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.

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About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Presentation. Bookmark the permalink.

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