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Innovate on Demand, Episode 12: Developing with Empathy

Some of the most valuable lessons we learn are shaped by specific experiences, both good and bad. On this episode of Innovate on Demand, Keith Colbourne, Product Manager at the RCMP discusses how growth gained through personal experiences can lead to professional change and growth.

Duration: 22:50
Date: June 3, 2020

Transcript

Todd 
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Keith
I'm Keith Colbourne.

Todd 
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

Lessons can be learned at any time and in any circumstances, but sometimes the most transformational experiences can happen when we hit rock bottom. When we feel like we've lost everything and perhaps lost ourselves, what's most important in life can become incredibly clear.

Todd
Welcome, Keith.

Keith
Thank you. Glad to be here.

Natalie
Welcome. Thank you for being here today. I think you have a bit of a story to tell us.

Keith
Yeah, I can talk about my work for the RCMP and my career in the public service—and more recently, about how personal changes and personal growth have led to professional changes and professional growth.

Natalie
Well, that sounds interesting.

Keith
So I work for the RCMP currently. I've been with them for about two years. This past year I've been at the Canadian Digital Service. We've partnered with them to work on a public reporting tool for victims of cybercrime. As I progressed in that work—I mean, I don't know how much your audience knows about the Canadian Digital Service, but they're a branch of Treasury Board, and their whole goal is to partner with departments to modernize the ways and tech that they use and work with.

But prior to this, I had worked for maybe 10 years for National Defence, and before that I had worked with Service Canada for a number of years—always as a developer. I find the work as a developer to be pretty isolating. Not a lot of connection with people. And that kind of wore on me after a number of years. Not a lot of collaboration. Not a lot of personalization. Not a lot of connecting with others.

So I can tell you, a couple of years ago I went through a major depression in my life. I had a major episode of depression that resulted in a hospitalization. That has basically been a completely sobering event for me in my life and has led to a lot of changes. I started thinking about ways that I could change aspects about my job—not necessarily change careers, but I started making some changes.

I switched departments for instance. I went from DND [National Defence] to the RCMP. I joined the Occupational Health and Safety Committee. I became a peer-to-peer advisor. I started volunteering and networking with people. And I started, through these extracurricular activities, having more enjoyment out of my work. People that I would meet through those avenues would introduce me to other ways of working or other connections, even in my tech work.

But to get back to the hospitalization—so, I was in hospital for depression. Of course, there was a lot of self- or soul-searching, not to use a cliché. After that, I went through a six-week day-hospital program aimed at cognitive change. This program contained a lot of group therapy. Everyday we had group therapy sessions. The biggest takeaway I had from that is how much empathy I was able to cultivate for other people. You know, listening to somebody that tried to commit suicide the day before can help put your own stuff in perspective.

I've been able to take that empathy and apply it to my work, most notably with trying to build a digital product for users, trying to think about what the users want, but also in terms of the work I've done with the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). For a long time, I was the lone representative on the RCMP team that was collocated at CDS. I'd like to think I helped my team try to better understand what a department is going through. They're not super ready for change. They're not totally gung ho. They might say they want it, but CDS is very much like, "Yeah, let's change. Let's change lanes." They're working at the speed of light compared to a lot of government departments. Having that empathy, I think, is great for both sides when you're in a capacity-building type of situation.

As a result of this work—I mean, CDS works on digital products, so they have a user design research and a service design and product management approach. And as a result, I started as a developer, and then because my boss got promoted, I started acting in her position and I became a team lead. But it became pretty apparent over a period of time that I was not really doing team leader project management, I was starting to do product management. As a result, I was falling in love with this discipline. I applied to be part of the 2020 Code for Canada fellowship as a product manager, and I'm happy to say that I was successful in that with Transport Canada and the Marine Safety Unit in doing product management.

Natalie
Congratulations. That's a huge accomplishment. Good for you.

Keith 
So it's been one step leading to the next, basically based on me wanting to make some changes in my current work, instead of—I don't want to blow the whole thing up, but let me start putting my hand up.

And this happened at the RCMP. There was a vague call for interest that came out about this newly formed National Cybercrime Coordination Unit (NC3). And I said, "Hey, what's this? I'm interested, please tell me more." And the next day they said, "You're going to the NC3, and you're going to be on cybercrime.” So that led to CDS, and CDS led to Code for Canada, and we'll see what's next after that.

But for me, it all came as a result of personal catharsis in my mental health.

Natalie
So that moment of introspection—I guess we all have many of those in our lives. They can be big, they can be small.

But, first of all, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I think it's so important that we share these stories. I'm particularly interested in something you said, which is how your personal journey taught you how to bring empathy to your work.

When I think about digitization, and I actually think about what we want our future work to be, the reason empathy is so important is because digitization to me is about how we bring people back to the process. Right? We need to consider those people, consider all the perspectives, and how we're doing that.

I think that's maybe the most powerful thing I've heard today. So thank you very much for that. I think that's really interesting.

Can you give us an example of how you're using that empathy at work to actually improve your working conditions, and also some of the results you're getting?

Keith
Yeah, so at the Canadian Digital Service, we do a lot of user design research. We've done a number of research sessions with victims of cybercrime, or potential victims of cyber crime. A lot of the research has pointed us in a direction that—well, say you were a victim of malware or phishing. We still want to get your report, but there might not necessarily be much that we can do about it, “we” being police with jurisdiction or the RCMP. What we found out that victims want might not necessarily be action from the police, but they want to be heard. They want to know that what they experience is a crime, and they want some emotional reassurance around that.

So we've tried to build emotional reassurance into the product in terms of our clear language, in terms of expectations that people can expect right up front when they report. And now we're in the process of testing. We've just moved from an alpha to a beta phase, and we're going to start collecting real reports soon from the public. We're testing whether or not these emotional reassurance hypotheses are going to be something that's going to be effective with users—but also result in them giving more information that's going to be more helpful for police jurisdiction to be able to investigate crime.

From my point of view, that whole thing started with, "Let's put the users first and have empathy for what they want, in order to get what we want as police."

Natalie  
Well, it's very interesting.

Keith
Yeah, it's been really fun and rewarding work.

Natalie
I love that moment. I know for me, I can identify those moments in my life too where all of a sudden I'm on a new path. And very quickly, I see I'm on a better path than the one I was on before. That's a really satisfying thing.

So, what would you say to somebody who is in the situation at work where they feel very isolated, and where the people around them are seemingly okay with that, and there isn't a lot of collaboration. What advice could you give to someone to help them on the journey that you've taken?

Keith
It's against my nature to think that I'm in a position to give some kind of advice or, or you know, in a leadership position. I'd like to think I'm much more on the humility side. But I feel I do have a bit of a story to tell, so I'm grateful to have that opportunity.

I would say do whatever you can, that's in your control, to reach out—even if it's joining some GCconnex groups, or there's an active Twitter community now around civic tech. Join the discussion, just get involved. I know, as a developer, it tends to be very much an introverted culture. It's hard to go against that if it's in your nature. But if that is really something you want is to connect with other people, then you have to step out of your comfort zone. I guess you have to weigh what's more important to you. If you're fine just working on a computer and coding all day, that's great. That's awesome. But for me, I wasn't.

Natalie 
I wouldn't even make it through 10 minutes—as Todd laughs—because I can't even sit still for a podcast.

Keith
I guess it depends on what motivates you. If you do want to connect with people, then you've got to do something about it. You've got to take the first step. Ask somebody to go for coffee. I mean, that probably sounds like a cheesy thing, but I've done it, and you feel awesome after.

Todd 
I'm extremely introverted, and it's very easy for me to get sucked into stuff. I don't develop code. I do develop sound, so I can spend all day in an editor and not notice that seven hours have gone by and I haven't moved barely.

The strange thing is that sometimes I get so engrossed in the work, I don't notice the effect that it's having on me. The fact that because I am comfortable with being alone doesn't mean that it's healthy for me to be alone, or that the amount of time I spend alone isn't having a detrimental effect as far as just making me feel bad inside—that I don't notice until it's too late and I'm already kind of feeling that drained, depressed affect.

Keith 
And if you do that every day, obviously it's going to snowball, right?

Todd 
Yeah, and the people around me, sometimes they don't remind me. Sometimes they're only feeling the effect of my behaviour, like the fact that I am grumpy and I'm drained. They feel rejected by me, and it has a tendency to spiral.

It is hard though, to stop that from happening and to reach out and interact with other people to break out of that cycle so that you can bring up your mood.

Keith
It's like something I've said in therapy before. I heard this line somewhere else, and I was telling my therapist. This whole depression was a great gift wrapped up in horrible packaging. Then he said to me, “Well, wouldn't it have been nice if you didn't have to go through all that?” You know, in order to reach that level of empathy, or in order to find more happiness than I currently had at the time—which I think was a pretty good point.

So if these words that I'm saying can help somebody just reach out and talk to someone, then that'd be great, or if it stopped somebody from having to go through a horrible depression.

Todd 
Can you think of a safe person that you can reach out to? Because it spiralled out of control to the point of hospitalization, you had people that became part of the help. For someone that's just on the edge there, hopefully, you have some sort of a family that you could reach out to. But if not them, a friend that is aware of what your tendencies are.

Keith
I mean it doesn't have to be super heavy. A lot of people might get scared off by talking about mental health issues. You can just talk about anything, just socialize with a friend. Or if you don't have someone like that in your life, you can call the Distress Centre of Ottawa or Ontario.

That's not the same as a crisis line. A distress line is just someone. They're there just to talk or to chat. A crisis line is if you're having suicidal ideations or something like that. There's a difference. A lot of people might not know the difference. Yeah, that's always available.

There are free walk-in clinics, for instance, mental health walk-in clinics that you can go to. In the RCMP, I became a peer-to-peer advisor. A lot of workplaces will have something like that—a peer support program where these people are available just to chat with you if you want to talk, not necessarily about this, but just about aspects of your work, or life, or anything. I know a lot of departments have programs like that.

Natalie  
As you went through your struggle, did you ever encounter public servants or people in your entourage who were able to identify and help you along?

What are signs that somebody like a public servant can look for in their colleagues? And what are things they might do?

What could have been really beneficial to you?

Keith 
Well, it's hard for me to make the connection specifically to work because this particular episode of depression was not really work-related. It was a life event really. I went through a toxic relationship, and there was also some trauma from a number of years ago. My ex-wife and I discovered a murder-suicide, and that left a traumatic imprint on us both. These were friends of ours. So there's some external factors there.

But if you're working with somebody, you can notice if they have a noticeable change in their demeanour. If you have a relationship with them already, you don't have to come up and say, “Hey, I noticed you're not looking the best.” But you can just check and say, “Hey, how's it going?” You can take the initiative to ask them if they want to go for a walk, or get coffee or anything, just to show them that you're there. You don't have to bring anything up. You can just be there. If they feel like they want to talk, they will.

Natalie
Well, one thing, I'd love to invite you—as you're out there doing Code for Canada, if you ever feel like you want to come back again to see us here at Innovate on Demand and talk a little bit about what that experience is like, we'd love to hear about that too.

Todd  
On the topic of veering into the mental health discussion, I was relieved and happy when it started to become something that it became okay to discuss in the context of the workplace.

At the same time, though, I have to say that I've always felt concern that it's a fad. It's a temporary situation where it's trendy and topical to acknowledge the fact that this is something that we're concerned about. The fact that there was some period of time where it was actively being discussed in podcasts and communications happened—now we don't need to discuss it anymore.

Whereas, I'd like to think that it just becomes part of normal conversation, and it's something that people can continue to revisit any time. There's still that environment of safety where people realize that it's okay to confide in someone at work, whether it's a friend or whether it's a person that's taken on that role within their work group, or someone on the floor that can give you 10 minutes or as much time as you need in the middle of your day.

Keith 
Yeah. Something we've started doing, a practice that I learned at the Canadian Digital Service, is when a lot of meetings start, we'll have a traffic light protocol exercise.
That's basically, before you get into the meeting, you'll say how you're feeling in terms of red, green or yellow. So yellow is you're just in the middle. Red, you're in the stressed-out danger zone. And green, you're A-okay. Just so that everyone else has an idea where you're coming from, where you're at. You don't have to get into details about it.

Todd
Do people really feel safe to be able to say that they're feeling red?

Keith
It all comes, I think, from the senior management, from leaders—if they encourage that kind of behaviour in meetings.

Todd
Do they use the same system? And do they have bad days where they say, “I'm having a red day? Yeah, I'm the supervisor, I'm the director, but it's a red day.”

Keith
I've seen it. I've only done this at CDS, but I've definitely seen it there. I think you can lead by example there for sure.

Todd
Yes, absolutely.

Natalie 
That's really interesting. This is actually making me think of something—a lesson that I've learned recently. Sitting here in the room with you guys, I'm feeling very much like the extrovert in the room.

I had a very dear colleague of mine, whose name is Helen Daniels, introduce a concept on our team for team meetings and for our team working sessions. We all had a discussion ahead of time about a concept called "your caucus score" in a meeting, and that was an opportunity for each person to do some self-reflection and then speak about it with the team—around, “Do I feel like I'm heard often? Do I feel like it's easy to interject?”

As we had that conversation, I had that moment of, “Oh my goodness.” It was one of the first times that I saw things from a different perspective, because I interject all the time and I feel very comfortable to speak. I realized in that moment that even though I'm a very collaborative person, there could be things that I'm doing in my enthusiasm that are actually limiting other people's space.

Through that exercise that we did, we've actually come up with—and Helen has now left and moved on to another team—but we've actually kept her practices that we've adopted in the team. We determine a speaking order ahead of time. We make sure we call out to each person so everyone has a chance. People can say, “No, I'm good. I have nothing to say.”

Keith
Yeah. I really like that idea of the speaking order ahead of time, because if you're an introvert, you may not want to raise your hand. If you know you have your spot coming, you can take a number.

Natalie
And it also allows me not to feel like I have to interject right now, to remind me to settle down and stop thinking about what you're going to say, and stop and listen and absorb what's being said now because you're going to have your turn later.

I've had a few really big life lessons in terms of those kinds of things in my career. One of my first ones was, again, around my enthusiasm and passion—but also, I can be very vocal if I'm unhappy about things. Realizing that whole side of it also means, “I can bring everyone up, but I can bring everyone down too.”

I like to think that particular lesson is the day I started opening the door to becoming a manager in government. When I really understood how much impact I had on my colleagues around me was for me a powerful lesson in leadership. It was really interesting to see that other perspective.

Keith
Neat. So did you do that after your meeting? Was it at the end of the meeting, almost like a retrospective? I'm just thinking in terms of IT and agile.

Natalie 
Interestingly enough, so those two lessons were completely separated by about eight years. In terms of the caucus score, no Helen actually brought it up before a meeting. So it had nothing to do with previous meetings. It was like, “I've been thinking about something. Here's a really good idea and something we could explore.” No one had to feel targeted or challenged. Okay. It was really good.

Keith
Good idea.

Todd
Keith, thanks so much for coming in today. I really enjoyed our talk.

Keith
Yeah, me too. Thank you.

Todd
You've been listening to Innovate on Demand, brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service. Our music is by Grapes. I'm Todd Lyons, producer of this series. Thank you for listening.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Keith Colbourne
Product Manager
RCMP

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