I remember when I worked in the federal government, one of my roles was acting as part of an internal facilitation team. This team was put together by a director in who had an interest in organizational development. This was back in the late 1990s and we didn’t really have in house OD units which was a blessing. Instead we had this team of people that were interested in systems thinking, development and facilitation and we were made available by our bosses to do work within the organization. I cut a lot of my hosting teeth in that context.
I remember that we once led a little informal experiment. We were finding that much of what we heard when we ran sessions in the organization was platitudes of a kind of aspired set of values and stories. But when you went on the road with people, especially senior people, you’d get the real stories. This is where anyone wanting to go into management was going to get their real mentorship training. My job involved a lot of travel so I heard a lot of these stories.
We called these “tie off” stories, because when senior managers travelled in the public service at that time, they used to take their ties off and just wear an open collar shirt and a blazer. (This seems to have become a mark of high status these days, but back then it was a kind of relaxing of protocol) When the tie came off the stories flowed. And travelling around remote British Columbia communities pre-World Wide Web and smartphone, means you get a lot of time kicking back in hotel bars and airports and avalanche detours. With no Netflix to watch, no mobiles to check and no email to get through, there was nothing left but storytelling. (By the way, I rarely learned anything deeply personal about people in these settings. Personal stories were strictly available only when your senior manager was completely casual. I learned early on that the uniforms of business are like the gels used in the theatre lighting to change the colour of the stage light: suits and jeans and ties filtered the person. People were always “authentic” but their uniforms constrained and shaped what was coming through.)
A small group of us resolved to spend a year listening to these stories and comparing them to stuff we heard in formal planning processes and at the end of a year we basically concluded that there were two different organizations: one that was a performance for the bean counters and the accountability police, all tidied up into reports, memos and budgets and the other which was a mess of story, rumour, gossip, cobbled together work-arounds, covered up failures and surprising results. When citizens wonder why government seems to be such a mess of bureaucratic boondoggle, saying one thing and doing another, they are noticing an actual phenomenon. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is that the second set of characteristics and stories is how things actually get done, but the first set is the story the public (and the Minister) wants to hear.
You cannot have innovative change without a mess. And very few organizations, especially it seems in the public sector, allow for mess making to happen. Whatever we learn, it has to be packaged up into something neat and simple, and preferably replicable. It bothers me to this day that citizens demand one without the other. I think citizens need to be a bit more grateful about the way public servants get things done in spite of the overwhelming demand to simplify processes and guarantee results in what is a massively complex job.