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."