Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do not abandon the system

You may have picked up that there are aspects of certain systems that I'm not too fond of.  My adventuring is motivated by dissatisfaction with systems of public sector administration.  And my experience adventuring is feeding dissatisfaction with aspects of employment systems - mostly because of the contrast I feel with how good it is to be able to manage my own life completely.

We're all aware that these things can't be avoided altogether.  The systems are here whether we like it or not, and we need to work with them.

But how?  What sort of a philosophy can guide us when we're thinking about how to 'work with the system'?

Warning! This is a long, dense post, even by my standards.  If you don't want to tumble down the rabbit hole you should probably reconsider it now!

What to do?

Do we go our own way until we have no choice - probably because it's bitten our backside? Getting fired, long term unemployment, imprisonment, 'institutionalisation' (take your pick which one). I assume most of you will agree that's not a good option.  There are a range of people that do 'step outside the (a) system' in one way or another, and they are mostly not enviable.  Do you aspire to be an outlaw, or chronically idle?  They are particularly unenviable when you realise they are not 'outside The System' altogether, but simply shifted to an isolation cell labeled 'ostracism'.

On the other hand, you can just go with the flow - until that too spits you out, used and abused.  Midlife crises, depression, anxiety, cancer, obesity.  These are all socially sanctioned conditions - indeed, there's almost a badge of pride will some modern illness - but that doesn't make them good for you.

Sage advice

I'd like to share a couple of points of view that may help guide you and I through the Third Way.

Gordon MacKenzie's model of the Giant Hairball is particularly useful for thinking about how to be our own agent.  He was writing quite specifically about being creative within a (large) organisation.  But the metaphor is much more useful than that.  Think of the hairball as 'the system' - whichever one it is you're a wary participant in.  MacKenzie writes about how it's important not to be enmeshed in the hairball - both for your own wellbeing, and to be a valuable contributor to the system.  And he describes from his own experience about the importance of first understanding the hairball, so that when you're trying to keep a safe distance you don't accidentally float off altogether.  So from this perspective, it's important to first participate and understand, then second to work out how to give yourself just enough freedom to thrive.

Senge (et al), writing about Presence and emergence, comes to a similar conclusion from a different angle.  Senge provides really solid material on how to understand systems (where MacKenzie glosses over this completely), and also how we interact with them.  He writes about how to use systems thinking to be an informed agent, able to use the mechanisms of the system to your advantage - for instance, understanding what details can be altered to transform the system to deliver disproportionally better outcomes.  Senge talks about the influence we can have in systems more broadly in a really empowering way - not just being able to escape and work around them.  In fact, he emphasises that we are agents of the system whether we like it or not, and that we either interact consciously, or unconsciously reinforce the system.

One of the corollaries of both sets of ideas is the importance of familiarity, deep understanding - and therefore time.  While Senge makes powerful points about the possibility of collective understanding (we do not need to understand everything ourselves), systems still need to be experienced and understood for conscious interaction to be fruitful.  This takes time.  If you want to have a positive impact on a complex system, you need to stick with it.  We can't flit about from one project to the next, attempting to do everything, or trying to maintain a sense of personal challenge.  This is important for organisations to heed as much as individuals.  On one hand, an organisation develops institutional experience.  But it also needs to keep its staff for long enough - this might not mean having them perform the same job for an extended period of time, but it should try to keep them working on the same systems.

Simple examples

Hopefully I can make these ideas more concrete by looking at my own life.

If you try to live outside employment and residential systems you get stuck, often in unpredictable ways.  I have been warned - and heard stories - about how too much time unemployed can make it harder to get the job you want when you find it.  I think, for what I want to do and where I hope to be employed, that being able to tell a story of dedication and personal growth is likely to outweigh concerns about my employability.  It might not, and for others this might not be the case.  But it's a reasonable assumption.  So for me, while I'm not employed, I am 'gainfully occupied', and I'm conscious of the need to tell a story to substantiate that - and have evidence too.  I'm not abandoning the employment system completely.

Not having 'a job', or a fixed address, can also make even trivial things difficult to arrange.  I got knocked back on a mobile phone - because I was foolishly honest and identified myself as 'unemployed'.  There are also a range of things I just didn't bother trying to do when I didn't have a fixed address.  I've resolved, on the latter, that I should probably just use my parent's Sydney address until I've really settled somewhere.  (Who gets post that they want to read anyway?)  As far as 'being unemployed' goes, I still need to work something out.  Having a stable, waged job is only one option for being financially sustainable.  I could be freelancing on projects, working on startups, or getting scholarships to work on ideas.  I don't know if these are likely, but they're possible.  But they won't really tick the right boxes, particularly for things like lease applications.  It might be worthwhile inventing a vehicle of stability (e.g. my own business) to make financial sustainability fit others' expectations.  We'll see.

Running with Senge's systems' thinking - to be an agent helping to create better systems - still seems well beyond my direct experience, at least on a meaningful scale.  But this philosophy underpins why I consider public administration so important. Lots of people in the world are passionate about improving the results of our public sectors, in one way or another.  But without having a deep understanding of how the system works, we will fight an uphill battle trying to transform it.  It also helps me to take a step back from things and appreciate the views and experience of others - for instance not being too caught up in my ideas about what should happen to foster an innovation community in Adelaide, but working with others to find something that fits their understanding of the local scene.

This was supposed to be a five minute post to share how those two thinkers came together for me...  but I guess it's more important than that.  Let me know if Senge's or MacKenzie's ideas were of value to you too.

Post script: I came across a great reference just before posting, to Deleuze and Guattari's 'lines of flight'. It is a stunningly sophisticated philosophical articulation of the phenomenon of understanding the system (striated space), and exploring alternatives (smooth space) through actions of 'flight' from the known.  Also refers to the way this pioneering activity is then 'reterritorialised' into systems of activity.   See this writeup. I never got this when I was reading them myself... put your hand up if you've just remembered how much you love D&G!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Thriving: life as play

I've been drawn to a very compelling thread in a few people's philosophies over the last two weeks that I thought I should quickly share.

Life is play.

Life generates art.

Or, what we should be aiming for in social change programs is not safety from hardship, but thriving

These people have very compelling stories for looking at this very similar creative, thriving positive attribute as what we should aim for - or what things are 'for', in the absence of an independently defined purpose in the world.

What are we here for?  What is the meaning of life?

Life does not have a 'purpose', it is not 'for' something - it is play.  Sit back and enjoy the show.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Revelation: collaborate to innovate in the public sector

I've just had a revelation.

In reality, it is putting the two main parts of my life together in the most obvious combination possible.

I'm on a mission to find out how I can help make government work better.  What I'm occupying my time with is helping to foster collaborative communities to drive innovation.

Is it obvious yet?

I have been thinking about how to spin a government innovation blog out of this one - which is really just a random collection of profersonal thoughts.  I've really struggled to find accessible material on the sort of innovation I am interested in on how government works.  Innovation driven by a vision of radical transformation, that is.  There are some people doing really good work in the area (like TACSI of course, and bunch of design and innovation companies), but most of what gets shared is still very external to the hairy challenges of how to transform how government works to make these alternative approaches more mainstream - or at least less of an uphill battle.  And while I've found some good literature focusing on public administration, it tends to be more academic, less accessible, and without a vision for transformation.

So it seems like there is a gap that I can make a material contribution to.

But I asked myself this morning why.  What's the long-term rationale for doing this?  And it hit me - it's not about me providing information for all those individuals out there. It's about bringing people out of the woodwork and creating a community who are passionate about public sector transformation.

Which just happens to be exactly what I'm already contributing to with the Collaboratory Melbourne and Collaborate to Innovate in Adelaide.

Reading about the vision for the Collab was the piece of the puzzle that let me make the obvious connection.  The large-scale systemic transformation so many of us envision can't be done by any one individual or organisation alone.  This transformation will only emerge from networks of passionate individuals working together.

The greatest contribution I can make to transforming public administration is not with new theories (which we have), with passionate change projects (which are happening everywhere), or even with dazzling intra/entrepreneurial nous (which... anyway).

It's by networking the people doing these great things.

So that was my revelation.  Will it change the world or what?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

exploring visual communication

I've been keeping myself busy exploring different ways of working, including my communication skills. In particular, how I can translate my thoughts into more visual or blended forms.  Hanging around with designers has highlighted how broad the options are - and how much more persuasive and engaging different forms can be.

I have been drawing pictures to go with this blog - admittedly very rough, but they are easier than poaching stuff from online, get me practicing, and work fine to break up the text.

I have been converting my note-taking practices into more refined concept overviews.  This basically involves being clearer, and using images and visual tools more imaginatively.  These notes on Damian Kernahan's (@protopartners) presentation at Service Design 2012 are a good example. (It was a great session by the way! I look forward to being able to engage with Damian more in future.)

My handiwork has really deteriorated since being a bit of a drawer as a child - you can see I struggle with the sharpie.

I will also be exploring how I can use Prezi more - I think it suits my style which is very text-based, but also revolves around logical connections between ideas.  I tried it here to express a couple of thoughts on fostering the Adelaide innovation community.  It took a very long time (for what is essentially a copy of 5 minutes worth of hand written notes), but seems clear, and I think is a good start for presenting ideas in a professional electronic manner.

My modus operandi is still to take text-based notes and convert to different forms, but I'm interested to watch whether this changes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Learning from failure

Heading off the beaten path requires accepting a higher risk of failure.  This is just a position on risk, and a bit of guts. Fronting that failure when it happens is a different kettle of fish.

You may be aware of how I uprooted myself from a safe public sector job in Melbourne, to travel interstate and chase work with TACSI in Adelaide.  You may be aware this is going a little slower than preferred.  I probably won't have told you that my approach has failed.

I have been an Adelaide resident for around a month now.  While there has been enthusiasm and appreciation expressed for my dedication, at last notice I was still a month away from having anything meaningful to do - within TACSI at least.  In fact, I can't see anything meaningless.  Being an 'aspiring volunteer' is pretty shitty, especially with questionable certainty around timelines.  I've never tried to get inside somewhere from out in the cold before, so this is all very new, and I don't (yet) know what I'm doing.

I haven't exactly been wallowing.  I've been pretty busy getting familiar with my new city and creating a new life.  I have been making connections - locally and nationally - and dedicating time to learning, and developing my own ideas.  But all this stuff should be secondary.  Not because it is unimportant, but because it is simply 'off the critical path', in project management terms.  It can wait!

So things have been slow, they haven't gone to plan.  But on reflection, I'm not at a bad starting point.  I now have more useful connections, a life a little more settled so I can concentrate, a better sense of how things work at TACSI, and of my own direction and the value I can bring.  It has taken a few days but I've realised that 'failure' might mean going AWOL from the plan, but as long as I can reset my path along a new plan things won't be too bad after all.  And I'm learning about how (not) to rock up somewhere and offer to get involved.

So I have a new approach to try, a slightly new tack.  It's nothing fancy - just being proactive, and going out on a limb in terms of identifying ways that I can be of value.  'Selling myself' (for free!). The idea is basically to offer to be a 'resident [way of thinking]', lining up a general area of need for TACSI with my own skills.  Something like strategist, conceiver, analyst... one of the things I have proven I can do quite well in all sorts of contexts, but don't really know how to describe as a skill.

I don't know whether it will work - I know it won't go as intended.  But I'm much more positive about how I'll be able to learn from this, no matter how it goes.  It will be difficult, but I have a feeling it will be fun.  I'll let you know!