Today’s awkward is tomorrow’s cool


Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

In this disruptive era, it’s as if all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away. It seems that the adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even. But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change? Yes, but they have to work at it. There is an interesting article from the British Psychological Society about malleable personalities. The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be. This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age. Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting. I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity. He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change. Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline. Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes even longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression. The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and anxiety over a nine-month period. The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents. The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change. Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization. Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing. Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it. Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people. Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle. Put down the smartphone and start reading. Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest. Because tomorrow is another person.

[The above is a modified repost of an article from December 27, 2017]

Life hacks will not save your soul

Texting, by Alexandra Zakharova

Do you feel put-upon to stay productive at work, and at home, and in friendships? It’s exhausting when you think about it. Everywhere you look there is a new tip to make your relationships super authentic, to make your career deeply meaningful, and for your morning routine to run like a seamless assembly line. If you feel boxed-in by unreasonable, self-imposed expectations, you are not alone. That is because we are universally immersed in values that are the rational extension of the passing whims of merchants.

Bourgeois Values and the Bourgeois Era

In an article in Quartz entitled Life hacks are part of a 200-year-old movement to destroy your humanity, Andrew Taggart puts our current middle-class lives into an historical context. There is constant speculation that we’re entering a different historic era. If we look at how we entered our current era we might learn how we will move onward.

Taggart cites economic historian Diedre McCloskey who describes the present as the “Bourgeois Era.” The Bourgeois Era was created 200 years ago when the industrial revolution took hold, merchants bloomed, and those merchants promptly overpowered aristocrats and religious leaders. Your ancestors were controlled by lord and cleric, but you have broken these chains and are now controlled by your boss, your clients, and advertisers. There has been progression, but you are not entirely free.

You are not free because your thinking is enveloped by prevailing values. I would note this is something that typically happens under hegemony: not only does the economic and political dominance of the elite control your life, but the values of the elite permeate the thinking of those under their sway. Long ago, aristocrats cherished the values of honour, leisureliness, and pride. Christian peasants valued charity and reverence. These are rare values today, to the point where you almost have to look them up.

When the Bourgeois Era came along, it came with “the bourgeois virtues of prudence, temperance, trustworthiness, and pride in fair dealing.” We now look up to visionary entrepreneurs who embody these values, abandoning wars of aristocratic honour, or the self-flagellation required to seek salvation. And the new(ish) bourgeois values bring their own problems, creating diseases of the soul and existential heartbreak. When you email that final-final draft at 3 p.m. on a Friday and imagine the weekend ahead of you, is your life truly more complete than those who have confessed their sins?

What Happens to Old Values When We Make Progress?

Taggart does not entirely suggest that we go back to the older values. The way I think of it is, there are places on this earth where the biggest problem is inadequate plumbing. If those regions achieved adequate plumbing that would be great, however, it would be foolish for them to continue to obsess about plumbing as their highest goal. You’re supposed to move on. Perhaps their next goals would be fair elections, clear title on land ownership, and universal K-12 education. And after that, their goals might be togetherness of communities, greater self-expression, and nicer clothing. But when the community comes together you don’t abandon plumbing. Rather, it fades into the background as important-yet-forgettable.

As such, we may hold onto a variant of aristocratic honour when we defend our prestige in the workplace. And we may still be advancing the Christian-peasant virtue of charity when we support social change movements by contributing time, money, or simply our voices. But we remain completely shackled to the bourgeois values of temperance and prudence when we count our calories, declutter our wardrobes, and try to get a better telco package. You cannot go home from work and adopt the aristocratic value of leisureliness because temperance and prudence have penetrated our homes. Look busy!

I don’t think the solution is to seek the opposite of bourgeois dominance. I get triggered by the word bourgeois because of my past exposure to the labour movement. I’ll always be in remission from polarizing Marxist patter. I always get that I-know-where-this-is-going feeling. If I allow tomorrow’s next Lenin to keep talking I’m going to have to eat rice and beans at a banquet hall where I am sucked into a bottomless pit of volunteerism and bad taste. But it’s not just the left who can lead you astray. You also can’t let clerics and aristocrats join in on the bourgeois-bashing, as they don’t even want you to have plumbing.

The mainstream has done an exceptional job at offering meaningful careers to those who are intelligent and hard-working. There used to be a crowd of people who were alienated from the mainstream, some of whom were intelligent leadership-types who could create a meaningful rebel resistance. But now that corporations are adopting corporate social responsibility, advancing transformational leadership styles, and increasingly promoting a diverse population into the professions and leadership, there’s not as much appeal to heckling from the margins. Who is going to lead the resistance? Not always the best people. Fifteen per cent of the population has a personality disorder, but in political crowds (on either side of the fence) it seems more like one-half. The negation of the current dominant class might not be a viable path forward.

What Values Will Take Us Forward?

If I were to name the cherished values of our next era, I would go with humility, introspection, and empathy. The reason why is that the data keeps revealing cognitive fallacies and implicit bias that make it clear that our brains only have the power of a 40-watt light bulb. In order to do well, we have to get over ourselves and ask us why we think the things we think. And this is done best by looking at the evidence and working with a team. We need to figure ourselves out while we help others do the same. This task is impossible if you think you have everything figured out, so humility is your first task.

As artificial intelligence and robots take over the productivity race, those who pull ahead will do something human that artificial intelligence just can’t do. This kind of holistic thinking is deeply incompatible with the conformity and profit-maximizing focus of the promotable class of agreeable bourgeois leaders. Instead, the new leaders are those who look inside of themselves, build their story, and enmesh their own story with those of others. It’s not something that can be written by a public relations professional or a ghostwriter. You must become yourself, make it real, and show up as authentically human.

There’s no eye contact with any app anywhere that will give you a sense that your humanity resonates with your colleagues, friends, and family. Rather, you start with that which is human and tell the market and the technology what is required.

So when you get home on Friday and look at those dishes that need loading, try going deep on why you care. Are you allowed to do nothing? Is the person who loads the dishwasher committing a benevolent act? Or are you, in all honesty, trying to keep everything running smoothly? If you meditate long enough, you might just decide that it’s really about the ick factor. Then you’re in the future.

How to repurpose leftover turkey and leftover code

Turkey
Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

As Christmas winds to an end, several households are struggling with a conundrum. What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass. It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers. I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left but bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management. It’s so well-seasoned you don’t need to add any vegetables.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else, in a season when there’s some time to catch up with friends or wrap up loose ends.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, it’s worthwhile to be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if people change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a limited number of high-ranking people, so those people knew about breaking events before their subordinates and would know what to say.  With our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What our client needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose a small number of rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one senior executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside the promotions query to be boiled down to create a new, skillfully-repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.

[This is a re-post, with edits, of an article from October 10, 2017]

Be skeptical about predictions of the future workforce

Happy Elsie. Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

How much do we need to think about future job disruption and how it will affect our careers and the lives of our children? Somewhat, but don’t worry about it. There’s a cottage industry of hype and hysteria that grabs your attention and offer foolish solutions that are unrelated to the facts.

The BBC has a great audio article debunking the myth that 65% of future jobs have not yet been invented. Like the good journalists they are, the BBC looked into this “65% of future jobs” statistic and traced it back to the source. They found two authors citing a report that does not exist, at an institute which is reported to have been disbanded, in a jurisdiction (Australia) that doesn’t even recall an institute by that name ever existed. The BBC credits this discovery to blogger Andrew Old who critiques misleading statistics in the education field.

The BBC tried to re-create the 65% figure looking backwards.  Sometimes looking backwards at hard data produces better information than speculative forward-looking estimates. They found that one-third of jobs that exist today didn’t exist a decade ago. That one-third figure includes newly-created jobs where the role had existed somewhere in the labour market but not that position in that particular workplace.

An example would be new teaching jobs created because of population growth; it’s a pre-existing type of job that you could plan your career around, but the positions didn’t exist previously. Job growth allows us to move up in the world, change jurisdictions, sell goods and services to the newly-employed, and engage new labour market entrants coming from graduation, immigration, and returning to work after a break. From this perspective, it’s a very good thing that a large fraction of current jobs didn’t exist a decade prior. I hope this continues.

What Credible Sources Say About Job Disruption

Even still, there may be potential disruptions arising from automation, globalization, and demographic shifts. In an earlier post, I reviewed a McKinsey report that noted 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology. However, 800 million is the maximum range of their forecast, and the mid-point is 400 million jobs. The time period is 12 years, so the forecast is 33 million jobs lost per year globally – small for a planet of 7.6 billion inhabitants.

Of the 400 million jobs affected only 75 million will be eliminated altogether, and the rest will have parts of their work eliminated. For many of the roles that have parts of their work eliminated, workers might become a “bot boss” of a new technology that causes people to be more productive, more valued, and experience greater job security.

In another post I reviewed a paper from the World Economic Forum about forecast job losses relative to forecast new opportunities. There is an abundance of opportunity for people to port their skills from a lost job to a new job. On average, we’re going to be okay.

To clarify, when these reports are created they say one thing, but the headlines exaggerate the findings and sell eyeballs to advertisers. Congratulations, the product is you. But wouldn’t you rather become the protagonist in this outrageous game?

How To Take Advantage of Future Work Opportunities

How do you get one of those great new jobs where you leverage the new technology? At the Young Employers’ Council at Inc.com, a helpful article advises people on How to Prepare for a Career That Does Not Exist. In brief, they assert four takeaways:

  • Develop a broad-based skill set
  • Build a large and robust network
  • Excel at whatever you are doing
  • Stay on top of the news and trends

You need to a broad-based skill set to adapt your way into anything new. When a novel challenge presents itself, it is common that there is not an existing skill to deal with it, so newcomers bring skills from their prior profession. I experienced this myself when I entered workforce analytics, bringing in two decades of experience from the compensation and labour economics fields. In addition to tools for modelling in Excel, I knew a few things about consulting, office politics, and human rights in the workplace, all applicable to the new role. By contrast, I have colleagues who bring insights from industrial psychology, mathematics, and engineering. The mixture keeps it alive, people covering each other’s blind spots. The ability to adapt your skills while working through a series of specializations can really set you up for the future.

But you also need to leverage your core education. Broad-based skill includes creating a hybrid of book learning and applied practical smarts. In a Fast Company article referencing undergraduate internships at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, they emphasize the development of “adjacent” skills that blur the line between classroom and workplace:

“Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s more important to focus on experiential learning… ‘We cannot teach skills we don’t know exist yet,’ she says. ‘We need a different strategy and make sure they’re becoming lifelong learners,’ she says. [She cites a study finding] that experiential learning reinforces theoretical concepts and leads to superior performance.”

In some postsecondary institutions, the new goal is not to prepare students for their first job, it’s to prepare them from a series of jobs in a string of wins-and-losses, on the presumption that there will be plenty of disruption in the future. This scenario requires an agile mindset, high social intelligence, and a personal history of changing context and perspective. There is a call for employers to develop this new mindset as well, but from a top-down perspective, suggesting that employees quitting for better opportunities is a good sign of a dynamic workplace and that employers should empower themselves to keep tabs on former employees as a valued resource over the longer-term.

Back to the Inc article, I think the habit of excelling at whatever you do is vital because employers see the act of excelling as a stand-alone attribute. If there is a brand-new skill area and the employer wants their organization to become excellent at this skill, they may have no opportunity to find someone who already has the skill, let alone have excellence in it. But they can find someone who had recently become excellent at something adjacent. The spirit of excellence is a superpower that can be applied to the new and unknown.

Critical Analysis of the News is More Important Than Ever

The Inc article’s comment on staying on top of the news is the most thought-provoking. My undergraduate degree is in arts, and I find that arts majors can out-perform others shortly after a major change. We know things have changed in the past, and will do so in future, and that some fads are fleeting while human nature persists. And if you don’t have an arts degree, following the news for a few years can give you a really good proxy for this mindset.

Let’s get back to that dubious figure that 65% of future jobs don’t currently exist. The original source was Dr. Cathy Davidson, founding director of The Futures Initiative at NYC University. She says in another interview she stopped using the 65% figure in 2012. In the BBC interview, when pressed on her figures she doubles-down and says that 100% of jobs have been disrupted by technology. But in my former life in compensation, many jobs – particularly in the trades and service sectors – still have accurate job descriptions from the 1970s. 

Then Davidson asserts that the one thing that has not changed is our education system. But I follow the K-12 sector and over the last few decades have seen a number of impressive changes that are grounded in robust research. My three favourites are the boom in early interventions for special needs children, improved vigilance on preventing bullying, the sophisticated and nuanced use of technology in the classroom, and the shift to experiential learning built around the student’s intrinsic motivation.

Sorry, that was four favourites. You caught that, right? If you didn’t, you need to learn how.

Payroll systems are the Russian winter of corporate strategy

2016 USARAK Winter Games, by U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)
2016 USARAK Winter Games.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Alaska.

Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed?  It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely.  Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests.  How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?

In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco.  Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals.  Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background.  The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made.  All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades.  What could possibly go wrong?

But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal.  Have you ever talked to a payroll person?  These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory.  They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves.  Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?

Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter

I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.

There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army.  It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute.  It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.

With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key.  Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment.  Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.”  Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy.  For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice.  Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.

The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier.  Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted.  This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework.  For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.

Also, defense has the advantage.  Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire.  Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust.  Those who stay-put are more likely to win.

There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference.  Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.

The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership

Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset.  With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn.  There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants.  Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons.  Particularly if they lost.

…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]

These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence.  We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego.  Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage.  But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically.  If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle.  Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect.  And that spells trouble.

Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff.  The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked.  Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.

A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape.  You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.

Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside.  Who wants to go outside and play?  Not me.  I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.

Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

Exed Formation continue à l'Ecole polytechnique. By Ecole polytechnique
Exed Formation continue à l’Ecole polytechnique. Photo courtesy of Ecole polytechnique.

What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors?  It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top.  But it’s an important question to ask.

In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start.  According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker.  Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance.  Let’s take a closer look.

The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre

The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in.  But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization.  The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell.  Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.

Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity.  A lot of staff were new.  Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride.  It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier.  But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed.  Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files.  After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.

This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor.  This gap played out on the grand scale.

…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress.  …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]

Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder

If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre.  Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build.  As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.

But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems.  The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground.  It’s a “no complaining” mindset.  And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.

Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important

The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes.  The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance…  that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.”  There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives.  Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives.  So, watch what you say…

The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command.  The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister.  There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people.  Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along.  Or not.

The Fake Consultation Meeting

In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions.  However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow.  The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented.  Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”.  But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved.  Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays.  They were going ahead.

The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over.  That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.

As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]

All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software.  In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.

Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts

It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going.  And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people.  Why do leaders do this to themselves?  I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy.  And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work.  But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.

It’s like reverse-provincialism.  Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals.  But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth?  What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field?  What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.

I know what we should do with these people.  We should teach them.