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Innovate on Demand, Episode 4: Self-Help

This episode is tailored towards those who struggle to innovate in the public service. Abe Greenspoon, Program Lead of Canada’s Free Agents focuses on what employees should look for in other people and within themselves when innovation just doesn’t seem possible.

Duration: 26:28
Date: June 12, 2019

Transcript

Todd: I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie: I'm Natalie Crandall.

Valeria: I'm Valeria Sosa.

Abe: And I'm Abe Greenspoon.

Todd: And this is the Innovate On Demand podcast.

On this edition of the program: self-help. Reflections, realizations, and suggestions for a path forward for those who've struggled to innovate in the public service: what to look for in other people and within yourself when the frustration makes you feel like quitting.

Natalie: We're here today with our guest, Abe Greenspoon, who is going to talk to us a little bit about what it means to work in innovation in the public sector.

Abe: Great. Well, what I thought about was [to] just give you some of my reflections on some of the work that I've been doing, with Free Agents in particular. It's given me a good perspective on what it's like to work on something different and innovative and trying to influence change in the public service. And the place I started was -- it's tough. There are days when this job can be a slog and days when when it's an incredible amount of work and when when you want to give up and just stop and go back to a regular nine to five job and just put in your time. And it's tempting sometimes to think that way. I think I'd be bored if if I tried to do something like that, but there are days when I think, why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this stress and this challenge that I'm facing? Personally, what I've figured out is that it's really important to have perspective. There are so many days when I love my job. Overall, I think I feel so fortunate and grateful to be in the position that I'm in. A great salary, great job security, but also a real opportunity to solve some big problems, and think about how I can influence systems to solve problems for Canada, on a much broader scale. And it's so easy to get sucked into your work and think about all the different challenges you face: the difficulties, the stressors on you, every day. And I talked to so many people in this community about their their challenges -- the challenge of balancing life and work and finding a good space for you to feel good about your work. But I think if you can just keep perspective on the opportunity you have and the contributions you make and the fact that you're in a really good position -- just working in the public service in general -- gives really good perspective. And I think it helps helps me get through those really difficult times.

Natalie: It's very interesting how you're articulating this Abe because something I've been thinking a lot about is what are the of the challenges or the barriers to our culture, our work environment for innovation? You talked a little bit about the stress and the challenge of actually doing innovative work within the public service, and how maybe a nine to five job wouldn't have those kinds of stresses. So maybe we could unpack a little bit what that is and think about how we might be able to mainstream innovation in a different way.

Abe: Yeah, I definitely appreciate the question. I definitely think a few things. One thing that comes to mind first is that I think this idea of an 'innovation group' or an 'innovation bubble' or an 'innovation class' in some ways, I think about it -- it's really not a great way to think about things -- but we've set ourselves up that way. We've done things like we've created innovation hubs and labs, we've created teams of innovators, we've identified innovative things. And then by doing so, we've set up the opposite, right? We've put everybody else into the opposite bucket. What's up with that? Why do we do that? And what's the value of that? And I know we don't mean to do that, but that's not a good place to work from. Because now every time if you're working in that way, and if you're thinking about things in that way, every time you'll have a conversation with someone who perceives themselves as outside of that group, there's already going to be a barrier. You're already going to have a wall. You're going to have resistance from those people who probably want to see themselves that way and want to think about themselves that way. But you've set it up as that dichotomy -- that oppositional, confrontational relationship from the very beginning and that's not a good place to be. So a lot of the stress comes when people see us that way -- see me that way. And I'm responsible for some of that, I'll admit, and the place I always want to start is to look at myself. What are the things that I'm doing? And I find I create a lot of that stress myself, when I revert back to that mindset of 'they're the problem, I'm the solution,' and I just need to 'solve' them. I need to fix them because they're broken. And setting things up that way, it's a losing formula. And so when the stress comes, I find, is when when I set it up that way. And in conversations when you bring the person with you, when you try to understand where their head is at, what they're thinking about, what's their experience. And a lot of it is similar to the idea of user-centricity just understand the person and their experience. That's where empathy comes in. And I think that our stress comes from lacking empathy, from not being able to understand the experience of the person we're trying to work with.

Valeria: First of all, I just want to ask, how often do you have these feelings? [laughs]

Abe: That stress?

Valeria: Yeah, is it weekly? Is it monthly? Is it daily?

Abe: Probably every day. [laughs] And it comes and goes. And there are some times when it's more or less. But it's really hard to be able to lose your ego, to lose the importance of your own personal success and understand the success of the organization or the success of the team, or the success of the whole public service, or the success of Canada and your position within that. And when I get stressed out, I find it's when I lose sight of that, and that happens daily. It's a constant practice of trying to remind myself to get my head back to where I need it to be, which is thinking much bigger thinking much more contextually about why I'm contributing what I'm contributing.

Natalie: I couldn't agree with you more. I do think that the concept of pigeon-holing some people as innovators and therefore others as not innovators is incredibly damaging to that very culture that we're working all of us so hard to change within the public service. We're all innovators, because innovation is actually…

Valeria: Well… [laughs]

Natalie: …in a lot of ways…

Abe: [laughs]

Natalie: …precisely…

Valeria: [laughter] Are we though? Are we? [laughs]

Natalie: There's gonna need to be some serious editing here, Todd.

Todd: Oh, no. This is going in as-is. [laughter]

Natalie: But the point is, is that as soon as we start -- as you say, Abe -- labelling some people as not being innovators, then then that is a very dangerous position to put them or anyone else into. There is no us and them. The whole public service needs to become more agile, learn how to shift, to pivot, to be more innovative. For me personally, I think that's a set of methodologies that actually will will spark innovation. And that I think it's something that needs to be widely done across the public service. If I were ever asked, what is a job in the public service to which we do not need to apply the innovation lens? I don't think I can answer that question. So I can't accept a public service where we position people as not being innovators.

Abe: Yeah, definitely.

Valeria: As as you guys were speaking, actually, it just made me think of the difficulty it is when you use labels and jargon and how exclusionary it is. And I think whenever a trend appears in government, you're going to find this.

Abe: Totally.

Valeria: I think it happens with our -- I call it -- the letter number, caste system that we've also created, you use this. It's the policy analyst and you use that lens to perceive that or the administrative streams or any of those. And the same thing I found when I started working in the innovation space. Having a bit of a mixed background from different areas, I would hear people speak in the innovation space and the jargon that was used and I [realized] that's kind of the same as this, and the same as this, and the same as this. But we like to use this jargon without trying to break down all of those labels and just get to the core essence of it. And what do we actually say when when we want people to innovate?

Abe: Yeah, for sure.

Valeria: And I think that's where the focus needs to be. But it's kind of a Catch-22. Because if you want to tick that box that you're doing what you need to do as part of your plan, you got to use the jargon as well.

Abe: Yeah, I think a lot of what we're taught, we talked about is about behaviours. I think a lot of it is behaviours that people exhibit that are, quote, unquote, 'innovative' or not 'innovative'. And so you're trying to do, often one of two things. You're trying to influence behaviour or you're trying to change your own behaviour. I sometimes set it up as simply as that. And I know the easiest behaviour that I can change is my own behaviour. So I always -- every day -- start with my behaviour. What am I doing? What have I done? What can I do?

Valeria: This is good introspection.

Abe: And so that's what we need more of. I put a point in about some interesting skills that I think people need to develop. Empathy I mentioned already, which is one of them. But introspection -- I heard a great talk yesterday at the policy community conference, a woman talking about creating great choices. And she talks about the idea of metacognition: thinking about your thinking. What is my frame of reference? What is the perspective from which I am thinking and seeing things? And that process of introspection, self reflection, metacognition is so important to try as much as you can to remove bias from the way that you behave. It's also really important just in terms of relating to other people. And so, one of the other things I was talking about was just how important people are in the system. We tend to focus on rules and processes and bureaucracy, but what are all of those things if not things that are implemented, created, governed by people. And so the people, and I've mentioned this before, it's people who have the ability to change those things, to influence those things. Those things don't exist by themselves. They are not followed by themselves. They are followed by people. And so, it is the people that we're trying to influence and change. It's the behaviours that we're trying to change. And that happens through the sorts of behaviours and skills that I'm talking about.

Valeria: I found myself the other day having a conversation with somebody who was helping helping us put through a contract payment. It was related to Canada's Free Agents, and she said something about the paperwork. And she said, "Well, this is all very weird." And instead of thinking about it as weird, I [said] why don't we just think about it as 'new' because this is just something you're not familiar with. So let's look at it that way. But it was funny to realize that the go-to -- automatically, when something's just different from what you're used to in your habits in terms of doing the bureaucracy -- that's the first thing: this is just weird. I don't want to deal with it.

Abe: So the next question you ask after that, in my view is really important. You've come to a situation where a person feels uncomfortable about something that you're trying to get done. So what's the next thing that you want to do? And the first question you would ask would be: why is this person such a jerk? Why do they hate me so much? Why did they… Why are they so uncomfortable with innovation? Why are they so…  Why do they want to maintain the status quo? But another question you might ask is, well, why does this person feel that way? Or where have they experienced other things like this, or how can I help this person? How can I help this person help me overcome challenge that we face together? I always tell people, that's another one of the sorts of skills that I think are really important is just curiosity: being deeply curious about people and their motivations and what brings them to a certain way of thinking about things. And it's not that they're thinking about them better or worse -- have to try really not to put any value judgment on the way people behave. But just be curious about it, curious about it, to understand it, because understanding her experience in the past, where she's come from and what's brought her to where she is, it just creates such a better kind of way of thinking about things in relationship where I think we'll see more progress when we get there, because then we're not butting heads against each other. We're trying to understand each other and we're trying to solve problems and make things better.

Natalie: It's funny, the choice of words or the choice of how we react to those things can really dictate how then that person holds their opinion. This is actually a lesson that I've learned the best from my four year old son, which is sometimes, someone reacts to something in a certain way, and how you then manage that reaction and your reaction to that changes everything. So in in some situations, some, Oh, this is really weird. If you're tickled pink about how weird it is, that person might be more excited about it. And, sometimes we don't need to necessarily accept a negative connotation to some of these things. It's okay to celebrate something being different. And to give the person the space to recognize that it's different and maybe come back a little bit later on and say: so remember that process it was really weird? How did you feel about it? Did it How long did it take you to do this that was there anything that you felt was missing? And be able to tackle that culture problem from a different side.

Valeria: As you were talking I just had a visual of taking on an Anthony Robbins persona, every time you talk to somebody [laughs].

Abe: But there's some of that, isn't it?

Valeria: This is an opportunity, everybody! This is it! This is the moment! Take it! Change what you do!

Abe: There are funny points of opportunity there and points of leverage. From a systems perspective, we always talk about leverage. Where can I leverage change in something? And it's complex. So obviously, there's no straightforward answer. But even just asking that question at an opportunity like that, at a juncture, in what seems like a very mundane kind of routine interaction, can actually be surprising and how much potential value there would be to stopping and taking a moment to think about that. And it's difficult because (A), we're really busy, and (B) getting into human behaviour is uncomfortable generally. And, you're probably not going to be having that conversation with a person that you have a lot of trust with. It's probably not a lot of safety in that space. But, if we can find a way to have those types of complex conversations about motivations and behaviours in even those mundane situations, I think we'll be better at influencing change. I think we'll see better change. We'll see a lot of progress towards really thinking about our thinking and thinking about our mental models and being more effective, because of that. We'll build more trust. We'll have more empathy for people. And I think we'll get more done.

Valeria: I think I mentioned this previously, but the transition from the Blueprint 2020 to the Beyond 2020, where the focus is to change mindsets and behaviours. I think this is going to provide an opportunity for some excellent work to be done and advance some things in the government. Yeah, looking forward to seeing how this rolls out.

Abe: Yep. Me too. One thing I think I've been thinking about, too, is that so I like the Beyond 2020 model. I like the idea of influencing mindsets. I think that's really important. I've been thinking about how do we how do we agree on some of that stuff that we're talking about? What what does it mean to to behave in an innovative way? What expectations do we have and Beyond 2020 has tried to articulate some of those mindsets that we have and I think that's really important. I think we've been moving out, we've been seeing a lot of development of things like principles and standards in the public service, because I think what we're recognizing is policies as like rules. And that's one thing that policies are -- as rules -- might not be the best or by themselves might not be the only way to influence behaviours in that way. And so we're coming up with things like principles and standards, or manifestos or whatever. There's all that lexicon around a set of agreed upon ways of working and agreed upon ways of behaving. And I think those are actually really useful. We'll see how much impact they can have or how useful they will really be. But I'm seeing a lot of people go in that direction. And I'm interested in that because people do refer to now things like the OneTeamGov principles. They refer -- they're starting to refer to the digital standards a little bit more. And so you're hearing reference to these ideas, which often actually, you're seeing a lot of similarity between them, which is really interesting. And we do also have to think about how they relate to the values and ethics in the public service. Because we already have some standards of behaviour that we expect from public servants, which is really important. People relate, I think, often little to the values and ethics in the public service, but they're there. And obviously, you have to follow them and they're important. And thinking about these established sets of norms, I guess, and then reinforcing them and articulating them, I think, is one way that we'll also start to see some change and influence. Because then I think we're operating hopefully from the same -- with the same sort of goals, that we're seeing some value in doing things this way, for our work. That our work will benefit from these sorts of ways of working wherever we are. And then if we agree on that, and we understand to be true, then we'll start working in different sorts of ways. And I think we're seeing some of that happen. And I think each individual person needs to be understanding that, understanding those principles, understanding those standards, whatever they are. And checking themselves first on their behaviours, to make sure that they're following those sorts of principles or standards of themselves as an individual, and then start to look at your team and then start to look at your organization, and then start to look at the bigger picture more broadly. I'll throw in what I think: it's important to recognize complexity. Complexity, I think is really important for me. It's what I've been thinking about a lot lately. And again, this for me is a learning journey, like it's always been. I've tried to make it as much as I can a learning journey for me to figure out how to do all these things. I fail all the time. I miss so many opportunities because I lose sight of what I'm really trying to do. But complexity is one of those areas I keep coming back to, to try to solve for complexity in systems and in behaviours and in communities and in all of our interactions with each other. And we're in an organization -- a large, large organization -- the public service, which could also be seen as a bunch of different organizations with their own complex cultures. How do we operate in that sort of environment? And there's lots of theories out there, so I'm not going to try to go into ideas of how you should respond to complexity -- but recognize it and do some work around it and try to try to bring a lens of complexity to your work. I found that to be really valuable to just think about the fact that it's not as simple as you think it is. It's never as as simple as you think it is. There are always so many different elements of of behaviours and of actions and of rules and of processes in every system that you're trying to change. So again, it's still something that I'm learning about, something I'm going to admit I don't know much about, but I keep seeing it, and I keep coming back to it. And I keep seeing people jumping. The biggest problem with problem solvers is they're not good enough at identifying the real problem. And that is what makes complexity so important is that you're probably not solving for the right problem. There's a pretty good chance that you're not solving for the right problem. And we got to do things eventually. I'm also a firm believer in actions and action orientation. But, if you're straight to an action without trying to understand some of the complexity, you're going to most likely be solving for the wrong problem, or at the very least, your odds aren't great that you will solve for the right problem. So I think it's respecting that complexity and understanding that and that we're in a really complex system.

Natalie: I think that's a very important point. And I think it's one that's really happening all over the place within the federal public service right now. Because we are in the process of really trying to become an enterprise. But you're 100% right. We are a collection of departments and agencies who have very specific mandates and very specific work cultures. And so there's a there's a huge amount of complexity as we start thinking about how do we become an enterprise, and any of these overarching things that we're trying to do, whether it's about mobility for individual employees, or anything like that, really require us to start thinking about things at the enterprise level, and it's a huge layer of complexity on anything we try and do.

Abe: Definitely.

Valeria: What you said just made me think of this. I was recently speaking to a team and somebody was trying to bring in -- or they're in the process of bringing in -- a certain methodology for managing workflow. It's a bit of a private sector perspective. So in talking about this, one question that I kept on having. or I kept on bringing up. was how. How? And they kept giving me the big vision, the big purpose, what the big outcome is going to be. I believe all that. You don't have to sell me on that. What I'm asking is how. And the only thing that I kept on hearing -- so essentially what you're telling me is that you've your plan so far -- concrete -- is, Person A is going to nag everyone into the mindset that they're going to adopt this. That's all I can hear at the moment. And it's understanding the complexity of the team dynamic and the group and what's going to work -- not only with each individual, but as a collective, so that you can bring them along this pathway of change to get them to a point where everybody's willingly and wanting to do this and actually understands the purpose and the why. Just saying "this is the best way to do it" it's not probably going to get you there. The culture itself may change for a little while, but then people go back to their own habits and their own comfort in terms of the culture. 

Abe: The last thing I just want to say then is -- and I've already said it, but I'm just reinforcing a point -- is that through this whole learning journey that I've [been] seeing myself on, I've always tried to put the emphasis on myself and my responsibility and my role in change, or in in influencing the system. And, it's the behaviours that I am displaying. It's complicated, because you want to make sure you're not putting the pressure on yourself because it can create a lot of stress, and it's something I struggle with frequently. But at the same time not be so hard on yourself -- to understand that you're trying to figure these things out. And do it with earnest. Do it with with a real desire to learn about people to learn about systems, to learn about complexity, to learn about behaviours, and how you can influence all of those things, so that they're better. And come with humility, and just understand that you're trying to learn, you're trying to do better. And so I try to give myself space as often as I can to self-assess, to understand my contributions and what I'm doing. And then try to bring what I can to the table to influence the way that work is being done. So that's the position that I try to come from. And I've found that to be more successful for me in a mental health way. I don't put as much pressure on myself. I learned that 'I will learn' and 'I can only contribute as much as I can contribute' and I want to figure out what motivates people and I want to figure out all these complex systems and understand them, and I'm just starting down that path to do that. So I'm giving myself space to do that too. And I'd encourage other people in the innovation space to think about it the same way.

Natalie: Thank you very much.

Abe: My pleasure. Thanks.

Valeria: 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

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Innovation and Policy Services

Abe Greenspoon
Program Lead, Canada's Free Agent Program
Natural Resources Canada

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