Tuesday, March 1, 2011

in search of the right question

So, last week I was at a presentation by a highly respected former public servant, and he was musing about the state of leadership in our public service. And he commented that we had become a blander group of people, and in particular, that we were losing our policy "touch".  We have become homogeneous, safe, risk-averse.  He was at pains to say that this was not griping about the golden days of yore, but rather an observation based on the work he does these days with public servants.  He said that we no longer tolerate the "wacky, creative types".

And I wondered, is this true?  Who did he mean by wacky and creative?  Does this refer to the prickly, brilliant men of 20 years ago?  Was there indeed a golden age of policy? Is wacky code for someone who screams at colleagues? at subordinates?  Are we really suffering from a lack of creativity? I have mixed feelings on this one.  On the one hand, I do observe in some instances a lack of policy capacity....I fear this is particularly true in the HR area, where many good people have been trained to think of themselves as doers and implementers of rules.  On the other hand, I have been fortunate to work with people with remarkable policy minds, nimble and creative, inventive and forward-looking.  And I think that it is harder to do policy now, because everything is interconnected and, therefore, linear or cartesian thinking doesn't necessarily get you where you need to go.  Now, you need to be able to think in terms of networks, systems and connections...the image that comes to my mind is of a neural network.

And it got me to thinking....how can I create an environment for my staff and my colleagues that will enable this kind of thinking?  What can I say and do?  I believe profoundly that there is room and there is a desire and there is a need in the public service for innovation and creativity.  And we need to be mindful and always on our toes to avoid the easy slip into complacency, or worse, thinking that as leaders it is up to us to have all the answers.  It is not easy. We work in a culture that expects people to come equipped with the answers....in which "i don't know" is perceived as weakness....so how to balance the legitimate need to get things done in a timely fashion, with room for the reflection that leads to inspiration?