Blog Series — Reflections about Canada’s Free Agents — Part 2

Author’s Note: This is part two of a series of reflections I’m writing about as I approach my three year anniversary working on Canada’s Free Agents. You can find part 1 here.

Working in a large organization like the Canadian federal public service, it’s easy to feel like a small fish swimming in a big pond. In my first blog post, I talked about our program’s logo in the early days being a smiley red fish swimming happily ahead of a school of blue fish. But one of my favourite images from our early days came from Free Agent friend Anatole Papadopoulos, who cleverly turned our logo into what was probably a better representation of what it might be like to be a Free Agent.

This is a daunting picture, to say the least. But it’s certainly how it can feel when you’re looking to make positive change in a large organization.

So where do you start? For me, I like to separate truth from reality. I like to dig into our bureaucracy and understand what’s really going on. What rules are we playing by? And where did they come from? How are all of the rules related and not related? What really happens when you break a rule? And for me most importantly, which rules don’t actually exist?

That last one might surprise some people. If a rule doesn’t exist, why would we care about it? Let’s talk about this.

Reflection # 3 — We need to separate rules from customs

This week I’m channeling my byline — show me the rule. It’s been a bit of a joke catch phrase of mine. I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked someone to “show me the rule”. But it has always served as a bit of a reminder to me about a certain organizational behaviour that I’ve come to recognize far too often in our public service.

We have a massive web of policy frameworks, policies, directives, and guidelines that govern the way we work. Making sense of all of their relationships can be daunting no matter what area you work in. Take our policy framework on People Management. It’s made up of 21 separate policies, directives and guidelines, many of which have a series of sub-directives. Are you falling asleep yet? Stick with me here.

Dig a bit deeper into departments HR teams and you’ll find an incredible diversity of practices that aren’t written in policies, but are established within departments. Things like sub-delegation of authorities, use of competitions vs. non-advertised appointments, standards for official languages, standards for merit assessment, etc. When you dig down into the depths of departmental application of rules, you quickly start to learn that there’s little consistency, sometimes even within individual groups within a department. Still awake? I hope so, because if you think at all like me, this is where things get good.

Here’s the kicker — that’s just what’s written down. Dig even deeper and you get into customs — informally established but unwritten rules that guide individual and group behaviours. Think about the way interviews are run or how briefing notes are written or who is allowed to attend meetings with the senior executives or how much money each employee has for training budgets. Even if there are rules for some of these things, the way they’re applied is incredibly inconsistent.

How many times have you asked someone why something is done a certain way and they’ve told you “that’s how we’ve always done it.” I’ve been shocked how many times over the course of the last three years that I’ve encountered customs being acted on as if they were rules. Rules whose guardians would have you believe that their breaking would lead to immediate firing, or possibly worse (mandatory Phoenix training?).

So there’s a lot we do that isn’t written down. And this might seem obvious to some people and may not be a surprise. Yes of course we have lots of unwritten rules. So what’s the point?

First of all, I’m not pointing this out to suggest that we don’t have enough rules and that we need to codify and standardize our practices and norms. No, I don’t think we need to create more rules to account for every possible situation imaginable — that would be absolutely terrible. Quite the opposite.

My point is this — there is an incredible amount of room within the existing rules for meaningful change. We just need to understand the actual rules and differentiate them from customs. Because as soon as you can tell the difference, you’ve identified an opportunity for change. Over the past three years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to understand the rules and even harder to identify customs in need of change. I’ve come to firmly believe that most of what is holding us back in the public service is not related to our system of rules but to the myriad of customs we follow with little evidence of their efficacy nor knowledge of their origin.

Banal as it may seem, understanding the difference between rules and customs is understanding the difference between limitations and limitless possibility. Rules tell us “we can’t do that” whereas customs tell us “we don’t do that”. And when I hear “we don’t do that”, I actually hear “we don’t do that…but we could.” For me, the question “Can we?” is incredibly powerful. When you want to make change happen, start by asking that question.

But there’s another question that I also want to talk about: “Should we?” And that brings me to my fourth reflection.

Reflection # 4 — Establish your principles and live by them

Last week I wrote about the importance of feedback. It’s so important to ask for feedback, listen to the feedback, and act on the feedback. Learning from the diversity of experiences and perspectives of the people you work with is an incredibly important part of the learning journey for all of us. And yet we’re always faced with complex and controversial challenges that require us to make decisions that won’t always satisfy everyone’s perspectives, concerns, or preferences. Having a foundation to draw upon during these times can be really helpful. For me, this is where principles come into play.

We’ve made a lot of these sorts of critical decisions about how to design Canada’s Free Agents over the past three years. Some of these decisions have made people uncomfortable. Some decisions we were told we couldn’t make because we were breaking the “rules” (see above). Some decisions were considered too risky. But most of these decisions — at least the ones that I think have made the most difference for the people involved — have been guided by following our principles.

OK a bit of honesty here. We never actually wrote down or established a set of program principles. The Free Agents established principles for how they work, but we’ve never actually articulated a set of principles for how we made decisions about the program design. In a way, the ideas I’m throwing out in this blog series are as close as I have to principles for how I’ve been working over the past few years. Maybe someday I’ll make them a bit more concise.

Regardless of how you choose to internalize or articulate your principles, let them guide your work. We wanted to design a program that put people first. So every time someone tells me that my emphasis on autonomy is creating risks or causing problems, I prioritize it anyway. People need more autonomy and increasing it will be foundational for our organizations’ success. When I hear that it’s too risky to expand the program to include people working in the regions, I remind them that until we get to a point where 60% of the Free Agents are regional employees, we’re not representative of the public service. When I’m warned that doing non-advertised appointments based on acting assignments might be seen as unfair, I wonder aloud which is less fair — appointing someone for good on-the-job performance or letting them act above their level for years without properly recognizing their work (a practice that according to our research is pervasive in the public service).

I think we need to be guided more by our principles than by rules. Rules are good, but principles are better. Principles are our compasses. They point us in the right direction so we don’t get lost in discussions about risks and rules. Be guided by a vision about what is right and don’t get distracted by people who want to pull you off your course. Making the effort to be consistent about my principles in my work has made the most controversial decisions a lot easier. They’re like a north star when you’re lost at sea. The bureaucra-sea.


That’s it for now. Join me next week for the third edition of this series. Future reflections I’m pondering over: talent management or none at all and we’re all just humans being humans.