Why people matter: Canada’s Free Agents programme

After three years as Talent Manager on the Free Agents programme - the Canadian federal government’s experiment in HR innovation - Abe Greenspoon reflects on nine things he has learned along the way. You can read the full series of posts on Abe’s Medium.


The Free Agent’s programme is a new, more agile way, of doing HR in government. It takes a group of innovative public servants, pre-vetted and highly skilled, and gets them working on projects that match their skills and interests. They get the freedom to choose the projects they work on and departments across the Canadian civil service get access to a pool of talented civil servants to tackle their challenging policy issues.

Canada’s Free Agents programme has started to receive a lot of attention lately. This past year, we were nominated for an award by the OECD in Paris, invited to the World Government Summit in Dubai, featured in the OECD’s 2018 Global Trends in innovation, and have been approached by various provincial and international governments with interest in adopting our model. And so with this attention, I get a lot of people asking about what we learned along the way. Here are a few of my key takeaways:

1.  People are everything. We need to take care of each other

In speaking to people about change or transformation or innovation, I’ve heard a lot about the need to change rules, upgrade technology, fix broken culture and streamline processes. I rarely hear talk about transforming our people. Probably because at first blush that sounds kind of weird. How do you transform a person? It sounds odd.

I think we often forget the simple fact that organisations are made up of the people who work in them. Rules, processes, directives, policies — they’re created, maintained, obeyed, and broken by people. And so one thing I don’t think I could possibly over-emphasise about these past three years is that anything we’ve accomplished or not accomplished is because of people.

"I’ve heard a lot about the need to change rules, upgrade technology, fix broken culture and streamline processes. I rarely hear talk about transforming our people."

If we were successful, it was often because people had good ideas, people worked hard, people supported other people, people influenced other people, and yes, I believe people transformed other people’s beliefs or understanding of certain things. So my first and biggest point is simple — people are everything. They are what matters and they are what is important. It is people over process every day of the week. If Canada’s Free Agents loses sight of that spirit, we’ll be ruined.

2. Ask for feedback. Be vulnerable and grow from what you learn

In our formative days and months, hearing from our primary users was incredibly important to understand what we were doing right and what we needed to change. For example, in those early days we made the mistake of branding Free Agents as “top talent”, “innovators”, “change agents”, and various other hubristic labels. From the outside, you might be forgiven if you thought that Free Agents saw themselves as superheroes in capes who would swoop in and fix all of the mistakes your employees were making. This was obviously a mistake!

As the programme has grown, it’s become harder to make sense of the feedback we receive. We have such a diverse group of stakeholders that it’s been really tricky representing the diverse views of all the people involved with the programme. I continue to emphasise the importance of giving and receiving feedback as a critical part of the success of the programme, of the Free Agents, and of myself. So always be open to hear what others have to say. Even if you don’t like the message or the way it’s delivered, make time to hear everything. You grow from it and you learn from it and you are better because of it.

3.  Recognise human customs and be willing to challenge them

How many times have you asked someone why something is done a certain way and they’ve told you “that’s how we’ve always done it”? I’ve been shocked how many times over the course of the last three years that I’ve encountered customs being acted on as if they were rules.

My point is this — there is an incredible amount of room within the existing rules for meaningful change. We just need to understand the actual rules and differentiate them from customs. Because as soon as you can tell the difference, you’ve identified an opportunity for change. Over the past three years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to understand the rules and even harder to identify customs in need of change. I’ve come to firmly believe that most of what is holding us back in the public service is not related to our system of rules, but to the myriad of customs we follow with little evidence of their efficacy nor knowledge of their origin.

"Rules tell us 'we can’t do that' whereas customs tell us 'we don’t do that'. And when I hear 'we don’t do that', I actually hear 'we don’t do that… but we could'."

Banal as it may seem, understanding the difference between rules and customs is understanding the difference between limitations and limitless possibility. Rules tell us “we can’t do that” whereas customs tell us “we don’t do that”. And when I hear “we don’t do that”, I actually hear “we don’t do that…but we could.” For me, the question “Can we?” is incredibly powerful. When you want to make change happen, start by asking that question.

4.  Establish your principles and live by them

We’re always faced with complex and controversial challenges that require us to make decisions that won’t always satisfy everyone’s perspectives, concerns, or preferences. We’ve made a lot of these sorts of critical decisions about how to design Canada’s Free Agents over the past three years.

Some of these decisions have made people uncomfortable. Some decisions we were told we couldn’t make because we were breaking the “rules”. Some decisions were considered too risky. But most of these decisions — at least the ones that I think have made the most difference for the people involved — have been guided by following our principles. I think we need to be guided more by our principles than by rules. Rules are good, but principles are better. Principles are our compasses. They point us in the right direction so we don’t get lost in discussions about risks and rules.

Be guided by a vision about what is right and don’t get distracted by people who want to pull you off your course. Making the effort to be consistent about my principles in my work has made the most controversial decisions a lot easier. They’re like a north star when you’re lost at sea.

5. We need professional managers whose jobs are to serve their employees

I think one place that deserves more attention is a clearer discussion about what we want from our managers. Do we want managers of work? Or do we want managers of people?

In the first vision, we expect managers to support the completion of the work. In this vision, managers are resources for the completion of the work. They would provide advice about it, make decisions about how it is done, and maybe even do the work themselves.

"I always tell people to put as much emphasis on the manager of their dreams as they do the job of their dreams."

In the second vision, we expect managers to support employees so they can complete the work. This latter vision is the spirit of the Talent Manager positions in Canada’s Free Agents. The Talent Manager’s most important role is to support the Free Agents so they can be awesome. We provide administrative support, career advice, learning opportunities, and more. Our job isn’t to do the work. Our job is to help those who are and we try hard to provide the conditions for their success. Aligning people and their talents towards their goals. I always tell people to put as much emphasis on the manager of their dreams as they do the job of their dreams.

6. Your work needs to survive leadership changes

When you’re designing change or transformation projects, leadership is incredibly important. And because leadership is so important, designing for changes in leadership is equally important. I heard so many stories about failed transformation projects due to leadership changes. Everything from entire innovation labs being blown up, to individual projects being shut down under changing leadership. That threat always haunted me.

I can say with some confidence that we made a few clever design safeguards against the sort of challenges brought on by changes in leadership. Indeterminate positions, distribution of risk across multiple departments, and a cost-neutral financial model for home departments are elements that make it more work to shut us down than to let us keep doing what we’re doing.

And I don’t mean to suggest that we were trying to dupe anyone into supporting us. It’s just easy for busy managers who inherit change or transformation projects to dismiss them offhand. There are few incentives for them to take the risk on projects they didn’t create. But we believed with great conviction that what we were doing was for the greater good of the public service. And so we felt that we owed it to the people we were working for to design the programme to make it as difficult as possible to shut down.

7. We need to encourage each other towards action

We were willing to learn by doing and so we spent little time talking. We spent a few months consulting with stakeholders, meeting with corporate services, planning the mechanics, and running an intake. Had we spent what feels like a “normal” amount of time planning, discussing, meeting, doing more planning, analysing risks, more meetings, etc., etc… well, we may have created a something useful, but I doubt it would look anything at all like what we have today. I doubt we’d have generated the spark and cultural undercurrent that I’m most proud of with our community.

Given enough time, we love to create frameworks, and policies, and charters, and plans until we suffocate the energy from our humanity. It’s a tale as old as Westminster. We were ready to succeed quickly or fail quickly and so far we’re doing OK. So I’d love to see public servants move more quickly to action so we can have more pleasant surprises, even if it means having some unpleasant ones occasionally.

I love the OneTeamGov concept of “microactions” that Kit Collingwood and the gang came up with — achieving change through the aggregation of thousands of small things that anyone can do every day. This is the sort of movement that I can get behind because it favours actions over words through practical work. I’m hopeful that this will increasingly be the norm for us as we move from snoozy bureaucrats to action-oriented reformists.

8.  System changes make people uncomfortable

The trouble with trying to create a new system within an existing system is that eventually the system wakes up to you and sees you. This, I’ve come to realise, is a necessary part of disruptive change — the point in time when rule-makers and rule-keepers feel the tension of inevitable rule changes. This, I think, is the beginning of some painful tensions.

Think about it — an incredible amount of time and energy is put into designing, implementing, and enforcing the rules. In the bureaucracy, entire careers are proudly made in this area. One can only imagine the threatening feeling of change. Even in the best case scenario where the benefit of change is clear and the system is self-aware enough to know why it is being disrupted, I still believe this transition is difficult. Tensions will be high, but if we engage each other with open minds, hearts, and wills, I think there will be a lot to look forward to.

9.  No matter what we do, we’re always human

I don’t know whether our system can take care of people who want to be authentic. I’m not sure we have the level of community and trust across our large organisations to support authenticity and radical humanity. And that pains me because I feel like so many of the major challenges we face in our organisational culture comes down to our inabilities to feel comfortable with our own idiosyncrasies. And so,  regardless of what we think about ourselves or want others to think about us, we are all human. And in a system that seems to want us to disguise our humanity, my superheroes are the people who are proudly themselves.

With that aim, we are building systems of psychological safety. We are creating support structures for talent management so people can get advice, share their stories, hear from others’ experiences, and learn how to understand themselves. We are giving people autonomy so they can discover who they are and express that to their managers so they work in jobs that are aligned with their passions.

The journey we’re on with Canada’s Free Agents isn’t just about rapid HR or innovation capacity. It’s about a movement that is trying to re-humanise the public service. We’re all humans and so I think the sooner we can figure out how to be human, the sooner we’ll see real positive change.

Read the full series of posts on Abe’s Medium.