Transforming government without ego

President Barack Obama greets His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the entrance of the Map Room of the White House, June 15, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama greets His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the entrance of the Map Room of the White House, June 15, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For my friends who work at the U.S. Digital Service, 18F and inside other government agencies of change, I hear stories of people so full of hope, embedded in teams where egos reign, working all day holding onto a glimmer of hope that they can move the needle forward even just a little.

And many days they do.

But there are real challenges to transforming a closed and rigid government dominated by fear and clinging to safe passages. For many, change does not feel safe. I spoke recently with a digital leader inside California’s IT group who knows the dangers of transformation. He joked that his top goal was to get fired within two years.

Ego death is not a bad goal. In fact, it’s probably necessary for the reinvention of our institutions and the survival of our planet.

In 1977, “The Power of Now” author Eckhart Tolle awoke in a semi-lucid dream state and committed ego suicide. He awoke hours later enlightened. Inventor and author Buckminster Fuller had a similar experience in 1927. Most of us have not been so lucky.

Many of us are attracted to practices that move us towards that place of intense joy that comes from being present. In my field, technology, both Free and Open Source development and agile practices have offered me, and many others, a path towards a similar joy.

The public release of your work is the polar opposite to what many of us have experienced— years of creative passion that has been shelved after a closed, waterfall process. For some of us, this relief is temporary. We may find ourselves working long hours, sacrificing ourselves for the common good and feel that we have found the path of enlightenment through this thing called ‘free software’ or ‘agile development.’

Releasing early and publicly has brought our hearts back into our work.

But I will ask you — have we really found the path to being fully present? What happened to the joy? Did we find other enemies out there? Are we open to hearing the pain of our users if it is embedded in their bureaucracy or takes the form of silence in a closed resigned mind?

I have found that agile experts and agile development companies (including my firm CivicActions) often get caught up in personal and collective ego in a way that polarizes. And of course everyone is aware of this in Free and Open Source Software communities. If we are not careful, we can get dogmatic about our process. And this dogmatism can get in the way of progress.

Eckhart Tolle wrote:

What a relief to be freed of the dreadful burden of a personal self. The members of the collective feel happy and fulfilled, no matter how hard they work, how many sacrifices they make. They appear to have gone beyond ego. The question is: Have they truly become free, or has the ego simply shifted from the personal to the collective?

  • A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as…the need for conflict and enemies,
  • the need for more,
  • the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on.

Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity. Its members will then experience the suffering that inevitably comes in the wake of any ego-motivated action.

Working with CivicActions, bringing FOSS and agile into government, I can feel the almost gravitational pull towards collective ego every day.

It goes like this:

  • “The Contracting Officer doesn’t get it.”
  • “The Chief Information Officer is clueless.”
  • “We need a new Product Owner that gets it.”
  • “These NIST rules are contradictory and will make the system less safe.”
  • “The union protects people who refuse to learn or change.”

In “The Art of Business Value,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Chief Information Officer Mark Schwartz writes about this phenomena.

Bureaucracy in an organization often leads to compliance requirements, which in turn generate work items that must be prioritized alongside functional requirements. It is easy to mistake these requirements for waste. Waste is whatever does not add value, and compliance requirements are not concerned with adding direct customer value. This explains the frustration that teams often have when confronted with bureaucracy.

But what if those requirements actually are adding business value — just an indirect and well-disguised type of value?

If the public requires transparency into a government IT project, then activities to provide that transparency are not necessarily waste. If the government values fair competition between vendors and supporting veterans through preferential hiring practices, the additional process steps those concerns add to our IT delivery value chain are not necessarily waste, though they do not add user value.

For those who recognize these quotes, please don’t take these as making you wrong. Instead applaud yourself for noticing that you had those thoughts. Each noticing brings us one step closer to dissolving our own personal or collective ego.

Every moment we notice the voice of judgement, it fires new neural circuits — like lifting a weight at the gym. It’s rewiring your wetware and taking you once step closer towards a more open mind.

As author Jack Kornfield teaches us about meditation:

In this way, meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say, “Stay.” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. You don’t hit the puppy.

We all have minds that create chatter that turns into words. This is how we write code. It’s how we bring value.

But, sometimes our thoughts and words are simply a byproduct of hardened opinions and are blocking us from seeing something important. Let’s simply notice what we all do and how we get seduced by our personal and collective egos. It’s not a bad thing. It’s being human.

But, whenever we feel a judgement coming over us about someone or something ‘out there’ or even ourselves, then just notice if there is some mental position that you (or we) have that is collapsed with our identity. Challenges to that mental position can feel like a threat and those feelings may cause us to close up and become unaware of some important need that is lurking in the other person or in the bureaucracy.

What Schwartz is writing about is that often agile gurus themselves don’t get it. Valuing “people and interactions over process and tools” may need to take into account people that have institutionalized their pain into compliance regimes. It is important to discover.

The point is, especially in agile government initiatives, we need to pay attention to our own higher self in order to sort out the path. We should beware of collective ego as well as our own.

As Tolle writes:

Two or more people express their opinions and those opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion, that those thoughts harden into mental positions which are invested with a sense of self. In other words: Identity and thought merge. Once this has happened, when I defend my opinions (thoughts), I feel and act as if I were defending my very self. Unconsciously, I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated. That’s the illusion. The ego doesn’t know that mind and mental positions have nothing to do with who you are, because the ego is the unobserved mind itself.

The corporate world is addressing ego head on. Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, co-founded by Google’s “Jolly Good Fellow” Chade-Meng Tan and Marc Lesser, spun out of a Google management program focused on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Google, and others, have discovered the importance of managing ego and effectively executing large-scale transformation.

At CivicActions, we’ve instituted balance score checkins during scrum standups to strengthen our ability to be present and dissolve ego. We’ve found even this simple exercise makes it easier to open otherwise closing minds.

For those further intrigued by how rewiring the mind works, and how it can be applied to your agile government transformation efforts, see Jenni Jepsen’s “The Neuroscience of Agile Leadership.”

If you have a desire to transform an agency, then the key is to act locally. Locally may mean becoming more present to how your own mental positions are collapsed with your identity and show up through conflict with direct peers. If you find that tension is showing up between your team and other individuals or institutions, then bring your team’s attention to how you may be enabling a collective ego to thrive inside your bubble. Be the opening in the presence of those you feel are closed.

And most importantly, don’t kick yourself. Paying attention and noticing is a fine path towards ego death.

About Henry Poole

Henry Poole is CEO of CivicActions.

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