Category Archives: The World Around Us

There’s always an 11th round

 

A family in Kathputli Colony (called Kathputli "Slum"​ by locals and authorities) in New Delhi, India. I took this photo in Feb 2017 while touring the area with a local resident. The residents are facing eviction by the city...11th round to follow.

 

There are probably a million variations on the theme – the most prolific of which has to do with not burning a bridge you may want or need to walk across some day.

We can probably all remember being told as young as elementary school, after a playground encounter or classroom outburst, some variation of this aphorism.

In a context equally applicable in life and in business – and with a little more nuance than the idea of lighting up a bridge and warming yourself on the flames – I heard it expressed in negotiation terms – “…there’s always an 11th round.”

A few years back, one of the experts at the Harvard Program on Negotiation opened the program with this phrase.

What I took him to mean was essentially this (to borrow a phrase from the late, great Stuart McLean): the universe is not big, but it’s small. Or, more to the point, your universe is never as big as you think or might like to believe.

The likelihood that you will come directly, or indirectly, in contact with a “former” counter-party, colleague or friend is high enough as to outweigh the inevitably transient feeling of whatever epic smack-down; overtly hostile, patriarchal or smug comment; or “extra juice” you choose to extract from someone over whom you hold advantage or sway.

Like all humans, I’ve fallen victim to believing I roam in a universe big enough to allow me the luxury of acting like an a** on one-too-many occasions. And, like all of us, I’ve walked into that “11th round” and endured the discomfort, dissatisfaction or outright shame about my behaviour during some part of rounds 1-10 with that individual.

Dealing with those moments can be tender to be sure. But avoiding them in the first place is a lot easier…than taking a gamble on whether and when we will end-up in round #11.

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Shout-out of the week

The wonderful folks at the Springtide Collective in Nova Scotia have undertaken a much-needed project, called “On the Record, Off Script”. What is it? Simply put, it’s a series of exit-interviews with former Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) about their work, roles and the state of democracy in Canada’s oldest responsible government (1848).

In my humble opinion, it’s worth considering two things:

1) Subscribing to the Podcast on the medium of your choice; and,

2) Donating to help them continue this important work. I have no doubt we will all be in their debt someday.

Expanding my “Pitching Repertoire”

Sports are great for the metaphors.

How many times have you heard someone bring a point home (see what I did there…?) with a great metaphor from the world of sports?

As I gathered with hundreds of other people touched by the life and legacy of one awesome human being last week, one of his great friends (and eulogists) told a story that has caused me to reflect; a lot.

It has to do, fundamentally, with what’s in one’s “pitching repertoire” – what kinds of pitches do we (and, maybe more importantly, can we) throw?

Some of us can throw a mean fastball (pssst….type A people, that’s us). Maybe we get a little too used to that, and have lost the ability (if we ever had it) to toss a change-up, throw a slider, flip in a knuckleball or let a curve ball rip.

We tell ourselves it’s okay to be a one-pitch-johnny/jane in our increasingly specialized world…it’s what makes us effective and sets us apart from the crowd, that wicked fastball; right?

For me, the loss of a person who was intentional about how and when to throw what kind of a pitch – and who made so many lives better for it – is a good occasion to take stock of my own ‘pitching’ abilities.  I’ve found it helpful to think about it this way: what is in our pitching repertoire matters everywhere we are present. It matters in everyday interactions in a coffee shop; with family, friends and kids; sitting across the table from tough counterparties or important big-wigs; or just being one of the crowd in life.

And not because we want to be Machiavellian and manipulate people to our own ends by throwing just the right pitch at the right moment. But because when you practice something authentically and often it will come instinctively, and open up opportunities that would otherwise not have existed.

The result of this assiduous practice for my late friend enabled a kind of human connection, and personal and professional achievement, that illustrates what’s possible in a life truly, well and richly lived.

So as the Spring thaw sets in, whether you’re a baseball fan or not, maybe this is a good time for us all to pick up a ball, rub on some A535, warm up the arm and practice a few of our most underused pitches.

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Shout-out of the week:

A good friend sent me a podcast recommendation this week – and I offer it up for your consideration. Of particular interest to me was the recent one focusing on the Northern Irish community of Corymeela, where my cousin has worked, and beside which I often jog when visiting my father’s family home in Ballycastle.

Note: I snapped the photo for this article inside an abandoned building at the edge of Rathlin Island, across the strait from where Corymeela is located, while on a visit home about this time of year in 2015.

Fisherwick-ism #3: Where your eyes go, the car goes

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I took this photo in Naples, Florida in 2015 – under the fishing pier.

I didn’t actually “read” this book – the Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein; instead I listened to it as an audiobook.

I honestly thought the plot (essentially about this man’s life from the vantage point of his dog) was a little wonky, but I had known people who raved about the book, so I went for it.  And, in spite of myself, I really enjoyed it.

As soon as I heard those words spoken during the audiobook, I knew they’d stick with me.  I shorthand them these days to “where your eyes go, the car goes.”

I think about these words often, now, and share them with clients and colleagues.

I don’t think they are simple, or simplistic.  I don’t believe that observing their meaning is solely about some twisted form of manifesting destiny, either – if it is, in fact, possible to manifest one’s destiny.

I do believe, however, that they speak to framing.  Framing a challenge, framing an issue, framing how we choose to see, perceive or address something.

Frankly, I think a strict interpretation of these words in either direction is unwise.  If Interpretation A = eyes toward the ditch means we go into the ditch, and Interpretation B = eyes on the centre line keeps us on the straight & narrow…I choose Interpretation C+.

In my humble opinion, Interpretation C+ equals some variety of these actions: give your head a shake, have a look around, survey the landscape, observe the oncoming traffic, be aware of the road hazards and think before you act.

Don’t stay blindered toward the status quo believing it’s the only route forward.  And don’t cock your head toward the ditch, throw your hands up and proclaim that the arse is out of ‘er.

In a sense, then, these words can become a talisman against extremes in either direction – over-confidence, or defeatism.  Proclaiming victory, or admitting defeat.

And we haven’t even added the factor of weather to the equation.

Oiling the Machinery of Government: A Primer

Lots of friends in or concerned about Alberta have been inquiring of me in the last week how a transition of government works.

Having observed many, and living, sweating and coffee-Ing my way through a transition from a Progressive Conservative (PC) to a New Democratic Party (NDP) government in Nova Scotia in June 2009, here are some indicative crib notes for the uninitiated.

 

During the election itself (“Calm before the storm” phase):

  • Political parties with a realistic prospect of forming a government fashion the membership of a transition team, who will endeavor to develop (often quite detailed) plans of how the ‘skin graft’ of the new political leadership will be effected onto the body corporate of the public service (think of this as the M&A integration team);
  • Civil servants do not shut down government and decamp to Florida, as some may conjecture, suspect or fear. They work to analyze platforms of the major, competitive parties, in addition to continuing the work of administering programs and fashioning policy under the laws of the day;
  • The head of the civil service will generally contact a senior member of the leader’s staff (usually the Chief of Staff) of any party that realistically *may* form the incoming government (any party, that is, who is not the incumbent government). This is usually done officially the day before Election Day. This can be a perfunctory call, but usually includes assurances that preparations have been made, briefing binders readied and includes a discussion of how best to make contact following the election, should that party win the election; and,
  • The head of the civil service usually sketches-out recommended changes to the form and functions of government departments/ministries, and outlines retirement plans/timelines of Deputy Ministers, including plans for shuffles and senior leadership changes.

 

After Election Day (“The sizing each other up” & “Getting down to business”, phases):

  • Once the result is clear, and a concession speech from the incumbent has been given — the civil service move into overdrive. The day after the election, they will ensure transition office space is made available for the incoming government — should the newbies desire to make use of it — although some incoming governments will choose the expediency and comfort of remaining in their caucus offices to conduct the transition from there;
  • The incoming premier (“Premier-Designate”) will officially name a transition team (generally composed of people who will not become staff within the government, at least not initially), to advise her on the major decisions she faces before the end of the fortnight:
    1. structure of her office, and staff appointments therein;
    2. structure of her Executive Council (more commonly called the “Cabinet”, and distinct from all the other MLAs not in the Cabinet but who are government caucus members, aka. Backbenchers). This will include many considerations – the size of cabinet; the actual portfolios to be held and therefore the number, name and remit of the departments/ministries; the vetting and background checks on potential members of the cabinet, often without their knowledge;
    3. the structure of the offices of the members of Cabinet, key hirings in those offices (political staff, MLAs acting as “Associate Ministers” or like-functions, and civil service support);
    4. direct/daily liaison with the civil service on priority matters of the incoming government, and things that require decisions or the exercise of ministerial/executive authority, under the provincial laws/statutes;
    5. recommendations on staffing of senior civil service positions. The head of the public service will inevitably have done their homework, and be making recommendations to the Premier-Designate through the transition team (Deputy Heads/Deputy Ministers are actually appointed under the authority of the Premier, and report to the Premier, even though they serve a Minister). But there will also be a potential need to part with senior civil servants for symbolic and policy reasons (although as others have pointed out, wholesale change is a non-starter for a host of good reasons);
    6. the administration of the mythical “truth serum” to those same civil servants, who will almost invariably deliver a less rosy picture of the provincial finances and general state of housekeeping of many matters of state than had been previously communicated to the public. When this happens within the first 48-72 hours it can be a deeply sobering and positively vexing occurrence (think of this as a major, major post-closing headache that will shape the future direction of the enterprise);
    7. planning the swearing-in ceremony of the new government, including the tone, symbolism, and vision for the future inherent therein;
    8. drafting of the mandate letters for signature of the Premier-Designate (aka. Marching orders) that will guide the incoming Members of Cabinet in the discharge of their duties, and implementation of election commitments (note: these are generally not public documents, although NB Premier Brian Gallant made a show of publicly releasing same last Fall following his election).
  • Boxes full of briefing binders prepared by the civil service will be brought to the transition offices. They will include “briefing notes” (BN’s in government parlance), on issues from the very mundane (think “implementation of revised Public Sector Accounting Board standards”) to the very critical (think H1N1-like matters)
  • Well organized briefing binders will — from the perspective of the civil/public service, at least — outline the mission critical issues facing the incoming Minister/government within that portfolio. These can fall into a number of categories, such as:
    1. the proverbial bags of poo sitting on your doorstep that were just lit on fire;

    2. the policy “punts” that are about to come back into play, stat;

    3. the implications of things that the outgoing government promised or committed to but were not: (a) budgeted for, (b) consulted upon, (c) well thought out, and, (d) worth the paper the speech that delivered them was written on.

  • If not outlined within these binders, then separately analyzed and presented to the transition committee will be the election platform (and related commitments/promises/priorities) of the incoming government, within the historical/recent policy context of said department. This will be an iterative conversation, that will often start with “…so, you committed to do this/these things. We think they will cost xxxx and have this very-long-list of implications. So now, we’d like to ask you these gazillion clarifying questions about what you really, actually meant by this commitment.” (Think of this as legal and accounting ganging-up, supported by internal audit, risk management and the quality assurance departments, to clarify a directive of the board or executive team).

And this is really, only, just-the-beginning (before people even get sworn in to office).

All of this frenzy of activity can literally take place in less time than it takes Gangnam Style to go from a small-time hit to that really-annoying-song-that-is-on-the-radio-all-the-time-and-making-grown-people-with-no-rhythm-do-weird-things-with-their-hips-and-also-those-lasso-arm-swingy-things.

Or, put another way, in less time that it might take your stock price to go from a 52-week low-to-high or vice-versa.

In most of the rest of Canada, this can happen anywhere from every 3.5 years, to at least every 16 or so (the Manitoba NDP have been winning majority governments since 1999).

In Alberta, not so much.

 

The best piece of advice I received — from a former PC staffer — in 2009 was that I should be prepared “…for it to take 3.5-5 months for you to find your sea-legs”.

 

My self-assurance and ego notwithstanding — my buddy, as it turns out, was right.

One morning as I made my way to the Premier’s office, long about September 2009, I had a comforting realization that I “knew who to call”. That is to say, most of us had by that point come to an understanding of who we needed to call/email/ask about what, and when.

On-the-job training never stops — it never does in the evolving world of province/state-craft — but the equilibrium of becoming acclimated to the environment, the policy framework and the apparatus of which you are now abiding the folks with their hands on the levers, gets reached somewhere around that point in time.

Does that mean nothing can get done in the first few months of a new government (especially one displacing a 44 year-old regime)? Of course not. Smart people find effective ways to get things done every day.

Not “meeting disaster half-way” is the order of the day. Don’t force a question too early, only to find you get an answer you don’t want, and an outcome no one likes.

Annie, drop your gun(s)

Industry: They are wiping us out; thousands will leave.  And they don’t care.
 
Government: We’re going broke; their tastes are too rich.  And they’re exaggerating.

It’s tempting to caricature, and reduce to sound-bites, the rationale and impacts of the public policy decision contained in last week’s provincial budget on the Film Tax Credit (FTC).

This policy/tax measure defies over-simplification and was born and bred in a nuanced and shifting industry, financial and policy environment.

The long-standing position of the Department of Finance staff on the make-up of the FTC is well-known to both stakeholders and within the halls of government in Nova Scotia.  Naturally, they rely on their training and experience to assess the “effectiveness” of various tax measures in an imperfect world of statistics, numbers and outputs, in an effort to meet demands to keep provincial taxes down and services intact.

Similarly, the industry has heralded its growth over the past few decades, turned its thoughts to continued success and maintained a watchful eye on its competitiveness.   Naturally, they have sought the kinds of incentives, evolutions and updates that they believe helps Nova Scotia keep the proverbial credits rolling.

While you can measure taxes paid, revenues generated and associated impacts, you simply can’t reduce the contribution of artists, and the vibrancy of a culturally-rooted community to numbers alone.
This tension is at the root of the decision to significantly change the FTC in the 2015-16 budget.

Should the government – and by that, I mean the politicians who both make the decision and ultimately have to defend it – have approached this situation differently? 

Should the industry, recognizing the budget challenges and with the Ivany and Broten reports in mind, have proactively sought-out government to modernize the FTC?

“Should-ing yourself” is always messy.  And it is never a comfortable position from which to figure out a reasonable path forward; it inherently dwells on the past.

How realistic is a wholesale reversal of this change?  The odds are longer than a Nova Scotia winter.

For the government, then, what choice but to defend the turf you’ve staked out?  And for the industry, what choice but to fight for the status quo, and your livelihood?

Fighting is inevitably a temporary way to ride the cortisol train to the sinking realization that, when the fight finally ends, everybody ended up a loser.

If nothing changes, a hollow victory to both sides is all but assured.  The government achieves budget reductions, and the industry fights the good fight but loses the vast majority of everything they have worked to build.

The government will test the threats and forecasts of the companies, and thousands of now-disillusioned professionals.  The industry will test the resolve of the government to push through a measure that they maintain is a necessary element of a balanced economy, and budget.
But this weekend proves that from underneath even a harsh Nova Scotia Winter, Spring can emerge.

One thing I have learned, both in government and in life, is that it’s never too late to do the right thing.
 
And it’s never out of fashion to acknowledge and reinforce people when they do.

And I don’t think there’s one person in the province today who could be trusted to script just what that “right thing” is.  Certainly no one in government, or in the industry, can lay claim to that for understandable reasons.

Cue the cooling-off period.

The industry and the provincial government have much in common – though the Spring fog that has settled in around the Legislature makes it exceedingly hard to see that.  Giving them both the benefit of the doubt, it’s a safe bet that:

  • They both want a vibrant film industry in Nova Scotia;

  • They know Nova Scotia has poor demographics and a shrinking tax base;

  • They both want to attract and retain talented, creative people; and,

  • They both believe this is a great place to live and work.

That should be enough to get them in the same room and get the small talk rolling.

In order to take one of the many off-ramps, they need to put the calculators and pitchforks away, look each other in the eye and agree on a few more things:

  • The FTC of today can’t be the FTC of tomorrow, it needs to change – after 20 years, and a series of tweaks, it’s time to look to the future in a new way;

  • In order to maintain a vibrant film and television industry, and all the incredible culture, people and intangibles that go with it, the incentives in Nova Scotia need to be, and remain, competitive;

  • The current level of government support is comparatively high, and our ability to generate tax revenue is declining; the value of the FTC needs to be reduced; and,

  • A more collaborative change in three, six or nine months – all within this budget year – that has even lukewarm industry and government support, is better than a first draft today that begets white-hot anger.

Most decisions are not irreversible, but their outcomes can be.  In this case, there is still time to move from a positional stand-off to a shared-interest solution.

The so-called budget bill, the Financial Measures Act , will be the place this change is actually effected.  It usually comes in within a week or so of Budget day (last Thursday).  Until that bill is brought in, and frankly until it passes Committee of the Whole House and receives third and final reading in about 3 weeks – the budget decision on the FTC remains a ‘statement of policy intent’, not a hard-and-fast decision.

But once it’s done it is very hard to undo.  Cue the toothpaste analogy.

Speaking as an uninitiated, I suspect the process of making a film or TV episode is not unlike a place where I have a little more experience: the process of making a law or building the provincial budget.  
 
It can be messy, complicated, and it will take hours of production to gain seconds or minutes of tape that make it to the big screen.

But just like in the movies, until the final cut is done, it always remains a work-in-progress.