Seek culture is critical for using data well

Two of the biggest shifts that have come from technology in the last 10 years are:

  • It used to be hard to share information widely and now it’s easy
  • It used to be hard to communicate back and forth with lots of people and now it’s easy

These shifts change how we can organise ourselves, who we can listen to, and how we can make decisions. They also change expectations for information sharing – now information can be shared more easily there is more focus on what should be shared, who has the right to see it, and who has the right to use it.

Data is talked about a lot. Every organisation seems to be trying to figure out how data fits into their world. Many assume data is the new gold, but don’t really know how to use it.

Imagine being together

A submission to Hawke’s Bay Today regarding the proposed amalgamation

Imagine sitting down in the sun with pen and paper in hand in 2025, just ten years from now, and writing a description of Hawke’s Bay. What it looks like as you drive through it, the kinds of job choices people have, the kinds of lifestyle choices people have, and what the community spirit and safety is like.

Actually imagine. It’s yours to shape, after all.

My guess is it’s a bit different from how you would describe it today. And I think the first step in getting from here to there, is being together.

I hate the word amalgamation. It sounds clinical and at a distance from value and from people. What you are being asked to consider now isn’t clinical and distanced - it’s a choice about people and about the place you live in.

It is about a group of people having the opportunity to choose to be together, and to choose to be better, together. Given the difficult things that need to be managed through the process, and that it is unlikely to suddenly make things more efficient and cheaper, the only reason I can see that you would chose to be together is if you believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That happens when all the parts working together result in something far greater than would be possible by adding individual efforts together. Like pieces of an orchestra coming together. It certainly doesn’t mean everyone plays the same instrument, but it does mean everyone knows their part and is playing to the same piece of music to make something extraordinary.

Similarly, Hawke’s Bay choosing to be together doesn’t mean the parts become the same. To the contrary, it means all the special pieces can be recognised and brought together in a way that acknowledges and showcases their unique offering. Every part of the region has its own unique character to contribute to the whole, and each of them can be brought in, individual notes to harmonise together.

But it’s not possible to make music without the pieces working together. And Hawke’s Bay is not working well together, yet.

Although only one way to look at things, I like starting with the figures. New Zealand has 16 regions, with Hawke’s Bay making up 3.6% of the total population with about 150,000 people. 3.6% is relatively small, but my word Hawke’s Bay is a stunner. It is a treasure trove of natural beauty and bounty, and human endeavour.

The region is placed 13th of the 16 regions for Gross Domestic Product per person, meaning average incomes are lower in Hawke’s Bay than in most of the other regions. Ten years ago it was 8th. Money isn’t the only important measure by a long shot, but it does underpin a lot of important things. Whilst Hawke’s Bay continues to increase its GDP, it is moving slower than the national average. This is a pattern that we have the power to address, and I believe that it is best addressed by working together, by pooling ideas and resources.

A cohesive view of the region would allow us to better identify issues and opportunities and attract ideas and initiatives, both international and domestic, to the region. For example, a regional administration could allow an overview of all the jobs in the region, allowing an understanding of what gaps there are so as to decide what to focus on, ensure the right people are being trained for the right thing, and attract the experts that are needed.

If the region unites, I too am concerned about what happens next. I’m concerned about who leads it, how brave they will be and how much they are willing to truly listen and work together with others. But that is a secondary problem, and one that together - we can solve.

Hawke’s Bay is a wonderful and special place. But is it the best it can be?

Dare dream what would be possible if we worked together with one another. Keep the unique character of each community, build upon each one’s strengths, and work together to solve weaknesses.

Imagine what can be done, together.

Note: There are many things I don’t know about Hawke’s Bay as it is today; I don’t currently live in this precious region. But I grew up here and all of my family live in Hawke’s Bay, and so it reserves a very special place in my heart. One of the things I have come to value over the years, and especially as CEO of Figure.NZ, is getting input from many perspectives before making a decision, so it is with that thought along with my care for the region in mind that I share my thoughts on the proposal to bring Hawke’s Bay together.

Introducing: Data Counsel

This is a guest post from Aaron Schiff, who I recently appointed as Data Counsel at Figure.NZ. Here he explains what’s behind the title…

“I’m really excited to be appointed as Data Counsel at Figure.NZ (formerly Wiki New Zealand), and I could be your Data Counsel too. What’s a Data Counsel? I’ll explain, but first…

Figure.NZ is on a mission to democratise data by making it usable by everyone. There’s tons of fascinating public data out there, but for the most part it’s trapped in obstinate spreadsheets and clunky web tools. Figure.NZ has built some really cool software called Grace that liberates this data and turns it into friendly charts and tables, and also serves it up via an API. One of the super-talented developers, Nigel McNie, explains a bit more about Grace here.

This is really important because data only creates value when it is used. Before Figure.NZ, using New Zealand’s public data required a lot of specialised skills and knowledge. Now all you need is curiosity. This means that vastly more people will be able to use data and generate value from it.

So what is a Data Counsel? Lillian Grace, Figure.NZ’s Founder and CEO, created this term for me. It is inspired by legal counsel, who advise, solve problems, and dispense general wisdom. This is essentially what I’ll be doing for Figure.NZ, its clients and its users but obviously in relation to data instead of law. You can have your own Data Counsel too — I’m still available for hire and consulting work directly.

As well as data publishing, Figure.NZ often gets asked by companies, government, individuals, industry groups, and others for advice on how to think about or use data, and sometimes this is internal or private data that falls outside Figure.NZ’s main focus. Sometimes the guidance can be easily and freely given, sometimes it turns into a project that sees more data published on Figure.NZ, and sometimes it requires really specialised work. I’ll be helping with all of these things.

Always ahead of the curve, Lillian also recently appointed a Chief Data Officer, Andrea Carboni. The first sentence Lillian usually says about Andrea is “He’s changed my life!”. Andrea heads up all Figure.NZ’s data work full-time, guides the data team, and makes sure everything that’s published is accurate and adheres to the Figure.NZ graph usability standards. I expect we’ll be seeing lots of other organisations sprouting Chief Data Officers and engaging Data Counsel in short order.

I’m super excited and grateful to be able to help such a talented group of people who are doing important and valuable work. We have some great things coming soon, so stay tuned!”

Put your paddle in the air

I went surfing in Maui today and caught a few really nice rides. I also had an experience that has given me clarity over how I approach things, and how I want to be treated as a CEO.

As a big wave was looming, the guy I was out with said ‘just push your board behind you and dive under this one’. So I did. The strength of the wave snapped the leg-rope cord, and I felt the board release from me. I came up to the surface behind the wave and the guy asked me ‘can you swim?’ as he went to retrieve my board, and I replied ‘yip’, and as I saw him paddle off after it, and also saw the set of waves coming towards me, yelled ‘but I don’t want to be left alone’. I still had my paddle with me, and held on to it as I dove under the next few waves, surfacing for a decent amount of breath between each. And then I realised - I can see waves on either side of me, I’m feeling some rushes of adrenaline and a little anxiety from being in this situation, and I can’t see anyone. And I thought - I do not feel like I am probably going to drown, but I feel like this is the start of a situation that could eventuate in that. So I put my paddle up vertically in the air and waved it. When the guy paddled over to me I said explicitly ‘I feel really anxious right now’, and we proceeded to get on his board together and head towards shore, where on the way a couple of other surfers paddled out with my board to hand it over and said nice reassuring things as they did.

None of this was that dramatic, I’m guessing no one else will really think about it again.

But as I was recounting the experience to a friend this evening, I realised that the way I acted is the exact same way as I act in business, and it’s the way I expect my team to act with me.

I call it ‘managing up’. As a CEO, I have to make a lot of decisions every day, some of them tiny, some of them carrying a lot of weight. The most valuable thing my team can do for me, is to surface issues/concerns/opportunities as soon as possible.

When I held my paddle in the air I thought - I’m not about to die, but ‘I would like help’. And then I found it fascinating that in the back of my mind I felt a bit guilty, like I shouldn’t be asking for help unless it was absolutely critical - and then I quickly realised, but that’s now how I like to be treated. Asking for help isn’t what you should do when you’re desperate, it’s literally when you would like help. I dearly appreciate it when someone surfaces an inkling of a concern in time for me to deal with it.

If you think of a graph of a company’s performance, showing a proposed line leading to success and a line leading to failure (of whatever measure you find most valuable), you don’t want someone to raise the flag 1mm before failure. The attribute you would most value, is someone’s ability to call it when you are 1mm below the line of success, at the very beginning of the divergence.

A few months ago I had a board meeting. At the start of it I said to my board - "I’m worried about money and I need your help". We proceeded to write down all the opportunities on the table, the likelihood and the other paths we could chase in different scenarios, and we got on the same page regarding what we would do if different looming opportunities went away etc. As it turns out, all of the things on the table closed, and the result was a solid and positive outcome. But that’s not the point. The moment I felt discomfort, and an inability to be ‘sure’ we would nail what we set out to do, I raised it. I didn’t wait ’til my last breath to raise my paddle. I did it as soon as I realised the outcome was no longer certain. I didn’t for a moment worry about being embarrassed that I needed help.

The result is that those with their hands on the levers are immediately able to act and respond, and to help create settings that will lead to success.

It took me a long time to really understand what ‘managing up’ meant. I remember in a previous role, my employer would talk to me about it, and I would try, but it was a long time before I ‘really’ understood the essence. It’s hard because of the layers of doubt and fear we have around being judged for failures. By our thoughts of ‘even though this isn’t going well, it’s so minor I can probably turn it around on my own and no one will know’, without realising that asking for help, even just surfacing our thoughts that things aren’t going as well as they could, is what makes all the difference between succeeding and failing.

I felt a bit embarrassed to wave my paddle in the air today, but I’m damn glad I did.

We should work together

A speech to public sector CEs and DCEs at the New Zealand State Services Commission Executive Leadership Summit.

“In the past year I have met with about 200 people from the public sector. And every single one of them has seemed passionate and smart, and has been a real pleasure to deal with. And that has been really surprising to me, and really surprising to others in both the private sector and the general public when I talk to them about my experiences.

But it shouldn’t be, right? It shouldn’t be surprising. We should know how dedicated and caring you are, we should know you better. So why don’t we? Why is there such a strong separation between sectors when we’re generally working towards the same goals?

When I reflected on what we need for leadership in the future, I wanted to talk to you about being fearless and how I’ve learnt to tear down the imaginary walls between all of us - both within and between sectors, and how much easier it is to operate when you don’t put people, including yourself, into a box.

And I wanted to tell you to be brave and bold, and to talk to you about how we need to take some risks to do some really great things.

But then I got really stuck and confused in my thinking. Because the more I thought about it, the more I realised I couldn’t see how you, leaders in the public sector, are even allowed to win.

I don’t know of any examples of public sector leaders who have been publicly appreciated, thanked, and recognised for knocking it out of the park for New Zealand. And I also know that is not because it hasn’t happened - just look at the special country we live in and what has shaped it.

The environment that you lead in seems very different from leading in the private sector, where the support and appreciation you get is ongoing, where your wins actually result in you being even more armed with resources and platforms to win from. And whilst that’s not the reason to do anything, it really does make a difference. And I think we could be better at showing that appreciation and support of you.

So thank you, from me. I see what you do. I see how hard your teams work. I see how many directions you are pulled in and the different people you have to please. And I see that you are dedicating your most valuable asset, your time, to making New Zealand the best it can be.

We are all extremely fortunate to call New Zealand home, and as I said in the opening sentiments of my TEDxAuckland talk:

We have everything we need to be a country that is cohesive, wealthy, filled with smart, healthy people enjoying a variety of lifestyles in a gorgeous environment.

We have everything we need to be a country that is fragmented and poor, filled with uneducated and unhealthy people who struggle every day and are surrounded by a damaged environment.

It’s in our hands, all of ours, to shape the future.

Instead of arguing over where we currently are, if we are performing well or poorly as a nation, and who is to blame for anything, I think the question really is:

Could we be even better?

To me, the answer is ‘heck yes’. I’m excited about what we can do. I think we really do have everything we need, and that the only limitations we have are those we impose on our own thinking and actions.

So there are two big principles that we can embed to shape the best future possible:

  1. Arm every person with information they need to make informed decisions

  2. Establish an environment where every person feels safe to innovate and try ideas

And when I say every person, I mean every person.

They sound really simple and obvious principles. In discussions to date I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t think they are really valuable. But when you step back and think about it - we don’t actually have either of those, very few people are really armed with the information they need to make informed decisions, and very few people feel really safe and able to throw ideas out there and give things a go.

So the question I then ask myself is - is there anything insurmountable in the path to operating by those principles? and I haven’t been able to think of anything. By no means do I think they are easy things to implement, but I certainly think they’re worth the effort.

We need really good leadership to understand and implement these principles, but it requires a different style of leadership than what we are used to.

And I’m not just talking to you as leaders of the public sector, this type of leadership shift is required from all those who have their hands on levers to change things, to change the environment people operate in. But it does include you.

When the flow of information was far more contained, part of a leader’s job was to disseminate and share information. But we are now in an environment where expectations for individuals to be able to access information on their own, without it going through intermediaries is far higher. We don’t accept that one person can be the portal to both the questions and the answer for us. We expect to participate and to be privy to the information and thinking that leads to decisions, and we expect to be involved in them. This type of thinking and expectation isn’t everywhere yet, but it is becoming the norm as we have new ways of sharing information.

Leadership then becomes a lot more about creating the best settings - about asking the right questions, asking the right people those questions, about creating the right mechanisms for information flow and decision-making, and about really working with people.

Yes, of course, we still like to feel inspired by our leaders, but that’s no longer from them telling us what to think, it’s from when they unlock something within us that enables us to realise more of our own potential, and to know that if they are doing that on a grand scale, the benefits will be great.

So here are some thoughts on how we can think about the two principles I am proposing, and why they are important to how we lead:

To the first principle: Arm every person with information they need to make informed decisions

It is cheap and easy to disseminate information now. So we need to make sure the information people have is the right and relevant information, and that they know how to think about it. Part of that is data that can inform thinking. Data is not something that has been widely accessible before, but it is what we are solving with Wiki New Zealand and I hope to work with each of you to do that. But there are many other types of information that people need in their thinking. And I’m certainly not just talking about information the public sector can share with the private sector and the general public, I’m talking about everyone - the private sector likely has information you could benefit from, and I suspect within this room you all have information and experiences that would be really valuable to share with each other, and with private sector leaders.

If we all become more conscious about the information that we have, the information we have access to, and are aware of, and if we ask the questions - who else could benefit from this? and, how can I get it to them? I think we would make a giant impact on the information people have as they make decisions.

Arming people with information is not about spending years designing and creating one giant place and system, it’s about everyone individually, or in their teams, today, and tomorrow, being more conscious as they operate. Thinking - What am I seeing and learning? What do I know exists? And what mechanisms are there for me to share this more widely? It’s about feeling a sense of responsibility to disseminate information to others. You, we, may be holding on to information we assume everyone knows, information that could dramatically shift how people think and the decisions they make.

And the second principle: Establish an environment where every person feels safe to innovate and try ideas

I think this is extraordinarily important and absolutely underpins our ability to evolve and move forward.

When I step back and think about how we all operate throughout life, very few people feel truly safe to innovate and try ideas, to share things and to work together. I talk about this with people a lot. It astounds me how many people simply feel they can’t or aren’t allowed to.

The term ‘innovation’ gets bandied about a lot, but all it is, is coming up with something ‘that is more effective than what already exists’, it’s not just something seen at the heart of a software company, it’s an approach to life, it’s about trying new things, it could be just suggesting a more efficient way of running a meeting. Innovation is an ongoing process of improvement, adaptation and iteration, and it really requires individuals to feel they can speak up and blurt out ideas. Some of the best ideas I have been involved in have come from building on thoughts and insights from many people, and if anyone had not felt free to share, the whole outcome would have been stifled. That has absolutely been the case with the way Wiki New Zealand has been shaped.

Every one of us has the ability to be innovative, it’s usually fear that holds us back. It’s important to remember that we are sometimes responsible for creating that fear.

We need to feel safe working together. And we need to know how to engage. And this is absolutely not the case now.

Often the public sector is referred to as being very siloed between agencies, and it is, but it is not alone! It is everywhere - within agencies, between companies, between academics, between the public and private sectors - there is so much fear around operating together. I work across all those areas, and I see it all the time. There are imaginary walls built up all over the place, and people do not know how to cross them.

The result is a great lack of understanding about others’ roles, and the hats they wear. What I see especially, is when the public sector try and do something and it doesn’t go wonderfully, the media, private sector and general public just start throwing stones, and all that does is require higher walls to be built, walls that are risk averse and require more hoops to be jumped through and signed off before movements are made.

It results in all of the things that stifle innovation and don’t allow ideas to be trialed fast and where necessary, failed fast. We should not be designing our strategies for risk. We should be designing our strategies for the optimal outcome, and then managing the risk involved.

Then when I look at the private sector, and the people I know there also are wonderful, and they work hard, and a lot of them have solutions our country could benefit from and they want to share what they’re doing with New Zealand. But they don’t know how, it feels too hard and opaque - some of them ask me - how do you work with Government? Who do you talk to? How does it all start? And their perceptions are dramatically different from reality, simple things like - they have no idea you have big existing streams of work that you’re executing and can’t just jump on a new idea. It’s not because they’re don’t care, they just don’t know.

We are all accountable for the environments we create for others, and how safe they feel, and I believe we would all do well to remember that.

I wonder, if you feel safe to innovate and try things. I wonder if your teams do. I wonder how we get a public sector that feels relaxed about collaborating with their private sector peers.

What would happen if every person asked themselves at every turn - am I creating an environment where every person feels safe to innovate and try ideas?

I think there are two main areas of questions to address:

The first, is: What can you do? What can you do to make your team feel safe to innovate and share ideas? What can you do for those in the private sector so they feel safe and enabled to talk and share with you? What can you do for the general public so they are on the journey with you? And what can you do for your ministers so they can feel free to let you fly?

And the second is: What do you need? These two principles aren’t just for others, they’re what all of us need. And sometimes, we need to define what we need and ask for it, to get it. What do you need from the private sector to be able to better work together? What do you need from the general public to feel safe to try things? What do you need from your team to be able to trust them to operate with freedom? And what do you need from your ministers to feel supported to innovate and try ideas?

So this is me, extending a hand, to you. I will work with you to help further increase my own understanding and yours, I will work with you to help break down the imaginary walls between sectors, and I will share with you everything I know."