Time to Expect More

Not all, but many in the public service have forgotten the larger mission, have become demoralized, and have adopted a behaviour of mediocrity.

How could they not? 

Politicians are stuck in ideological dogma. Leadership is based on polling, not principles. Open discussion and debate has been replaced by social media rants. Organizational strategy is developed among only the chosen few. The average front line employee is six levels removed from the decision-making table. Risk-taking has been abandoned because of the fear of making a mistake. Career advancement comes through internal politics and lateral moves. Unions have considered innovation to be a threat to membership. Professional development is rudimentary, underfunded and ineffective. And no coaching is provided to uplift and challenge the next generation of leaders.

No wonder high-performance isn’t talked about within the public service. No wonder employees are lulled into complacency. And no wonder we don’t talk about leadership in the public service.

Given we have over 5.6 million people employed in the high-purpose calling of the public service, over 30% of the employed population, this culture of complacency and mediocrity needs to be identified as a tragedy of the human spirit across our country.

  • As public service employees, we should demand so much more;
  • As public service leaders, we are capable of so much more; and
  • As citizens and taxpayers, we must expect so much more.

As a nation, we need a fundamental change of perspective and attitude in what we expect from our public service organizations. We need to embrace a new philosophy of leadership for our institutions. We have big topics to tackle, like how to educate our children, care for the elderly, house the homeless, treat our environment, strengthen our economy, narrow the income gap, reduce our debt levels, and so many others.

These topics are not new, but they are not being solved. We continually try to solve these complex issues by approaching them as the same situation with the same mindset and with the same leadership philosophy as before.

And it isn’t working.

We now need a new generation of leaders to step up and change the out-dated ways in which we operate our public service institutions. We need to unleash the talent within that wants to make a difference, wants to solve problems, and wants to change the world. We need to challenge the performance of our bureaucracies, and realize that our current approach is only self-perpetuating a culture of non-performance.

We deserve so much better.  No more excuses.  It is time to expect more.

Are We Smart Enough?

Complacency is a dangerous disease. It’s forever affected General Motors, Kodak, Microsoft and Blockbuster. And it is a widespread addiction amongst Alberta companies.


Because things are good. Why change? Why invest? Why try harder … when you can just sit back and enjoy the prosperity that comes from underlying economic growth?

Look at your own organization. Look at yourself. What are you investing in today that will allow you to reap dividends in 2-3 years or 5-7 years?

These are important questions, and they are the questions every Albertan should be asking every day. They are the questions that we will explore at E-Town (www.e-town.ca) next week, and it is important that you invite yourself to the conversation. Here’s why (true stories from the past week):

Me: Is your team coming to e-town this year?
CEO: It looks fabulous, but we’re too busy working too hard.
Me: Is working harder your competitive advantage?
CEO: Ummm … shut up.

Employee: I’d like to attend e-town this year. It only costs only $399.
Boss: What will you learn?
Employee: Technology, leadership and creativity trends affecting our business.
Boss: I don’t think those are our priorities right now.

Do these stories sound familiar? Are we simply trying to win by working harder? Or is it time we start thinking about competing by being smarter than your competition? One of our speakers, Estelle Metayer, focuses solely on this topic, and I’m probably looking forward to her session the most.


Because it strikes at the heart of our economic future. And you can’t afford to miss it.

Register yourself and your employees at www.e-town.ca.

Thank you.

Abundance vs. Necessity

Enroute back from Iceland, somewhere over the Atlantic. It’s a beautiful sight, the vastness of our Canadian Arctic, true north strong and free, when compared to a small, isolated island state like Iceland. The contrasts were noticeably obvious, but the unexpected insights were like gifts which I will freely share.

I come back a little embarrassed about our abundance. We are blessed with resources that are the envy of the world – oil, gas, fresh water, rich soil, rivers, streams, lakes, sun, wind, trees, animals, crops, mountains, medicine, education, democracy, rule of law, and stable government – the things of which most only dream.

Visiting the harbour town of Grindavik, we witnessed innovation at its finest. Blessed only with resources of the sea, an abundance of cod and shifting tectonic plates, we were treated to a proud culture of ingenuity and innovation out of necessity. This small town of 2,800 people shared an economic vision based on five areas of excellence:

1. Innovation in Cod Fishing: Higher quality fish through historical salting techniques; excellence in packaging and logistics such that fish can be on a plate in Edmonton within 36 hours of being caught; and a pursuit of innovation by developing 25 uses for cod sub products – from collagen to protein supplements – such that every part of the fish is developed to its highest value before it is exported.

2. Clean Energy Production: Harnessing the power of the volcanoes, earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates, geothermal production has risen to be the dominant source of energy production in the country, and is soon positioned to be sold in export markets. Clean electricity drive energy intensive industries like aluminum shelters, data centres, food processing and industrial greenhouses.

3. Greenhouse Food Production: Capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from clean energy production and using it as an input into industrial greenhouse food production has expanded the available production of food in what is otherwise a challenging landmass.

4. Barley Biotechnology: Understanding that barley represents one of the most biotech-friendly crops for genetic modification, medicinal experimentation and cosmetic engineering, industrial greenhouse operations, using CO2 and clean energy inputs, is expanding to diversify a product-based export economy.

5. Rejuvenation Ponds vs Tailings Ponds: Silica and clay based water runoff from the geothermal plants has created a series of rejuvenation ponds that are beautifully marketed as healing lagoons for those challenged with ailments and a quest for youth.

This level of closed-loop local innovation with limited resources has enriched the brand of Iceland to be associated with words like clean, beauty, nature, healthy, young, and sustainable. Absolutely Brilliant.

I ask you to take a minute and contemplate the depth of innovation and thoughtfulness we apply in an economy of abundance. And I challenge you to ask whether we are thinking hard enough? We complain that we need more labour and more labour in order to ship more raw commodities – oil, animals, lumber, barley, etc. – for others to process, refine, productize and realize significantly more value. We have much to learn … and so much more value to capture … if we get serious about rewarding innovation and eliminating the very policies and incentives that produce a Banana Republic mentality and the absolute wrong outcomes.

As the Minister of Industry & Innovation outlined the Icelandic economic vision, a gift to us, I can only offer the following wish in return: That as your offshore oil and gas production continues to develop and produces riches yet unknown, I wish that your country never gets complacent through abundance (fat, dumb and lazy) and always maintains your wonderful culture of innovation that has come through necessity.

Cash Cows in FunkyTown

“Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it … FunkyTown.”

It was 1980.  Disco was mainstream.  John Travolta was had just released Saturday Night Fever, and a band called Lipps released this catchy tune that hit #1 on the Billboard Top 100.  Alberta was a boomtown.  People were flocking to the province, as the price of oil had risen to $37 from $3 a decade earlier.  Life was grand, and nothing could stop us.

FunkyTown was a wild success.  Fans couldn’t get enough of it, and Lipps raked in the money from royalty sales that was then spent on concert after concert where people came to hear that one song … FunkyTown.  Unfortunately, the cash and the glamour was all consuming, and Lipps never really made it back in the recording studio to make another hit.  They tried … kind of … but they had to keep feeding the FunkyTown cash cow, and eventually after five years they packed it in … and now will forever be known as a one-hit wonder.  Sad.

Cash cows are both wonderful and dangerous things.  Microsoft is a great example.  At first they generate extraordinary profits and everyone is feeling funky and can do no wrong.  Profits are used to fund experiments in other areas – but those experiments are unfortunately just that … experiments … that are started then stopped, funded then under-funded, prioritized and then deprioritized.  You see, cash cows often produce wasted efforts across organizations, as they fund experimental opportunities for diversification but as soon as the cash cow hiccups, everything is shut down and all the resources come running back to protect the beloved bovine.  Diversification never happens, and cash cows often end up being one-hit wonders.

In Alberta, we suffer from our own cash cow system, our own one-hit wonder, our own FunkyTown.  We use our cash cow to create one of the finest universities in the world.  We seek out the best and the brightest talent and encourage them to come here to create opportunities for diversification – in areas like medical devices, heart transplants, nanotechnology, engineering, cardiovascular diseases, metabolomics, virology and islet cell transplants.  And just as they are hitting their stride … just as they are moving toward commercialization … what do we do?  We see our cash cow hiccup, we shorten our breath and immediately cut budgets to the very things that could bring us our second hit song, leaving the best and the brightest in our recording studios feeling like they are nothing more than an experiment.  Sad … once again.

The winning formula for attracting investment and people to Alberta is to create a stable environment for greatness to occur.  We need to understand that our cash cow is a blessing if we are smart, and a curse if we are complacent or inconsistent.  We have a winning formula for producing second, third and fourth hit songs … but it requires commitment and dedication to the investment; a stable environment for musicians to generate hits.

So let’s stop “talking about, talking about, talking about, talking about, talking about” disrupting the winning formula we are creating … and let’s commit ourselves to establishing a stable environment that generates multiple-hit wonders.