This article was written by Klaudia Bencze, Social Media Team Leader, European Committee of the Regions in Brussels, and was originally published on Apolitical, the global learning platform for government. It was originally published here in July 2020. We’re featuring the article with kind permission by Klaudia Bencze and Apolitical.
Do you remember the cartoon spot about “The place that sends you mad” from the famous French-Belgian show, Asterix and Obelix and the Twelve Tasks of Asterix?
In the clip, Asterix the brave Gaul is given the task to get permit “A-38” from a public office in ancient Rome. As he tries to obtain this permit, he is sent from one official to the next who, curiously, never seem to be able to help him without first getting another permit from another official somewhere deeper in the labyrinth of the multi-store office building. Asterix’s frustration grows as he is sent back and forth between wicked staircases and counters, and it ends with the whole building collapsing under the literal weight of bureaucracy.
It’s a tragically funny depiction of what the public sector can be like at its worst.
Ill designed procedures are often results of cumbersome decision-making and lengthy processes. They not only make the work of those inside less efficient, but in the case of public administration, it has a huge impact on people who are on the receiving end of the public service.
“Collective thinking has many advantages that can enrich your decision-making process, but speed is not one of them”
Public administrations are complex organisations made up of numerous departments and sub-departments, where a decision is rarely made by one single entity. Hierarchy is not flat and the more it is embedded in a political environment the more often the winds of change blow its corridors.
Problem-Solving Begins With Feedback
How can we, civil servants, still make decisions that are the best and fastest with given parameters and do good for the challenge we are tasked with, and without putting citizens through the ordeal Asterix had to suffer?
I would like to present here three situations which I have often encountered in my work, where I have tried to approach them a little bit in a different way than usual.
1. Make time for collective thinking — even when you’re time-poor
Collective thinking has many advantages that can enrich your decision-making process, but speed is not one of them.
When you have to come up with a proposal in just a few hours, it can be tempting to go for it all alone. You might have the authority or the experience, but chances are, the more complex the problem, the more you would benefit from others’ perspectives.
“Showing that you don’t have all the answers is not a sign of unpreparedness. Rather, it is a sign of self-confidence”
Do not miss the opportunity for whatever little space or limited tools you can have for a discussion with colleagues who can provide valuable input. However overwhelming the task is, you will probably be able to discuss one or two aspects, brainstorm about the overall goal or share concerns and doubts that would help you structure your solution.
Give your discussion a clear time frame, set one or two clear objectives and let people think quietly first. Most importantly, visualise your discussion in real-time. Visualisation is a powerful tool to get results in a limited time by enforcing a frame, allowing for parallel thinking and triggering ideas.
2. Create a space for true collaboration — not just silent agreement
When you are in charge of a task that involves several people from different departments and ranks and you have to manage their various levels of involvement and expectations, it is easy to label “he or she was not against it” as collaboration.
While having no objection can seem like a good sign, it is still far from fully embracing the solution and supporting you, which can also create a backlash later. The above-mentioned collective decision-making practice is something that helps develop ownership but sometimes merely asking, “How would you approach this problem?” and actively listening to their answer can do wonders.
Showing that you don’t have all the answers is not a sign of unpreparedness. Rather, it is a sign of self-confidence that you’re open to hearing contrasting views. However smooth your process ends up being, do not forget to stop regularly and check-back on how much others still feel a shared sense of ownership over the solution you’re driving towards.
3. Turning success-stories into meaningful feedback
Celebrating success and acknowledging results is very important for a healthy work environment — and that goes for both the public and private sector equally. Yet constructive feedback, or in other words feedback from which we can “construct better solutions” is often left on the side whether or not we have achieved or goals.
“Bring one small change at a time with barely more resources than a little focus, attention and curiosity”
In my personal experience, this is mostly unintentional; there is no time or format for it after or even during a problem-solving process. But there is a long list of tools available that can help you give better feedback, and my favourite is the “hot debrief”.
When you achieve a milestone or went through a critical point in your process, stop and assess immediately. What went well, what went wrong, how to do it differently the next time? A key mistake many people make is thinking they need to wait until they have analysed all the information.
While you might not have all the processed information at this moment, you have the one thing that will fade away the fastest; people’s impressions and feelings. Both are important elements of the feedback, but the latter is more likely to stick and trigger more interest in digging deeper into the assessment later. Find a nice format and turn hot debriefs into a regular practice within your team, you will see the appetite for constructive feedback will grow.
The above are some examples of how to break traditional problem-solving processes in small steps and bringing one small change at a time with barely more resources than a little focus, attention and curiosity. Dare to use these “weapons” to build more dynamic and efficient public services.