Lessons from the Field: Intrapreneurship in Action series – Canadian Government Executive

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March 4, 2015

Lessons from the Field: Intrapreneurship in Action series

In this month’s blog, I’m featuring Dylan Sherlock, Policy Analyst for the Natural Resource Sector Transformation Secretariat. I have had the great pleasure of working with Dylan to establish our intrapreneurship network in the BC Public Service.

Dylan beautifully exemplifies the mindset of the next generation of public servant. He is a talented policy analyst, masterful collaborator, clever strategist, and respected community change agent. Dylan demonstrates what audacious and promising leadership looks like in the up and coming ranks of the BC public service.

Here is a snapshot of Dylan’s experience and accomplishments:

Dylan SherlockDylan Sherlock is a Policy Analyst in the BC Natural Resource Sector Transformation Secretariat where he provides cross-sector strategic policy advice to support the BC government’s Natural Resources Permitting Project. Previously, he entered government through contract and auxiliary position work in the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Dylan holds an Honours B.A. in Pacific and Asian Studies from the University of Victoria and is working on completing his final project of the Masters of Public Administration program at the University of Victoria. Before joining government, Dylan worked in the not-for-profit sector, where he maintains strong ties, including volunteering as the Treasurer of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria.

I asked Dylan what brought him into the public service and here is his story…

“I lived in China for two years during my undergraduate degree, learning Mandarin and at the very end of my time in China, I was interning in Beijing with an international environmental NGO that aims to foster environmental values with university students who were being groomed for positions in the public service of the Chinese state. It was particularly interesting, because I was meeting (hopefully) a future generation of leaders who were determined to confront the serious environmental challenges that China and the world faces.

Getting a window into the challenges of another country, especially China, was an incredible experience for someone of my age. I had a powerful realization that I was deeply engaged with people doing inspiring work but I still felt like an outsider. I realized that I didn’t want to just be an observer or academic studying change; I wanted to be hands-on making change happen.

I knew that if I wanted to have real impact, I would have to go back to my own country. This commitment to focus on change within my own community was life-altering. I left China and shifted my studies to public administration. I also became involved in student politics and became the Director of Finance of the student union, which gave me a taste of responsibility in a medium-sized non-profit and a chance to contribute to the sustainability of the campus and broader community.”

Dylan laughed, shaking his head, “it sounds kind of crazy, but I really just wanted to learn how to be the most effective public administrator I could be.

The UVic Masters of Public Administration program led me into the public service, though just barely! At the time, it was nearly impossible to find work in BC Government at the time due to the hiring freeze and a lack of coop opportunities. The last week I was going to be in Victoria before heading off to another province, I received an offer to do a research contract on natural resource policy. I am still so grateful to my boss for wanting to give opportunities to graduate students. From there, I moved into an auxiliary and finally a permanent position.”

I asked Dylan to describe what an intrapreneur in action looks like to him…

“Anyone can be an intrapreneur. The meaning of the word entrepreneur comes from French, meaning someone who someone who undertakes, but also literally a “between taker”. I think this is a great way to also look at the meaning of an intrapreneur. As I’m trying to be entrepreneurial in government doing inter-agency work, I do feel like a between taker. Most of my time is spent seeking input and ideas from different sources. The exercise of pulling all of these different pieces of information together to see new possibilities is what intrapreneurship means to me. And it’s not just about seeing the connections and opportunities, it is also the act of weaving possibilities together to create something new and exciting.

I also think I have a somewhat higher tolerance for risk and acceptance of making mistakes than most which helps me try different approaches in my work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have direct supervisors who allow me to try and fail – a process that enables fast learning. You need that support to help you grow. This is what makes work worth getting up for in the morning.

Lately, I have been thinking about the importance of the ability to speak truth to power. If you recognize problems as they emerge, it is so important to have the confidence to push these problems up the organizational hierarchy. As long as the advice is given honestly and non-judgementally, as analysis of the issue, it is critical that decision makers hear it, even if it isn’t what they want to hear. There is a perception among many young public servants that senior public servants aren’t willing to listen to inconvenient truths, but fortunately I have found that my supervisors and executive team demand this kind of honesty. I suspect and hope that this is mostly the case across government, but I think the missing piece is giving lower ranked staff the confidence and ability to know how to succeed in speaking truth to power. Without that missing piece, a lot of insight and innovation stays untapped.”

Dylan describes an example of executive creating the right conditions for entrepreneurship…

“One of the most powerful examples of executive creating the right conditions was our Assistant Deputy Minister making a speech the first major meeting of our new secretariat where he highlighted that NRPP is a flat organization in which employees are expected to take initiative, make decisions and take responsibility for their activities. What people often don’t understand is how important that type leadership is in encouraging people to innovate. I raise this example because I know I am having a very positive experience in government and this is not always common for most people at my level and age. Leaders play a critical enabling role for those of us at the analyst level.”

Dylan shares his principles and practices when it comes to addressing challenges innovatively in his day-to-day work…

“I believe you have to collaborate to innovate. Trying to get things done without the explicit authority to do it takes creativity! It also takes lots of patience.

If you are missing the authority – collaboration is the best end run you can do – it’s through good collaboration that you find the authority.

Some changes come from on high as political or corporate direction, but most of what the public service does originates at the lower and mid-levels. The real rich opportunity space for innovation that hasn’t been mined enough is in-between ministries. There is so much we can do if we work together. Once we step out of the silo world, just by virtue of collaborating, we will solve problems – often by accident. This is what makes this space so exciting.

Magic happens when people who don’t normally talk to each other start talking.”

Here Dylan shares how he thinks about solving problems in a cross-sector context:

“I think about the people who I am trying to serve. I look for the clear line of authority within the hierarchy. Often, that clarity is not there. This means you can’t just drive forward unless you can do everything inside one agency, which is rarely the case in my work.

As soon as you have to do things across ministries, you are going to face major challenges because we have so many sub-cultures and capacity challenges within government. This is where you need to develop a good plan on how to best engage other ministries.

Many different factors drive people and inviting them to work together can be very hard. Some questions to be taken into consideration are: What is the other ministry’s workload? What are they going to get taken to task on by their Minister? What do their stakeholders want?

One of my defining moments as a public servant was when I was up in Fort St. John facilitating an inter-agency workshop. I saw two groups come together when they themselves weren’t sure collaboration was possible – there was a perception of a huge cultural gulf that in the end mostly disappeared. In large part, it came down to creating the conditions for them to reveal the similar challenges that they face in their work and realize that they had more that was similar than different in how they operated. The end result of the meeting was front-line staff from the two agencies proposing solutions that went beyond anything what we had originally proposed.”

Dylan shares some of his key insights, success factors and lessons from the field…

On learning from social movement-building and civil society: “II’m a big believer in the Marshall Ganz method of movement building. You can learn a lot from this when it comes to public policy and human behaviour. One of his key ideas is one-on-one coaching – the coaching developmental method. I like this idea because my position is not one of perceived power – it’s a position of building towards common goals of creating public value and fulfilling our role as public servants.

This one-on-one concept is applied well when it comes to policy development. You need to have a lot of conversations with your team, stakeholders and key advisors. These meetings are so important, particularly if you have four or five agencies you’re working with. You need to work with each individually in order to understand where an issue falls in their priority list. You need to find out how much people care about the issue that you are addressing and work from there.”

On giving credit to his supervisor and his leadership team for providing him opportunity to grow: “My director, Stewart Guy, has been a fantastic coach and mentor. He constantly encourages me to understand the organizational and human context of issues and he also takes the attitude of throwing me into the deep end to learn to swim. I am both grateful and frustrated to see friends and colleagues at the same level who aren’t provided the same opportunities to grow.

And the rest of the leadership team is no different – my executive director loves to engage us in open discussion about big policy ideas, which is amazing. My manager involves me in decision-making. When doing analysis work I feel like I’m an equal member of the team. Sometimes I’ll say the wrong thing because I don’t have the experience to provide the right advice, but that’s okay because I get the advice and the support I need to succeed in the end.”

On the challenges with problem solving in government today: “When I talk to my peers in government, many are frustrated and concerned that proper policy development processes are not being followed. People are feeling that they are not able to do careful analysis of a policy issue and its implications, or even to question if there could be more than one way to solve a problem.

There is a tendency that someone who has a lot of experience and expertise will say, ‘I know the solution, let’s just go and do it’, sometimes without even a clear problem definition. The ‘analysis’ work is relegated to justifying the intuition. While this is problematic, I would note that often the intuition approach actually works. Intuition of experienced leaders can be completely solid – and on the flipside, structured policy process can be time consuming and expensive. Nonetheless, we still need to try harder to be more thoughtful about how we solve problems.”

On using visualization to improve policy discussions: “Shifting from outputs to outcomes is so important. People are driven by what they are being measured on and if we’re driving towards the goals, we’ll get the wrong results. Logic models are an underused, but powerful tool to help flesh out our thinking of cause and effect in public policy development. In general, visualizing policy issues in different ways in a powerful level for shifting thinking. Even just using the smart art function on Microsoft programs can completely change a conversation. When you get a logic model or other visualization right, you can feel the impact that it has on people in the room.”

I asked Dylan what he thinks the next generation of the public service will look like…

“At a high-level, we will have a lot more internal capacity to solve problems. We will have greater knowledge, distributed (or “matrixed”) lines of accountability, network-based teams and a much bigger policy tool box to work with.

We have such a high volume of people leaving the public service with so much expertise and experience that entire business areas are going to need to be redesigned. This is daunting for government, and a common challenge facing many sectors today.

We are going to have to do government differently. We are going to have redesign and redefine our roles as public servants. To deliver better outcomes, we will need to become more audacious in every way.”


Colleen McCormickColleen McCormick is Director of Strategic Issues with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and former Director, Innovative Partnerships where she managed the social innovation file in the Ministry of Social Development. Colleen is also the founder of Social Innovators Network Foundation. Previously, she was a TEDxMileZero organizer and National Chair of the New Professionals for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. She has an MBA from RRU and a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo. You can contact her on Twitter @SInnovatorsNet.

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