. The definition of Public Service changes as the lines blur between indeterminate employees and partners. Agility is an operational requirement, and government organizations re-invent themselves. @fwd50 is a great example of this happening

Leadership learns to work with the nebulous “crowd.” Connections are made and governance structures adapt to include interfaces to the crowd. The management focus shifts from one of command and control towards engaging with self-identified stakeholders. Early steps being taken by some visionaries some of the time.

Serendipity becomes a business principle, the internet of things emerges, power shifts to those who control the algorithms but a balance is maintained by the digital collective. The Virtual Government Network is an international network 200,000 members strong where new and innovative methods are shared. The Virtual Government Network never became a reality but Apolitical did, the algorithm battle is just beginning. 

Public Servants feel more connected with each other, and with the public they serve.
Most certainly for some.

Global government becomes possible as a global consciousness emerges. The collective intelligence gets a handle on our wicked problems. Technology serves the three Ps of Profit, People and the Planet.

Yes, life is good in my fantasy future. What does yours look like?

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Service & Program people can I buy you a coffee?

Teacup_clipartThis post is directed to those of you that identify as a service or program person working in government.

Not too long ago I moved from Open Government Engagement to take on the role of Lead for Learning in Policy Community Partnership Office.  PCPO defines its community as anyone in a value chain that stretches from research through to service delivery and evaluation.

I realized recently that my network of policy folks is healthy, but I am not sure who I know with a mature understanding of the service delivery and program side of things.

If you are one of those people I would like to buy you a coffee.

It can be real coffee or tea or a walk if you are in the vicinity of 90 Elgin. Alternatively, we can talk on the phone, have a WebEx or Zoom or Google Hangout meeting. Whatever works.

I would like to learn about how you view this thing called policy and what you think about the policy/program/service spectrum that is sometimes talked about. I would like to learn more about your world and what we need to learn together to make it better.

If you are interested please drop me a line at my GC email and we’ll set something up. I look forward to meeting you.




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GSRM for Digital Service Delivery?

Public Service Reference Model

Public Service Reference Model circa 2006 (original image by Neil Levette).

This is a quick post to share some work that was done by the Enterprise Architecture Division of the Chief Information Branch of the Government of Canada back in 2006. I became aware of it at a conference entitled Transforming Government – better outcomes for citizens, and in a way, it is directly responsible for my interest in working for the feds.

This is no longer really my space but chatting with some folks I realized that if you are involved in the current wave of digital service transformation you should at least be aware of it –  building on what came before, avoiding reinventing things, and all that.

The thing is called GSRM (Government Service Reference Model) and at it’simplest the idea is that all of Federal Government services can be distilled into one of 17 or so basic service types. For each service type, there can be a library of patterns covering variations. All services are described and architected using a common lexicon.

Now I don’t know about you, but the Enterprise Nerd in me gets pretty excited when I think about the implications of such a thing. Common service architecture would presumably enable better data management, security, evaluation and potentially even my current fantasy of intelligent policy that evolves based on data. Sorry, I digress.

To be clear, I had nothing to do with the development of any of this. I became involved with the GoC originally to try and sell the idea to departments and agencies because I wanted an efficient, responsive government. At the time there was a team of very smart people who are now mostly retired working on GSRM as part of a bigger project called BTEP (Business Transformation Enablement Program).  Unfortunately, in 2007-10, through a series of unfortunate events the Federal Government never really managed to adopt the standards. But others across Canada did, in fact, if your city offers 311 services it probably has its origins in the municipal version of this idea.

The upside of the failure to adopt the standard was that we pursued the idea of using a wiki for a collaborative architecture library which morphed into GCpedia which evolved into the GCTools and the first government-wide collaboration platform.

Ok, back to GSRM and the purpose of this post. I rummaged through my old files and put a few documents in this google drive.


The quick note will give you an overview while the service types document outlines the 17 service patterns. The other two folders contain some related material if you want to dig deeper, including a foray into applying GSRM to knowledge policy.

There is likely more documentation hiding somewhere on the internet. Let me know if you find any of this useful or if you already have something better.

Happy Transformations!






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The Crowded Boardroom: When the long tail collides with hierarchy – a true story.

This not a random picture, it is how I envision the government. Each ship is a department or agency. The ships have commanders with considerable authority. Communication at a distance is very bad, (they did it with flags). Groups of ships are supposed to work together and sometimes they do so effectively, but collaboration is difficult with many strong egos and conflicting agendas. My hope is that we can use the current enthusiasm for all things digital, to get better at working together.

The goal of this post is to try and share some of the lessons from an extraordinary experience that I (and many of you) have been part of for more than a decade now. The experience was leading the collaborative tools team that created GCpedia and GCconnex across the Government of Canada (2007-2010).

My journey began with the 2000 tech bubble burst and the ride that preceded it ended. Looking for new consulting challenges I looked to government and found a world of opportunity for improvement.  Over the next few years, I undertook dozens of interesting projects in a variety of departments that eventually led to a three-year executive interchange appointment that changed my life, and I dare say, changed the Government of Canada.

When my interchange ended and I realized that this was a career highlight that would be difficult to surpass. So I wrote a paper about it.  The paper reflects on the origin story of what is certainly one of the most successful government collaboration platforms in existence. I started to update it, but other things keep getting in the way so I am sharing it again now in its original form.

In the paper, I look at how the project seemed to transcend cultural and institutional barriers to enterprise change in the context of Government.

Reading it today I am struck by a few things:

  • Navigating complexity is challenging, but applying the principles of complexity is useful in growing a complex adaptive system.
  • Introducing change to an organization requires a willingness to manage by exception —the long tail does not easily fit in a boardroom (page 19).
  • Stealth works. Formal approval mechanisms cannot be expected to understand and preemptively approve the specifics of innovation. A small group with sufficient “policy cover” but limited formal governance can do a lot for not very much money.
  • A senior central agency executive who is willing to risk manage can enable wide-spread innovation (we had one in 2007 with Ken Cochrane and we have another in 2018 with Alex Benay).
  • The Governance and Stakeholder model is something we should be looking at and talking about to deal with our shared accountability issue (see the governance description starting on page 12).
  • I am intrigued by the idea of viral horizontality (see Table 2, page 16).
  • The basic underlying assumptions of organizational culture are the hardest to change (page 18). These include things like:
    • Responsible autonomy is best
    • Deference to the most respected
    • Shared sense of purpose
    • Free information is powerful
    • Mistakes are learning opportunities
    • Beg forgiveness rather than ask permission
    • Working for Citizens, (it’s a way of life)
    • Challenge the rules
  • The factors that influence governance in table 2 are still true and worth looking at if you are into that sort of thing.
  • “Good enough for next to nothing” I like that line and think that projects that achieve this goal should be rewarded. And improved upon in the next iteration.
  • In a complex adaptive system, neither use nor content can be fully anticipated.
  • There are real implications for our policy planning and service design philosophies as we embrace an agile digital approach.

This paper examines the cultural and internal governance implications of the introduction of a horizontally enabling Web 2.0 technology (open source MediaWiki) in a large enterprise (the Public Service of Canada), in the period 2007-2010. It was written and presented as part of the World Social Science Forum Conference in Montreal, October 2013.

The paper was later published in the scholarly journal Optimum Online Vol 43, No4, Dec. 2013 (registration required).

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

More articles and stuff.

Posted in Collaboration, Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Presentation | Leave a comment

It’s time to explain the cow…

It’s about listening

At the beginning of this year, I was deep into engagement around creating Canada’s next plan for open government.

As part of this process, I was promoting events on the twitter and one of my tweets caught the attention of someone up the chain. Apparently, there was some concern that I insulting people in Cattle country, as we had recently returned from workshops in Regina and Edmonton.  I don’t know the details or the thinking behind it,  all of this happened above my pay grade and my management had the good sense not to bring it to me at the time. I only heard about it because apparently, it came up in one of Alex Benay’s regular “Ask Me Anything” events and someone related it to me.   I believe this is the tweet in question.

I view engagement as an exercise in institutional listening and the cow is an important part of that. Those of you that have been to one of my workshops have probably met Moo the interrupting cow. Moo is a facilitation device that introduces some humour to help participants be heard. I use it, along with some dog slides to set the stage for group discussion.

It goes something like this.  I would like to introduce you to Moo, the interpreting cow. Moo is the result of a knock, knock joke my kids told me years ago…sometimes a participant knows the joke which begins to engage folks. Anyway, the deal with Moo is that when you are in working in a group and someone is dominating the conversation, you can toss the cow (metaphorically) at the person to let them know it is time to let others talk.  I sometimes will give the cow to one of my colleagues to toss at me if I run over.

I am writing about this because this incident reminds me of our tendency in the public service to try and eliminate risk in everything we do. Unfortunately, this also sucks the fun out of everything we do.  AND FUN IS IMPORTANT!  Especially if you are trying to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems.

Pretty sure there is some research on this and, certainly in my experience as a facilitator and teacher I have learned that if you can make an exercise fun, you will generally get better results.  Others seem to agree, at GovMaker 2017, Hillary from Ontario expressed interest so I sent her one of my backup cows as a gift because I know they are working hard at listening as well.

But the most important thing about the cow is that it is part of a process that leads to results like this: I felt heard - nice work!

I have done a lot of engagement work over the years and this is the desired result. I am also pretty sure that if more Canadians felt this way about their interactions with government things wouldn’t be so scary for our democracy these days.

What do you think?

p.s. If you like the story about the cow and listening you may also be interested in learning about the ducks and enterprise alignment. 


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