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Innovate on Demand, Episode 9: Working in the Open

Over the past ten years, the way that public servants work has evolved immensely. From hosting public-facing content on Twitter and individual blogs, to the various collaborative platforms being used, this week’s guest Sean Kibbee shares his thoughts on working in the open and how he has watched the public service transform right before his eyes.

Duration: 30:32
Date: March 6, 2020

Transcript

Todd 
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie 
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Valeria 
I'm Valeria Sosa.

Sean 
I'm Sean Kibbee.

Todd 
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

In ten years, we've transformed from a public service where individual blogging and tweeting was considered career-endangering activity, to one that now hosts public-facing, professional networking, and collaboration platforms. Our guest on this episode was at or near the centre of the projects that orchestrated our transformation from then to now.

Valeria 
Welcome, Sean, glad to have you here. Before we dive in, maybe you can just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sean 
Sean Kibbee. I'm a free agent. I was part of the first cohort that came in. I'm going on almost three years as a free agent, which has been a great turning point in my career and a lot of fun.

Valeria 
First cohort!

SEAN 
Yeah. I've been in the government now 18 years. That always surprises me when I say it. I've been in the IT space the entire time. [I] started off as a GT-2 and worked my way up to doing really fun stuff. Currently, I'm posted at the Canada School of Public Service and we are working with the Digital Academy. Specifically, I'm with the Digital Innovation Solutions team, which supports the Digital Academy in their pursuit to skill-up 300,000 public servants.

Also, we have side mandates around cloud [computing] and just overall innovation within the IT space—lots of prototypes, lots of quick wins, things like that. I'm fortunate to work with really talented people with a clear vision and mission around promoting digital across the public service. So that's, in a nutshell, I guess, that's me.

Valeria 
Now I understand that you heard our first podcast with Sean Turnbull. And that you were interested in some of the points that he'd made.

Sean 
Yeah, I heard it. It was so good that I'm surprised you even came and asked me here. I thought he covered so much, so well. He did. And one of the interesting things when I listened—I love when you hear something and it points out what you might be doing wrong in your area. And that gave me cause for—

Valeria 
Sean's great at that!

Sean 
Yeah, he really is. He's good at that. And, that's why I love it. I love listening and surrounding myself with the smartest people possible who help you rethink what you're doing and how you're doing things. And for me, just with the way he approaches innovation, I think it's the way we should be doing it.

Oftentimes, though, we might not do it that way, with that clear a definition of what the metrics mean at the end, what your potential factors of success are; what the barometers are for how you're doing and what you want to get out of it, with clear definitions. I think that's critical; it's so important to do.

It got me thinking of how come I don't do that a lot. A lot of times, I'm not tasked with it. I found in my area, it's kind of niche, where I'm able to look at red tape and really, to be honest, just get around it. I know enough about the industry of IT and I have overlapping skills around communications, privacy, security that just helped me navigate through some of that. But at the same time, I haven't done a good enough job of clear definitions of what we're trying to accomplish.

A lot of times they bring me in just for, Hey, this is what we want to accomplish, here's the end-state solution, go ahead and do it. I wouldn't say it's a checkbox, like they're just saying, Hey, I need to check off this box, so come on in. I think they've been around this individual project or space long enough where they just haven't seen enough things get done. Which is also, I think, a problem in government, where we spend some time, maybe too much time, overanalyzing and we get "analysis paralysis." So that's kind of what they bring me in for a lot.

Listening to Sean really helped me reflect on why that doesn't happen in my space enough. And why aren't I pushing it enough, too? I think that might be a part of the problem, that I'm not saying, Hey, okay, you want this to be accomplished, but let's take a step back. A lot of times, I [say], Okay, I'm your person, and I'll come in and do it. I think what I came to the conclusion of was, there's a space there for saying, Okay, we've talked a lot, now let's do it. Let's pull from it what we will and just get 80% of the way at 10% of the cost and let's learn from it and then move on.

Sometimes those outcomes aren't clearly defined, which I think we could do a better job of. But I think there's a niche space there, I guess is what I'm saying, for more, Okay, we've talked a lot now let's do something. That's what's going to further this project along. And let's make sure that we're okay to fail and that no matter what it is, we learn from it and either continue it on or pivot out into something else.

Valeria 
So taking Sean's wise words and his wisdom, have you—I hear you talking, but have you done something differently where you are?

Sean 
It was only a few short weeks ago! [But], yeah. I have. For example, right now, just to give you one off the top of my head: we are dealing with VR [virtual reality] and VR development. We're working closely with DND [Department of National Defence] at this point to create a course add-on for harassment in the workplace because situational awareness for harassment in the workplace training, I think, is critical.

I think you can read something on a piece of paper, but until you've witnessed it, until you sit in it, in the awkwardness that is harassment—and I'm not the expert in this, there are other people that are in this field that do really well. But until you're actually sitting in that space, I don't think it's as impactful being written down because it seems obvious.

Of course, you wouldn't say that to someone or if someone said that, of course, I would interject. But when you see it in a VR space, which DND has done, it really hits home, you can see how people kind of shy away from confronting the situation, which is probably the worst thing to do if you're an onlooker.

So that area there for me now—before it would have been, Okay, come in and create this and let's push it out. Now, we're aligning ourselves with a few other groups within CSPS and saying, No, I don't want to be the business driver, I don't want to be defining the needs for this. I want to couple with the people who are responsible, but also urge them to say technology won't be an issue. We have developers in the VR space that will do it. We can have actors come in and help out. And we can get a prototype going that doesn't even have to be released. But it'll give us a better sense of how we can use that within it.

And then having those experts compare those results to the people who use it with what they're getting now and in-class learning and then saying, Is it viable? And maybe it's a throwaway, which is fine, because I can get a developer on this probably in about a two-week span and come out with something pretty mature—not fully mature, but mature enough to give a good test run for. I've challenged them to come up with a list of, What do you want to accomplish in this? And let's not do cool tech for the sake of cool tech; let's do cool tech for the sake of, Is it good? Is it viable? Is it better than traditional means of providing what you want to get done?

Natalie 
It's interesting. We have a lot of guests who talk about innovation in this series—which, obviously, that's what we're here to do. But the common themes that keep coming up really are around methodology: how is it that we apply innovation? What is it? Or what are some of those things?

When I hear you talking about this, about the evaluation, about the metrics, to me that brings to mind a paradigm. I can't conceive of solving innovation by applying a whole series of heavy government methodologies or even light methodologies, but there is still something about how we work that actually enables us to be in a space where we can have innovation and that innovation brings value and has something behind it.

Sean 
I think you need to be nimble enough in certain ways and it really depends on the context. I think it's okay to go through the full gamut of rigour and deciding what you want your outcomes to be and what you want to measure them against.

I think it's good if you have an end-to-end group of different skill sets, different parties, different interests in the project and they are all on the same path: that we are going to create something and we might not be comfortable with the outcomes. We might not know what those outcomes are going to be, but we're going to have something to measure them against. And it could be a throwaway and that's okay, too. If you've got that full complement, I think it's easier to do that because everyone's in the same headspace.

A lot of times there will be one or two of those moving parts that perhaps wouldn't agree, that would say, No, if we're investing this, we need a clear outcome that's focused on what will be delivered. And I think that's where you get into problems. You have to look at that and then steer that away and say, No, you need to do more MVPs [minimum viable products] at that point and then just push the MVP model where you can create small quick wins and iterate and pivot quickly rather than having a longer process. I think there's a balance there.

But again, the full rigour comes in when everyone's on board that you're doing experimentation—and really everything should be experimentation in the beginning, as you iterate and roll out. There is a time where you have to scale back on some of these things and it's when you don't have end-to-end, same-goal participation around experimentation and innovation. That's when you have to choose where you want to put your efforts and then manage accordingly, to make sure that something is produced that you can learn from and pivot out of if needed. But something needs to be produced out of the things we do. I think that's one of the things maybe we don't do right. We think we need 100% of the way there or nothing at all. And I'd say that that's a wrong way of thinking.

Valeria 
What is the project that you worked on that you're most proud of? You've been in the innovation space and you've  been in the forefront of a lot of the stuff that's happening in the digital space with the public service. So I'm just curious, what's something that you're most proud of?

Sean 
I think for me, there are three. There are three I'd highlight. So, being in IT

Valeria 
You're proud of a lot! [laughs]

Sean 
Well, I just I give them all equal merit. They're all my babies and I can't single one out. But for me, being in IT, you love when you build something and people use it. And the quicker you can build it and the cheaper you can build it and the more that people use it... the combination of those factors [make it that] the more you actually like it. And so three projects for me—.

Some might remember GC Forums from back in the day. I created that in a few short days. I remember, I spent a lot of time watching Dancing with the Stars with my wife at the time and I just did it honestly, on the side of my coffee table, not even the side of my desk.

When I developed this, it was just a small, open space for people to talk within forums. And a lot of people jumped on it, early adopters really took to it because there was nothing else. This is 2007. So that took off in a lot of ways. I was really happy about that. For me, that was innovation. It was small. It was a light. And it just got legs on its own. It was internal and people enjoyed it. So that was one.

The second one I think is GCcode, which most people might not have heard of or participated in. It's basically like a GitHub code sharing, but it's inside of government. We launched an open-source platform for that when I was at SSC [Shared Services Canada] and that still goes on today. It allows people to share at least within government who don't want to share outside.

And then the latest one is GCcollab. I guess I'll focus more on that one in terms of innovation and how we did it.
I came in with Chris Allison. He had a clear vision that he wanted to release GCconnex on the outside and what that would look like. And there were a few good people there who pushed this forward. I was more just the IT back end. I think of Jeff Outram and Derek and a lot of others who have since taken the helm on it.

But that was launched, it was four weeks, we were four weeks from re-purposing GCconnex code to the outside. That innovation was less about the IT because I don't think it's difficult to do that. There's lots of people that could do it. But the vision with the team and Chris Allison at the time was that we would have an open platform that we could share with anybody at any time whenever we want. Simple as that. And there was no reason why we shouldn't have done it.

That's what amazed me about that project was [that] every fibre of my, at the time, 15-year government career said, This is crazy and it'll never work. But I couldn't find a reason not to do it. And I couldn't find a reason it wouldn't be successful. It's so interesting to me. That was the first project I did  as a free agent.

What's crazy now is how it's [become] part of the nomenclature. We just talk about it. Everyone just says, We're going to share that on Collab? Yeah, we'll share that on GCcollab. Yeah, that's perfect. Okay, see you there. And I love that. For me, my pieces of innovation, when it's a quick win but it's so useful and the work required to do it and the value that it has offsets so well, that for me, that's what it's all about. I've done a lot of smaller things, a few bigger things, but those are the ones I'm most proud of.

Valeria 
And is there one that you had to walk away from? You know, your shame, but [a failure] you learned from?

Sean 
Yeah, the biggest lesson I think I ever learned—I was part of the Deputy Ministers Committee on Policy Innovation, the DMCPI, I think it was called, and they did an app challenge.

The app space right now is interesting and it has been for the last three or four years in that there's an anti-app movement. And then, depending on who you talk to, there's an app movement. And those are colliding. I think the anti-app movement is winning now, but two years ago, it was pretty much a 50-50 split.

The DMCPI ran an app challenge. They did Dragon's Den-style pitches, where people would come up and sit in front of deputy ministers, oftentimes their own deputy minister, and do a pitch of something that was interesting that should be built into an app.

I was there as a mentor to the technical side of things, to let people know the art of the possible, what would take long, what wouldn't, because I had background in that space. But the end-state of that entire process, although there were some good apps out there, the end-state ended up being that none of these apps got produced. Some of them weren't even mobile apps necessarily, just websites, but they were all fantastic ideas.

I saw deputy ministers commit to things that just didn't happen and that probably should have happened. Again, not just the mobile app, but the websites. Some of these pitches were really good. I followed up with them and I found out that the "clay layer" we talk about stopped this from happening. That was unfortunate. So that's one I see where it was innovative. It started and [was] pushed as innovation and it just pretty much crumbled.

I saw good things crumble and I didn't like that. It's too bad we couldn't go top-down on things. That's when I realized bottom-up is so much more effective in a lot of instances than top-down, which is strange, especially when you're sitting with a deputy who says I'm going to make sure that this happens, and it doesn't end up happening, through no fault, necessarily, of theirs. It's just the way our bureaucracy works.

That was really eye-opening to me. For me to be part of that and have it go the way it did. Yeah, I felt—it wasn't a failure, it was something really good to learn from on how to be effective with good ideas. And top-down doesn't always do it for them.

Natalie 
And imagine if we could go bottom-up and top-down at the same time.

Sean  
Yeah, I mean if—

Natalie 
Wait, you're going to have to cut that out.

Sean 
That's the Utopian—Val's laughing. I'm stoically still answering the question...

I think that happens, sometimes. I can't think offhand about times it has, but there's—the best thing I love about the public service right now is there are more well-intentioned people than I've ever seen. Top to bottom, right on down.

I've had a good opportunity with the School to meet at upper levels, as well as help out with the lower IT levels that I think need changing. There has just never been a time in government where you have more allies on the innovation space than you do right now. I feel that in IT. I hope it's in other areas.

I think there are other ones that still need a lot more work. But around policy, communications, I see such great people, such like-minded people, where we were fighting, even what? Ten years ago, we were doing Collaborative Management Day, right? CMD I believe it was called, where we got people together to talk about how we should collaborate more. It was [somewhat] underground, but the Clerk showed up, so everyone was cool. We had drinks after. Who would have that now? We all believe in that. No one would come to a meeting and say, No, you can't collaborate with me. For the most part, right?

Natalie 
Do you think it's because like-minded people and collaborators can find each other outside of their day-to-day work now through mediums like Twitter and other things like that? I often wonder if it's the perception that we can now find people who are trying to pull and push the same levers that we're trying to pull and push.

Sean 
Yeah, I think it started out with finding people because we're allowed to talk on social media now. We weren't before. We had to get permission for tweets, I remember. A lot of people got in trouble for tweets. (Nick Charney). So, now, yeah, I think that started with that. Now it's just there's more safe spaces, right? There are a lot of safe spaces. There's not too many crazy ideas where you're going to get branded as someone who's not toeing the line.

Natalie 
The feeling is much different now than it was some time ago in government.

Sean 
Yeah, where you can feel you can [say], Hey, why don't we just put this out there and see what sticks or see who comes back? Or put it out there and see what other areas—

Natalie 
You can voice an idea that may or may not be good.

Sean 
Sure. Yeah. That's the difference. I think it started off with social media and connecting people and I think it's just morphed into being part of the culture—which was always the thing back in the day that we knew, was that you needed to change the culture. That's what needed to happen.

You weren't going to put in processes and policies that were going to push people to change. You were going to change the culture, and then the policies might follow afterwards, for those last areas that maybe are a little harder to change. It's a really good time to be in government. There's just this giant movement.

The red tape, the bureaucracy, still exists. We work through it. There's reasons why some of it exists, which are completely valid. But there's a much more critical lens on our processes now, internally and at high-up executive levels, that I'm just proud to be a part of. It's just a really interesting time to be in government. We don't do everything perfect. We are so much more apt to change for the better now, across the board, that it's encouraging.

Valeria 
Let me ask you a little bit about your vision for the future. If you had a dream project, what would it be?

Sean 
Whew. I would have loved to get a few of these questions beforehand. But on the spot with that one—

So for me right now, and I'm living it, I'm immersed in it here at the at the Digital Academy and the School. I would love to see the digitization of government, properly.

CDS [Canadian Digital Service] and Aaron Snow just released a report about a 2025 plan to have everything digitized. To some people, this might seem easy or hard, but that's a really monumental task. I would love to be a part of the project that takes big chunks of that and digitizes them for citizens: the whole "Netflix in a Blockbuster world." I think we have the talent to do it. We have the will to do it. There's no reason why we shouldn't get it done.

For me, it would be being, which I really am right now,  being part of that wave of digitization of government services to meet the expectations of Canadians. Every day we fall further behind because we're wondering what we should do. I think we need to go out there and start to do it, be prepared to fail small and pivot.

To be a part of that is something that I think is going to be everlasting. That's what I like. For me, that's my ideal project: a big chunk of digitizing government to meet the needs of Canadians.

Natalie 
So when you frame that, in that context, it really brings home the importance of the work that you're doing in the Digital Academy right now. Because how are you going to help the whole workforce accomplish that goal? I feel like even just understanding what the word digitization means can be really different depending on who you're speaking to.

Sean 
Yeah, and for me, I focus mostly on the IT lens, so the women and guys out there who are doing this IT on the ground floor and working it up, because I think that's where change is started.

There's other areas that are equally as important around user design, data, all these things that we aren't doing well enough now, simply because they're a little foreign to government. Those parts are equally as important. But for me, my focus is mainly on the IT aspect. And that is bringing the people who really have an aptitude for true innovation, learning new skills, bringing private enterprise nimbleness into government; [they] are the people that I want to bring to the top levels and connect with each other because sometimes they're hidden away. Because inherently, if you're not in that hierarchical process, and you think differently, possibly, sometimes, you could be put to the side.

I want to bring those people out. I want to connect them together. I want to let them know other examples of how people have done what they think they can't do. That's where I start and that's where I want to continue to push to make sure that the IT folk that are ready for change and want to push change are given a platform to do that.

And they're given a safe space to talk with like-minded individuals and are given every opportunity to push forward without the excuse of, We can't do this because we've never done it that way; we can't do this because it would be against this. Let's explore it, let's explore new ways of doing things.

One of the catchphrases I use is that a lot of times we call innovation "doing the same things differently." I think we should be "doing different things differently." That's the lens you have to look at and not be afraid to fail and failing small and fast. Doing different things differently is how we have to think.

Chris Allison said at a recent talk that what got us here isn't going to get us to the next step. So we've got to pivot out. What got us here was a hard fight around culture change and just the whole innovation space. So now we're all on board, I think, and we've reached a critical mass of people who agree that innovation is the way to go and we've got to do things differently.

What's the next step to enable that? And really, it's less about incubation of innovation and it's about acceleration of innovation. How do we accelerate that and open those doors and take away that red tape, which has been my go-to skill set for my last 15 years in government.

It's really just been [me] looking at red tape in an objective way and being able to analyze it appropriately, as opposed to just throwing up the hands and saying, Well, I don't know much about security so I guess someone in security told me this is going to be scary. No, let's look at it. Let's evaluate it against the risks that are currently existing, which doesn't often happen in security. So that's a long-winded answer. But yeah, it's getting the people out of their shells and giving them a seat at the table to talk and make sure they connect with other like-minded individuals.

Natalie 
You're talking about a full digital transformation. We're not talking, as Michael Wernick said in his last report, about simply putting 1995 business processes online.

Sean 
Yes, it has to. We can't just [do] the lift and shift. And there's a lot of focus on cloud now. The lift and shift is one thing, and it might be good, but really, you need to retool how you do, in this case, applications. You need to use more of an agile process.

I think that's the same everywhere. We can't just say, Let's make this a paperless office exercise and then that'll cure everything that ails us. It won't. We need to think differently about what we're doing. We need to do it differently as well.

Natalie 
Thank you.

Valeria 
Thank you, Sean. What I'm gathering—what I've sort of pulled out from everything you've said, so far, you're a big believer in iteration. Is that sort of your way of being in the—and I guess the advice that you would provide people is to iterate, iterate, iterate.

Sean 
Yep. MVPs early, regardless of what you're in, doesn't have to be IT. Come out with things. Show people things. Think of the user at the end of it. Talk to the user as you're going along. It's the big bangs that are killing us.

We're doing two-year projects in spaces where it changes every six months. That's crazy—the risk around that. We think we're buffering from the risk. I would say if you're in an industry that changes pretty drastically every six months, and you have a two-year project plan, you have failed from the beginning. You need to stop doing that and make a six-month plan and don't make it the Full Monty, for lack of a better term. Make it so that it proves something.

Back to Sean's point about testing. Make it so it's got a goal of testing things against your assumptions and be willing to [accept] your assumptions to be wrong, and then iterate and pivot from there. We don't do that well. We don't do pivoting and iterating because we need forecasting and we need accountability and we need all these things. It's really hard to say, I'm going to create something in six months and invest in it, that might go nowhere. And I have to be prepared for that.

Natalie 
I really agree with you on the concept of the MVP. I feel that, psychologically, it puts us in the frame of mind of, Oh, this isn't my final product. I think that's where you have to be all the time in order to work in that agile, iterative and pivot-friendly environment, where you can actually change directions or you can correct things quickly. You can actually implement small wins quickly.

Sean 
Yeah. Traditionally, we've been just so scared [from an] IT perspective, to show the "client" something. Yeah, [we're afraid] to show someone because then we're going to be worried, Oh, what if it sets too many expectations? What if they're too disappointed because we didn't produce enough, because we only had six months to deliver? If you're a project team, and you're agile, and all the expectations are the same and everyone's well intentioned, then that won't be a problem. You're going to learn from it.

Natalie 
Also, the client is going to see it eventually. Shouldn't you be working with them all the way through? [laughs]

Sean 
Right. To change as you go, for sure. That's just normal now, where five years ago, in government, that wasn't normal. The entire release process and the waterfall methodologies that we used were long. SSC's portion of that made it sometimes even longer and I think they're changing that now. We were doing 12-month release cycles. Well, I wasn't, but I was around teams that were. That, to me, I don't care what it is, if you've got—you can have a 12-month plan, you can't have a 12-month release cycle.

Natalie 
That means you can let a bug sit for a year.

Sean 
Yeah, and that's happened, right? And the user suffers. Maybe it's not a critical bug that doesn't stop the user from getting what they want, but if it slows them down, isn't that just as bad? I've seen that. I've seen a bug get worked out in 12 months that really, a lot of times, is a five-minute fix that would have helped, how many users?

Yeah, so the focus on users is important and that all ties in. But yeah, quick, quick iterations, MVPs, showing early, showing often, being prepared for critical feedback that you're completely in the wrong direction, is what we need to do in IT. We need to do it better and we're starting to do it better, which is good.

Natalie 
Thank you very much, Sean.

Valeria 
Great. Thank you for the great advice.

Natalie 
We do promise to send you questions in advance next time.

Sean 
That's okay.

Natalie 
Maybe. [laughs]

Well, I will. Val won't. [laughter]

Sean 
Thanks for having me.

Valeria 
Thanks.

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

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach
Natural Resources Canada

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

Sean Kibbee
Free Agent, Digital Academy
Canada School of Public Service

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