Chris Chapman: resilience from giving permission to change

By Harley Dennett

Friday December 18, 2015

In 2006 the public sector was in a very different place, and Chris Chapman, the then newly installed head of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, was about to undertake a plan that would initially provoke scepticism and later near sector-wide consensus.

Approaching the end of two five-year appointments, Chapman (pictured) will today release the fourth iteration of its internal review, meeting our standard, cataloguing nearly a decade of transformation of virtually every aspect of the agency.

“At first staff found it an oddity,” Chapman tells The Mandarin, sandwiched between initially sceptical staff and no blessing externally. “You’re the idiot in the middle … that’s not management, that’s leadership.”

“You feel naked; this is a very unusual thing to have done. The transformation was multifaceted with a lot of external indicators that are used internally as well. The success of transformation, which is ongoing and never reaches an end point, is the degree to which it becomes part of your DNA.”

While it may have been like pulling teeth initially, after four rounds of critically assessing themselves against a very high standard, being open to second-order transformation is now everyday practice.

“We had so drunk the Kool-Aid that we had tacitly adopted a second-order transformation.”

It’s not just Chapman that can look back at those years of work with pride; every employee’s contribution to the ACMA is showcased in the 104 case studies built into the meeting our standard report. “It’s an opportunity to show your peers what you’re doing. That’s a very material and palpable satisfaction.”

Chapman’s message to staff along the way needed to recognise that they’re in the public service not just for remuneration, but to contribute to the national interest:

“You’re telling staff that whereas they’re doing a really good job, now they can do an even better job because you have permission to think from first principles.”

“They do enjoy the permissions that first principles thinking provides them. They do appreciate the investment in the knowledge and learning organisation, appreciate the investment in research, and also appreciate the permission to experiment and fail. That’s the most heartening thing over the last decade.”

If staff believe it, they’re empowered to go do something about it, Chapman says. Without evolution, an agency in a fast paced sector like media and communications can quickly become irrelevant. “You’re going to become roadkill,” the former media company CEO adds, knowing from experience that it has happened to others in the sector he left to become its regulator.

Chapman makes no aphorisms about the prophetic shift now underway in contemporary public sector thinking. But their first iteration of the internal transformation review could easily be confused for something that might come out of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet fresh today.

Show, don’t tell

At the time Chapman was still an interloper to some, brought in from the private sector (another practice back in favour) with unconventional ideas as far as the public sector was concerned. But the longevity of 10 years in the role gave him the opportunity to see the transformation though six prime ministers, five secretaries of the Department of Communications, four communications ministers and three public service commissioners.

“I saw from the inside out the dramatic changes [coming in the media and communications sector]. When I got into this role, I was surprised by the lack of urgency in the sectors, and immediately resolved that we had to be an exemplar.”

For a regulator, it matters a great deal how the sector sees ACMA, and it uses that to get better. There is no end state on its transformation map, but continual reinvention. “Survive and thrive” in whatever current circumstances the sector is in.

The feedback loops operate simultaneously and as the agency assumes the proportions of a knowledge-based learning organisation, the principles of transformative adaptation and action become ‘hard-wired’ into operating practices.
The feedback loops operate simultaneously and as the agency assumes the proportions of a knowledge-based learning organisation, the principles of transformative adaptation and action become ‘hard-wired’ into operating practices.

A few years ago, ACMA began working with a management consulting group, FutureBuilders, to review how the organisational transformation was progressing, and what it could do better. That lead to the report A Quest for Sustained Relevance: Building a Resilient Organisation in the face of Constant Change, and a need for new terms for describe the ACMA story.

The regulator wasn’t trying to shift to a specific future state. The future had already arrived. As described by Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock (a reference to Alvin Toffler’s 1970’s Future Shock), “it’s an overwhelming cavalcade of constant and continuous real-time messages streaming full speed in our direction.” ACMA was no longer preparing for impending shifts, but transforming in real-time with its sector.

That was referred to as “second-order transformation” because it was not the textbook description of traditional transformation to a future state, having identified it would never see an end point. “We had so drunk the Kool-Aid that we had tacitly adopted a second-order transformation,” Chapman says.

“You’ve got to be creative enough to reinvent yourself so you’re forever relevant. What forever relevant means is depends on the state of the industry, appetite of the stakeholders, appetite of the government.”

‘Need to be a little reckless’

To shine and deliver, Chapman says he valued the same qualities in his senior team that he needed himself: personal resilience; a naked curiosity about what you might be able to achieve; to be creative, or more importantly, to recognise creativity in others around you. You need that contestability of ideas to get a better outcome, he says.

“And you need to be a little reckless, because if you’re not a little reckless in this day and age you’ll make zero progress in terms of value-add.”

While this has become ingrained in ACMA’s culture now, when he started Chapman says he kept himself at the forefront of almost everything: giving permission for first-principles thinking; leading transformation workshops and strategy sessions; and setting the standard — “things you have to lead or otherwise they’re dead from day two.”

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