Blog Series — Reflections about Canada’s Free Agents — Part 1

Author’s Note: This is part one of a series of reflections I’m writing about as I approach my three year anniversary working on Canada’s Free Agents. Read the rest of the series here: Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5.

On October 1, 2018, it will have been three years since I joined Natural Resources Canada’s IN-spire Innovation Hub to design and launch a program that would envision a new model for talent mobility in the Government of Canada. And so leading into this personal milestone, I’ve decided to share some public reflections about my experience working on this project.

I feel compelled to say this up front (and I’ve said this before) — I’m not much of a storyteller or writer. It’s not that I don’t like talking about what I’m doing; it’s just that I prefer to do things. I’d rather be experimenting with new program design elements than giving presentations about the benefits of autonomy and mobility. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I don’t internalize success very well (more on that topic later). I rarely acknowledge accomplishments with myself and so, similarly, I rarely feel the need to talk about what I do with others.

So why am I writing this then? Well, frankly, because everything in the previous paragraph is kind of a BS way to approach work these days. We can’t work in isolation anymore. It’s simply no longer acceptable. The public service’s paper thin walls are rapidly deteriorating and it’s about time. And while I’m not super interested in writing about my work, I’m much less interested in hiding it. So here I am.

Add to this the fact that Canada’s Free Agents has started to receive a lot of attention lately. This past year, we were nominated for an award by the OECD in Paris, invited to the World Government Summit in Dubai, featured in the OECD’s 2018 Global Trends in innovation, and have been approached by various provincial and international governments with interest in adopting our model. And so with this attention I’ve noticed I get a lot of people asking about what we learned along the way. What worked, what didn’t work, what were the challenges, major obstacles, etc. Great questions with (no doubt) great answers. But I feel like I don’t have my story straight. So this is partly about being open and partly about gathering my thoughts in a place where I can share them with people who ask for them.

So what I’ve (gently) committed to doing is writing a few reflections down each week until my three-year anniversary on October 1. The premise here is that I’ve experienced some things, learned some things, gained some insight into things, and felt some things that other people might find useful to hear about. If you think that’s plausible, read on.

Reflection # 1 — People are everything

In speaking to people about change or transformation or innovation, I’ve heard a lot about the need to change rules, upgrade technology, fix broken culture and streamline processes. I rarely hear talk about transforming our people. Probably because at first blush that sounds kind of weird. How do you transform a person? It sounds odd.

I think we often forget the simple fact that organizations are made up of the people who work in them. Rules, processes, directives, policies — they’re created, maintained, obeyed, and broken by people. I’m guilty of blurring over this too. Sometimes when I think about this or that organization, I picture things like buildings, office spaces, or websites. I don’t always imagine the people doing the work. I wonder if there’s a disconnect here between how organizations function and who makes them function that way. But regardless of how we might perceive the relationship between people and process, it’s silly to imagine them existing independently in an organization.

And so one thing I don’t think I could possibly over-emphasize about these past three years is that anything we’ve accomplished or not accomplished is because of people. If we were successful, it was often because people had good ideas, people worked hard, people supported other people, people influenced other people, and yes, I believe people transformed other people’s beliefs or understanding of certain things.

Two examples stick out, particularly in the early days.

Lauren Hunter was the Head of IN-Spire. She had the good idea. Lauren understands better than most how important people are for the success of organizations. I also think she understands, through firsthand experience, how our organizations can crush the souls of their people. In Free Agents, she conceived a program that would benefit senior management with rapidly deployable, low-risk talent, while simultaneously freeing up the downtrodden and restless talent being squandered in our bureaucracy. It’s brilliantly simple — free up people who have the attributes to solve problems, make them readily available to work for managers who are desperate for talent, and equip them with the tools, practices, and methods that will influence positive change. Put otherwise — find awesome people and let them go be awesome. I feel like that should be on a t-shirt and Lauren should wear it.

Neil Bouwer was the first person to say yes. He was our first Assistant Deputy Minister and is currently our program’s champion. Anyone who has met Neil will understand very easily how this program is a perfect match for who he is. Neil shares Lauren’s clear understanding of the importance of people for the success of any organization. I’ve known Neil for about eight years and several years ago had the good fortune to shadow him for a couple of days when he was Vice-President at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. What struck me the most was how much he cared about the people he worked with. In meetings, he asked questions and listened more than he spoke; he ate lunch every day with his team; he was honest and candid with people about what he knew and didn’t know about the work; and he injected humour and humanity into even the most tense and serious conversations. To me, all of his actions pointed to someone who understood that his job as a senior leader was to make space for and support others to be excellent. As our program’s champion, he sets that tone and it echoes throughout the program.

Neil and Lauren set the foundation for this program and we’ve built off of their work. There are so many other people who have contributed to our success. The Free Agents are awesome people who have taken big risks and made personal and professional sacrifices to make this happen. The managers who have hired Free Agents demonstrated faith in a strange and unknown new model. Our senior executives who took the biggest risks hiring a bunch of people who don’t even work for them. These are the people behind our work and they’re all that really matter. Without them, we’re nothing.

I’ve obviously fit into this somehow. But I’ll leave it to others to judge my work. What I can say for sure is that one constant has flowed through everything I’ve done — success comes from good people doing good work.

So my first and biggest point is simple — people are everything. They are what matters and they are what is important. It is people over process every day of the week. If Canada’s Free Agents loses sight of that spirit, we’ll be ruined.

Reflection # 2 — Ask for feedback. Never be afraid of it.

In the early days of the program, I repeated the same mantra over and over again — the Free Agents were our program’s primary shareholders. In the beginning, I looked to them as the primary driving force behind any changes we would make to the program. They wrote monthly journals, attended weekly calls, completed monthly surveys, and I conducted regular individual check-ins with each of them. After Free Agents, I would look to managers who hired Free Agents to understand their experience. They would complete individual and program performance surveys, attend face-to-face meetings with me, and even come to talk to the Free Agents about their perceptions of the program.

In our formative days and months, hearing from our primary users was incredibly important to understand what we were doing right and what we needed to change. For example, in those early days we made the mistake of branding Free Agents as “top talent”, “innovators”, “change agents”, and various other hubristic labels. From the outside, you might be forgiven if you thought that Free Agents saw themselves as superheroes in capes who would swoop in and fix all of the mistakes your employees were making. This was obviously a mistake. A great example was our original logo, which showed a school of sleepy blue fish swimming behind a leader red fish. I’ll always remember Sean Turnbull’s comment: “It looks like you want people to see the Free Agents as smart red fish leading a bunch of dumb blue fish around the public service.” Not a great visual cue.

Original Logo for the Free Agent Pilot

With feedback, we came to the realization that our thinking about how people solve problems in the public service was flawed. You don’t help solve problems by swimming into a pond and leading the “dumb blue fish” out; you help solve problems by demonstrating empathy, teamwork, and humility. Our new logo reflects how Free Agents see themselves as pieces of the puzzle. They are one part of a bigger picture and it’s up to them to figure out how they fit in and add value.

New Logo for Canada’s Free Agents (Design credit: Pierre-Luc Pilon)

We still slip back into bad habits and use this sloppy language from time to time. I hope people will forgive us for our lack of consistency. We’ve heard the feedback and we want to do better.

As the program has grown, it’s become harder to make sense of the feedback we receive. We have such a diverse group of stakeholders that it’s been really tricky representing the diverse views of all the people involved with the program. I continue to emphasize the importance of giving and receiving feedback as a critical part of the success of the program, of the Free Agents, and of myself. I’m continuing to explore new ways to make good use of the collective intelligence, passion, and dedication of the people who love our program.

So always be open to hear what others have to say. Even if you don’t like the message or the way it’s delivered, make time to hear everything. You grow from it and you learn from it and you are better because of it.

That’s it for now. Join me next week for the second edition of this series. Future reflections I’m considering: why breaking rules is cool, not scary; all the smart people think they’re impostors; and, stick to your principles.

Ta ta for now