A Change Is Gonna Come: mission, workforce & leadership in government

There are major forces in play affecting government workforces, missions, and cultures.

Here, my reply to a post from the well-known government consultant Bill Eggers. Bill’s post suggested methods and approaches to public sector improvement.


Bill, I would suggest all this, and more. We are experiencing a catalytic time of change for government work and workers. At the Federal level, and also in some states, changes are simultaneously impacting the fundamental missions, and the structure of human resource management. The challenges of recruiting and retaining competent, dedicated employees have never been greater (particularly at the Federal level).

Complex challenges require a foundation of rational cognition and discernment, the capacity to engage in generative dialogue about meaning and coordinated action, and the simultaneous qualities of curiosity and courage.

To meet the clear and agreed-upon needs and wants of citizens requires a right-sized workforce, fully funded to successfully achieve their mission, with both accountability, and commitment to continuous improvement.

All of this demands leadership that both understands the distinction between technical/complicated, and complex/adaptive situations, and which will act optimally in each domain. The knowledge, skills, and methods to succeed are here now. Whether public sector leaders have the courage to adopt them remains to be seen.

What do you and others think?

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Un-Caged: On John Cage, Art, and the FLUX of Life

On John Cage, and Art.

In response to a friend’s posting of a cartoon referencing the work of John Cage, I wrote and shared the following comments. Cage’s work purposefully introduces ambiguity, chance, and uncertainty to both performers and audience alike. The choreography of his partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham, as I was fortunate to observe one fine day, did not rely at all on the sonic or temporal cues of Cage’s soundtrack. Cunningham set his own internal order and constraints for his dancers. So too with life in organizations, as we work in complex situations.


Me: I had an appointment once to do a DOL investigation at McCarter Theater, the famous venue in Princeton. When I entered the lobby, I heard unusual sounds from the theater. I went in, and it was Merce Cunningham rehearsing with his group, and John Cage sitting in the front discussing his random soundtrack. I quickly got my phone, called the theater office downstairs to say I had been “unavoidably detained” and sat in the back row alone watching these geniuses for an hour.

Them: Honestly, I consider Cage, et. al. to have participated in perpetrating a massive hoax on the public – convincing them that if you don’t understand it, it must be great art. Art, by definition, must communicate something. All too much “art” these days communicates nothing more than, “Ha, ha, ha – look how stupid you are to buy this!”

Me: I must respectfully disagree. Art communicates some variations of what the artist intended, and what the viewer/listener experiences and decides it means to them. In Cage, we see an artist who purposefully introduced elements of randomness and chance into his work. His “composition” in which the pianist comes out and sits playing nothing for around four and a half minutes, works to transform what we think of as “music.” For me, such work is powerful and important, and I greatly appreciated the work of John Cage.

Them: Bruce, & I must respectfully disagree. To me, 4 mins. however many seconds is just total bullshit.

Me: All I can say is experience it as Cage intended. See and hear all that emerges around you in that time and place. Not what you expected. Other than what you may have wanted. Yet human and unique every time.

So… what do you think?

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United, We Might Fall. Divided, We Might Adapt. on civility and disruption in the face of significant power differentials

A very interesting piece. I have been thinking this year about how to catalyze shared meaning among otherwise divided people, such that respectful, generative dialogue and coordinated action can occur. I believe there are basic capacities a person must have in some minimum quantity, such that rational sense-making and learning occur. Such that opinion, belief, and action are informed by fact and knowledge. So dialogue can and will take place.

My belief, and concern, is that too many are currently so overcome with the fear born of ignorance, and manipulated by the power-seekers, as to make learning and dialogue impossible. We have seen it this week. Facts and clear public acts be damned, they will refuse to believe what their eyes and ears take in.

So… civility and disruption. Civility would seem to be predicated on some set of shared values and intentions. Those afraid of “other” to the extent that they deny fact and knowledge, are not likely to embrace a civility that just might cause them to confront differences of opinion, belief, and intention.

Disruption is a wonderful tactic to change the patterns of behavior in a system, community, or society. It is especially useful in truly chaotic situations, where no one really knows what is going on or why things happen as they do. In the face of complexity- significant uncertainty and ambiguity – purposeful disruption is likely to have unintended consequences.

“Other” can topple the status quo. We see the consequences of that in our headlines right now. People who feel disenfranchised or wronged can certainly act to disrupt. Act without “civility” and cause. . . ?? Turbulence? Space for new meaning and possibility? Confusion? A forceful and even repressive response?

Are there other ways to make the change in the world that we want? Would the methods in “Walk Out, Walk On” be helpful? Do we necessarily need everyone at the table to have the life and world we want (perhaps not the obvious question it might seem to be)?

I don’t know just where and when we should act to be disruptive. For myself, this year, apart from socio-politics, has been a year of purposeful disruption- in the view of some. Inspired greatly by Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness, I began “speaking truth to bullshit. . . with civility.”

Ahh. . . There’s that word again.


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The Deeper Q: Capacities For Rational Thought, and Generative Dialogue

On the active and thoughtful listserv of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, a friend of mine posted a link to an opinion piece on the 538 Blog. The thread of correspondence that followed on the listserv was mostly about the Blog post’s assertions regarding biases in both major American political parties.

But what struck me in the post were the implications for respectful and generative civil dialogue, and the ability of people to then negotiate shared purpose and coordinated action. That, after all, is what social groups do. This flows and follows from what I call “The Two Qs” – the things I believe each of us is trying to answer every moment of our lives.

And so, in response to the exchange on the listserv, I wrote this:

I have been thinking and writing about the dynamics of respectful civil dialogue for a few years now.  I was first noticing and inquiring about the Brexit vote.  Then the American campaign and subsequent events have held my attention (likely too much) over the past couple of years.

My first concern is with the assumption in the lead sentence of the piece that was shared:

“The defining divide in American politics is probably between Republicans and Democrats.”

Hold the response to the inference of probability for the moment.

What I ask, and think about these days, are what capacities or competencies do people need, in order to be in respectful, generative dialogue; able to negotiate consensus and coordinate action together towards a shared objective?

This, in turn, follows from what I call “The Two Qs” – what are the two questions every human is trying to answer at every moment of our lives?  My answer is “What does this mean?” and “What will I/we do about it?”

Over the past few years, my thinking about the capacities needed for being in civil dialogue has changed.  We have seen the significantly diminished ability of language, whether written or spoken, to inform and influence others.  This clearly relates to how we define “information” and “facts.”  I also used to think that shared experience could catalyze shared meaning and the opportunity for dialogue.  Maybe the collective wide eyes and applause at a fabulous performance or fireworks show.  Can that still serve as a basis for dialogue about the social, economic, and political problems challenging us today?  I think not.  Even the shared experience of catastrophic experiences like 9/11 or mass shootings are no longer able to catalyze shared meaning and generative dialogue.

So. . . What IS happening, and what can be done to cross the divide?

To be in civil and generative dialogue, I think we need courage, curiosity, caring.  The ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.  The willingness to accept credible facts and data and science, and have these inform our beliefs and intentions.  The ability to listen deeply, and withhold judgment until we truly understand the other.

Today, critical numbers of citizens no longer have these capacities.  Margaret Wheatley foresaw this many years ago, and wrote about it in her 2012 book “So Far From Home.”  The same internet that puts the knowledge and community of the world in our hand, also equally distributes and amplifies ignorance, falsehood, and fear.  We see the consequences throughout the world today.

Those who do not know and understand, become vulnerable to fear of “other.”  The fear is easily amplified and manipulated by those who would seek power and control over them, into bias and hate.  There is an old saying about leaving a bad relationship, that I think applies to changing this pattern of behavior.  “How long do you stay in a bad relationship?  Until the pain of staying is greater than the fear of going.  And not a moment sooner.”

And so. . .

For me, the defining divide today is between those able and willing to change through inquiry, fact, learning, and understanding, and those unable and/or unwilling to do so.  There are Repubs and Dems on both sides of this divide.  A key question, I think, is about the distribution of the inability.  It would appear today that there is a significant assymetry of this distribution between the two major parties.

Is a restoration of dialogue across this divide possible?  I don’t know anymore.  Honestly, my hope of a peaceful restoration through a powerful New Narrative of shared values and intentions has diminished.  The best tactic I know at the moment is to clearly and simply state what matters to us.   To start at the simplest and most basic level.  And hope that a more complex and generative dialogue will emerge once again.

Thanks, all, for the sharing, and for the inspiration to write and share these thoughts.


Bruce Waltuck, MA, Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

Yes, it really says that on the diploma

No, I didn’t get it inside a matchbook cover

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The 2 Q’s and the 3 Ws

When I begin my classes for doctoral students in school psychology, and now as I prepare to begin an undergraduate class in Negotiation for Business, I ask this:

What are the two questions that every person is trying to answer at virtually every moment of our lives?

Whatever answers they have, tend to be fairly close to the answers that I have.

We next turn to what has been called “the world’s shortest framework for change” – three simple questions:

What?  So what? Now what?

What are your answers?


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EntreXercises:  It Was Just My ‘magination. . .Runnin’ Away With Me. . . 


1) imagiNation: you are the new Chef de Cuisine of Mr. Waltuck’s imaginary restaurant, Amber Waves. Chef-Owner Waltuck tells you that his concept for the restaurant is all about creating the new and unexpected from the familiar and overlooked. Using common and leftover foods in ways that have not been done before, is what Amber Waves is all about. Chef Waltuck shows you several dishes that he has created, that illustrate his Amber Waves concept. These include- Diced cooked beet and pineapple “carnitas” for Tacos al Pastor. Edible veggie “candlesticks” made from a base of fork-striped cucumber, a stalk of blanched white asparagus, tip dipped in a Harissa-spiced roasted red pepper puree. Blue corn chip chilaquiles cooked in leftover sweetened creamy coffee, served with an egg poached in peach salsa. Caramelized onions sauteed with blackberry balsamic vinegar and diced spicy bread and butter pickles. 

Your task is to create three new dishes that follow the creative philosophy of Amber Waves.
(See you in class…)

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Not So “Good Enough” – On the need for competitive compensation & benefits in government

Let’s assume for a moment that you are an entrepreneur. Or the CEO of an existing successful business. What are your goals going forward for the next year? Five years? Ten years?
What about the people you want to attract, and recruit to come work for you? What knowledge, skills, and abilities do you want them to have? Are “average” performers good enough?  
What kinds of things can you, or should you, try to offer prospective employees in order to both compete with other employers, and to assure you have the very best chance of success and of meeting your customers’ expectations (recalling and paraphrasing the words of Peter Drucker, that the only reason an organization exists, is to meet its customers’ expectations)?
In the private sector, firms from Costco to Google offer competitive wages and benefits. While people sometimes complain about the cost of a latte at Starbucks, it is important to note that Starbucks is a rare employer in providing health insurance to part-time employees. They also provide free four-year tuition to get a bachelors degree through a partnership with Arizona State University. Companies like 3M and Gore encourage innovation, giving employees the incentive to use some of their work time to explore innovative ideas.  
What then, should be the practice of government, with regard to compensation, career advancement, and benefits? I have heard some argue that government has no market share issues since it is a monopoly, and that there are no shareholders to please (for those who think shareholder value is the primary concern in an economic market). My response is that Congress is the driver of “market share” decisions for government. If customers- citizens- are unhappy with government service, then agency funding will be cut or even eliminated. There are, in fact, powerful incentives for government to do its best for us all.
With regard to compensation, career advancement, and benefits, government has long been at a disadvantage. Salaries for many jobs, have never been comparable to those of the private sector. Significant advantages in government recruiting have come from comparative job security, advancement based both on adequate performance and seniority, and a very good package pension and health benefits portable (not for free, it is important to note) into retirement under most circumstances.  
So if we recognize that government needs to be competitive to attract, hire, and retain great employees, why would an administration propose significant cuts in both compensation and benefits? A business short on funds might have to do “more with less” and let people go. Government has the responsibility to deliver the goods and services citizens make clear they need and want. From defense, to interstate highways, to safe food and drugs.  
Why, we must ask of our leaders, would they propose significantly damaging the government’s ability to recruit, hire, and retain competent, capable, and willing employees? The possible coherent narratives to explain this all seem to suggest an intention counter to building a highly effective and stable workforce.

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It’s The Berries: Emergent Bias and the LUX of Response Capacity

It’s The Berries: Emergent Bias, and the LUX of Response Capacity
Bruce Waltuck

(C) 2017 All Rights Reserved
“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” – attributed to Will Rogers
Strawberries are a true wonder of nature. Beautifully shaded by broad leafy foliage, the red fruit is free to ripen comfortably in clusters of red deliciousness. The conditions in the fields influence the exact maturation of each plant and berry. The soil, sun, and water. The late frosts and heavy rains. The heat and humidity. The winds and insects. 
At Honey Brook Organic Farm, like other farms growing strawberries, the fields are carefully tended. Raised rows wrapped in heat-retaining black plastic. Irrigation of the fields when needed rain doesn’t come. Then, with time and the working of nature, the berries come. Whitish-green, turning deep and bright red. Sweet and luscious. 
But nature treats strawberries like life treats people. The berries ripen at different rates. Even on the same clusters of the same plants. From day to day, the plants will offer their subtly hidden ready treasures for the picking. 
The fields at Honey Brook Organic Farm are wide and deep. Dozens of rows of strawberry plants, that seem to stretch out longer than a football field. Shareholders in the farm’s Community-Supported Agriculture program wait for the word that it is time for picking. It is time to look and find each member’s share for that week. Maybe a quart. Maybe more, if nature has been kind that week. 
Each day, the farm’s field crew note which rows have the best picking. Members have a day for their picking. Given small cartons and bags for their respective shares, each person or family group set off to find their ripe red treasure. 
But where to look? A quick scan of the field shows the collective thinking. Most members are clustered in the rows farthest from the check-in tent, and to the far end of the rows. Does this make sense? To the average member, the answer would be yes. If you ask, the rationale comes quickly. The presumption is that the near ends of the allotted rows must have been picked over already. These folks assume that those who came before them must have been just a bit lazier, and less inclined to walk the long rows to the presumed better picking. So the flock flows to the far parts of the field. They do return with a wonderful harvest of lush ripe berries. 
But. What if… the “conventional wisdom” is wrong? Over the past five years, I’ve learned that the “wisdom of the crowd” wasn’t so wise.” While it might be easier to fill a quart box in a shorter distance at the back of a row, it was easy to find plenty of perfect strawberries at the near end of the closest rows. It simply took a bit of easy searching. I rarely have to go more than about 25-30 feet down a row to fill my multiple quarts with fabulous fruit. My total time in the field is always less than the folks walking way out and down the rows. 
In the framework about the dynamics of disruptive experience that I developed with Denise Easton, we found four principal domains influencing our actions and outcomes. Three of the four FLUX domains particularly influence our response in the face of this “conventional wisdom” and the emergent pattern of crowd behavior. 
In this case, we can see the LUX- the light of a better response and outcome:
L– LEARNING. What can we actually find out about the picking in the field? Can we ask other members where they have looked? Where they found the best picking? Can we ask the farm staff what they may know about where to look? What if no one has any new or different information for us?
U– UNDERSTANDING. When we see the crowd out in the field (and there were over 40 people there in the far parts of the field when I was there filling four quarts up front on my own last week), what does it mean to us? Are we likely to assume through implicit or confirmation bias, that the crowd is right? Or do we think that different Understanding is possible- and might be correct? What if our sense of what we observe is constrained by what we think we understand?
X– EXPLORING. Are we willing and able to try something different than the rest of the crowd? In this case, it takes little time and effort to search under the wide green foliage at the near end of the rows, and see what ripe gems are there for the picking. If we are right, we will fill our baskets more quickly. If we are wrong, we will have invested little time and effort. A longer walk to join the crowd is still possible. A failed exploration of a promising possibility is ok. Our efforts will be rewarded with useful Learning and Understanding. 
This is the way of building better Response Capacity. Our Experience influences our Expectations, and in turn, our Engagement with the world. We can copy the crowd, or we can observe, inquire, act, and achieve better outcomes. 
Now, where’s the whipped cream?

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Don’t Be Messin’ With My Pepe: Food, Change, and Respectful Dialogue

The Open Table site published a blog post about restaurants that have re-imagined a classic simple dish of Italian cuisine.  Like many dishes, Cacio e Pepe was born of the simple, cheap, and readily available ingredients and methods in its native Italy.  Strands of pasta dressed simply with fresh ground pepper and some grated cheese, Cacio e Pepe has been a staple of both Italian families and chefs for generations.

But today…  A “what if…” answered by chefs armed with creative minds and molecular gastronomic technologies, resulted in a stormy response.  Most of the comments were a combination of defensive, critical, and angry.  All because some chefs dared to experiment and explore what might be possible within the recipe for a plate of food.

The strong and at times angrily critical responses are revealing.  Not only of the strength of people’s preference for tradition, but of the ways some people feel it is appropriate and necessary to attack those daring to be different.  

For me, as both a facilitator of dialogue and a restaurant reviewer since the early 1980s, the overwhelmingly critical responses were both challenge and opportunity.  I posted a  comment asking why people felt compelled and ok to be so angry and harsh in their criticism of those compelled to experiment with a simple food recipe. The responses I got both underscored people’s powerful attachment to the traditions of their families and cultures of origin, and their seeming unwillingness to approve of new explorers.

This is a challenge– perhaps THE challenge of our time. I replied that our restaurants, and our museums would be very different, and very boring places, if chefs and artists were not allowed to deviate from ancient accepted norms.

Change can be difficult.  We learn to love and revere our traditions.  They comfort and reassure us.  The new and the different- perhaps especially when cloaked by the names from our past- may feel confusing and even threatening.  We may deride and dismiss the explorations of possibility as looking “like something the cat spit up” (as one poster did, in response to the pictured cheese foam), more as a defense of our own limited preferences, than as a reasoned critique of the new.

If we have such difficulty being open to reimagining Cacio e Pepe, how much harder is it to engage in respectful analysis and dialogue about the great issues of the day that impact and even threaten us in our world?  Can we respect our traditions, respect our values, and also engage with the new and possible?

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Sigh-metrical:  challenges & opportunities in achieving better outcomes

I believe there is a fundamental piece missing in **** as with other benchmark and assessment frameworks. The challenge and opportunity are as I have described in my presentation “The Problem With Problems” which can be found on my Slideshare page.  

Organizations need to understand and acknowledge that not all problems and systems are the same. The approach to understanding and improving outcomes in each domain must therefore be optimal for that type. This directly applies not only to how we act towards each type of challenge, but how we set goals and measures to assess the impact of our actions.  

The three principal types of metrics that I advise are:

1) Counts- How many? How much? How fast? At what cost? These observations of a process in action are fairly easy to define, and easy to measure. Depending on the nature of the underlying system and situation, these metrics may be able to easily drive further improvements, or may be part of more dynamical systems- those that are simultaneously affecting and being affected by the people and things they interact with. These metrics commonly reflect systems in which both Best Practice and Expert Practice offer highly reliable solutions for taking action towards better outcomes.

2) Qualities- How well? As the former acting head of SAMHSA once said to me, “we can tell the rate of underage drinking or prescription drug abuse in a place, but we can not answer ‘what is the health of that place?'” These qualitative measures are directly and deeply interconnected with the ways that people make sense of the world, and thereby form beliefs and intentions. For public organizations, such things are directly expressed in strategic plans and stated objectives. As we have said before, we can answer how quickly we fix the potholes, but it is harder to answer how well our roads are designed to move people easily and safely. These metrics may be bound up in the context and culture of an organization, making the use of imported Best Practice and Expert Practice challenging.

3) Values- How much are we “walking our talk?” As we encounter the most uncertain and ambiguous situations, we must learn to acknowledge that no one knows a solution at this time; that in fact solutions are not now knowable. We are not excused from acting to achieve desired outcomes, but we can not know in advance what will be the consequences of any action we undertake. In such cases, we must not presume to know how and why things are happening. Rather, we must identify the things that are most important to us in our own organization- our core values and operating principles. Metrics in dealing with such challenges and systems should assess the extent to which people in the organization acted in accordance with their express and shared values and operating principles. This goes hand-in-hand with devoting some portion of resources to multiple explorations of promising ideas for achieving desired outcomes in this most difficult set of challenges. Insofar as a particular organization experiences and makes sense of its environment in its own unique way, this is a space of emerging good practices. We try and we learn. We adapt and keep what is working (taking us towards our objectives) and stop what is not working (if we can).  

Given these realities of organizational life and dynamics, I believe there are clear implications for anyone seeking to establish a sustainable and useful framework of performance measurement. An organization that can both inform its stakeholders of these concepts, and create a metrics framework based on this knowledge, can be well-positioned to influence wide-spread adoption and practice.

I look forward to talking more about this.

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