Renewal
May 7, 2012

Creating the space to explore

When the National Managers’ Community gathers in Montreal in March for their annual professional development forum, it will present the Mike Nurse Leadership Award, an honour recognizing someone who has led national initiatives to empower the middle manager community of the federal public service.

This year’s recipient is Geoff Munro, Chief Scientist and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Innovation and Energy Technology Sector at Natural Resources Canada. He spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about his award and the strength of the middle managers’ network.


One of the criteria of the Mike Nurse Award is being willing to “take risks and go the extra mile.” Could you share an example or two of how you have taken such risks?

My understanding of why I have been asked to be the recipient of this award has to do with the championing of a learning organization community of practice – the colloquialism is LoCop and they call themselves LoCopers. I had had the good luck to be exposed to some of the middle manager tools and techniques taught by people like Bob Chartier, Karen Bonner and Sylvie Lapointe of the National Managers’ Community back when I was in the Ontario government in the early 1990s. We had gone through a significant change with downsizing and we had a deputy minister who was quite innovative. He turned the page on what we’d been through and essentially said, the grieving is over, we’ve got to get on with doing our job; what does that mean?

After a couple of other experiences with those same kinds of tools, I found myself looking at a situation within Natural Resources Canada, when I was working with the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) that needed to change. So I worked with the NMC and used the tools to do that. That doesn’t sound like much of a risk. But I started to spend money and resources on a wing and a prayer hoping that this was going to be a good thing. Having an organizational design specialist working in the CFS was a risk in that it was completely counter-culture. The organization is and was a science-based one, so doing some of the softer, relationship-side training, trying to get that kind of behaviour change in a scientific organization was a risk. Over time we were able to get some momentum building in the organization. But you could see that it was starting to plateau. So the next risk – I guess in hindsight it probably was a risk– was to facilitate what we called innovation management. We were trying to instil innovation management in an organization that was very process-oriented in how we made decisions, how we prioritized our work, how we were integrating all of the different pieces of the CFS into national programs. Well, it suddenly came to us that the logical way to do this was to put the soft people skills and new business processes together and let the people that we had trained as practitioners in the soft skills start to work with the people who were trying to make hardnosed decisions around changing the way we were prioritizing and allocating our budgets. It turned out to be a very powerful synergy because the soft skills helped us work through change, work through meetings that were not conventional, and gave people an idea of how to relate to other parts of the organization that they may not have related to in the past. Bringing those two big initiatives together was the real risk, but it paid rewards.

What was the transformation at the end of all of that?

We took people through a fairly significant change, not only of business processes but also in the context of their work, all at the same time. But we now have a legacy of improving the strategic planning and strategic implementation of the work in the organization. And equally powerful, we now have a community of practice across the local, regional and national levels that has created a powerful network right across the service. The Forest Service is located in some seven geographic locations. The community of practice is part of the glue that keeps the people linked.

As an ADM now, have you tried to do some of the same things at a more senior level?

Yes. I have four locations in my direct line of responsibility, and as chief scientist for the department I have influence with the full spectrum of scientific activities in the department. So in both worlds we are starting to do it again, building upon what we’ve learned. But this time we’re going to take an additional path. We’re going to build the practitioner community and glean all the power of those people and relationship skills, but I also want to add a manager level component to it as well.

Are there instances where you have taken such risks and it didn’t pan out?

Not in the context of this kind of work – not so far! When I was the regional director general, I used a few of the techniques to develop a strategic plan for the lab. I was struggling with how to engage a full community of close to 300 people – everything from research scientists to admin and maintenance people. We had what was called a Courtyard Café. As you can imagine, we were talking mostly about the science that is relevant to the agenda of the Forest Service and the department. That’s a little tough for staff like the building electrician to relate to. However, to their credit, he and his colleagues were very much a part of the discussion. We didn’t use flip charts or note paper, we left butcher block paper on the tables as table cloths — if you had a good idea, write it down on the table cloth. Well, our electrician doodled while he was listening and it turns out the man is a bit of an artist. We took his doodling of a northern Ontario scene and made it the cover of the strategic plan. So he became front and centre of the product. It speaks to the inclusivity of these tools and techniques, the approach that the learning organization community of practice takes, that there really is a role for everyone. Leadership is not something you are granted because you are in a certain hierarchical position in an organization; leadership comes from within.

Was it any more challenging to do this within a scientific community that has its own culture?

It is a cultural shift, no question. Scientists do tend to think in their structured way, they do have a culture of their own, and yet these approaches do work. I have a colleague in the military and he lives in that classical command and control environment, and yet he’s had great success, in non-emergency situations obviously, with these kinds of skills in their culture as well.

In the award nomination, you were described as someone who created “a huge leadership space” in your department. What does that phrase mean to you?

It goes back to our earlier conversation about trust and risk. Creating space is really about giving people the freedom to take their own risks, to explore new ideas. You can’t be participatory and not be transparent. If you say to an organization, I want your ideas, you can’t then turn around and say thanks but I’m going to do something different. Even if you can’t accept all of their ideas, you either adapt them or tell them why. Who better than the person doing the job to give you a good idea on how to make that job better? Creating space is really just using techniques that give them the opportunity to use their good ideas, and then honouring their effort with what you do with the product.

Does this shift accountability somewhat?</

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