Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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June 3rd, 2013

Watch Great Movies. Tell your Story. Learn Management. (MGSC12)

business, Education, Narrative

MGSC12 (Narratives about Management and Organization) is not your typical management course. It’s based on the now well-recognized idea that telling stories is fundamental aspect of being human, and that well-told stories can be immensely persuasive, particularly in a management context.

MGSC12 begins by introducing some fundamental ideas about story-telling, such as the roles of protagonist and narrator and the relationship between them, as well as the structure of archetypal stories about managers. The course then applies these ideas in a number of ways.

We use some superb contemporary movies about managers both as examples of the art of story-telling and as cases in effective or ineffective management. You can think of these movies, and the way we use them, as business cases, with the difference that they employ moving images, and are authored, acted, and produced by people who are the best in the business.

The movies we watch are all up-to-date. Some examples: The Social Network, the story of the origins of Facebook; Inside Job, an Academy award winning documentary about the global financial crisis; Enron; Waiting for Superman, a documentary about educational reform; and The Fog of War, an Academy Award winning documentary about former US Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara, probably the smartest MBA ever – which didn’t prevent him from making some colossal mistakes. I’m also planning to include some of the best of last year’s crop of movies managers can learn from, also all Academy Award winners: Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty.

In a typical week, you watch the movie before class and we then discuss it in class. Often we use table work. I divide students into groups, assigning each group a question to discuss for 15 minutes, and then ask a member of the group do a short presentation summarizing their discussion.

I also have two assignments giving you an opportunity to tell your story, one about the significant turning points in your life and the other focusing on your interactions with a particular organization (a Coop placement for example). We’re in the course together, so I’ll tell my story too.

You’ll emerge from MGSC12 with a much better understanding of how to tell persuasive stories in a management setting, and you’ll also watch quite a few thought-provoking and inspiring movies.

I teach MGSC12 (Narratives on Management and Organization) fall semester on Tuesdays from 11 to 1 and I look forward to showing you how story-telling and movies can form an essential part of your management education.


June 3rd, 2013

Learning Public Management Experientially (MGSC03)

Education, Government, Politics

A few Saturdays ago I was walking along Bayview near Eglinton with my 13 year old son. Two joggers passed by, then a few seconds later they stopped and I heard one of them call out “Professor Borins.” I turned around, he came up to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I took your public management course years ago. I played the role of prime minister in your budget simulation, and it was one of the best learning experiences I ever had in university.”

Having my now teenage son with me was crucial. Given normal teenage skepticism about the parental unit, it was rewarding to have him hear a stranger saying I did something right. And I also have a witness for my story.

The course the former student – now a lawyer who jogs on weekends, he told me – was referring to is my Public Management course, previously numbered MGTC42, which has now been changed to MGSC03.

The course is an introduction to public management. It’s aimed not only at students who think they might work in the public sector, but also students who are interested in the public sector because they simply want to know how it functions, or because they anticipate that their work in the private sector might put them in contact with government. Because the public sector accounts for approximately one-third of the Canadian economy, quite a few of our management students will spend at least part of their careers in the public sector or dealing with it.

As my former student attested demonstrates, there is a large experiential component to the course. In the middle of the course, we have a budget exercise. Students form teams that represent the spending departments (Health, Industry, Natural Resources, Human Resources) and the central agencies (Prime Minister, Minister of Finance). The spending departments must allocate either a collective budget increase or a collective budget cut. The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance are there to lead the process but not necessarily to dictate the outcome. The simulation involves web-based research about the departments, advocacy, and then negotiation. Over the years, I’ve had feedback from many students that it was a great experiential learning exercise.

A second experiential learning component is the crisis management exercise. I’ll walk into class one day with a “black swan” scenario, ask one student to be the prime minister or minister in charge, and other students to come up with a plan. This year’s crisis: President Obama calls Prime Minister Harper to tell him that the US will not approve the Keystone pipeline. How should Harper respond?

Another participatory element involves student groups analyzing either government or political websites and presenting their results to the class.

My presentations involve explaining the basics of how the public sector operates, in particular the linkage between political leadership and public sector implementation, and then applying that knowledge to a number of contexts, such as financial management (the budget exercise), crisis management, management of information and information technology, and human resource management. So it’s a management course that uses many of the concepts you’re familiar with, but in a public sector context.

I will be giving MGSC03 winter semester on Tuesdays from 10 until noon and I look forward to working together with you, experientially, to understand the public sector and the skills you need to be an effective manager in it.


May 12th, 2013

Argo and The Canadian Caper: Two Perspectives on a Partnership

Government, Narrative

I‘ve just read two earlier versions of the story told by the recent movie Argo. CIA agent Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio’s 2012 book Argo is subtitled “How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.” Jean Pelletier and Claude Adam’s 1981 book The Canadian Caper is subtitled “the inside story of the Canadian Rescue of Six American Diplomats Trapped in Iran.” The stark difference in these two perspectives brings to mind JFK’s adage that “victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”

In Argo, Mendez, who ultimately received clearance from the CIA to tell his story, focused on his use of tradecraft to exfiltrate the six American diplomats from Teheran. Together with his CIA staff, Mendez forged documents and crafted disguises for the Canadian Embassy’s “houseguests.” The CIA came up with the story that the houseguests were part of the Canadian production team for a sci-fi thriller “Argo” that was checking out Iran as a location for filming, but then decided to leave. Finally, Mendez recounted his visit to Teheran to prepare the houseguests and shepherd them through Mehrebad Airport.

The movie Argo did not explain why the Canadian government wanted the houseguests out of Teheran ASAP, but in the book Mendez made clear that a Canadian journalist, Jean Pelletier, had the story. The Canadian Government was able to convince Pelletier not to go to press immediately, but was concerned that, if Pelletier had the story, it would come out while the houseguests were still in Iran.

The Jean Pelletier who had the story but did not publish it was the same Jean Pelletier who co-authored The Canadian Caper. Pelletier knew the consequences of going into detail about the CIA’s involvement in the Canadian caper back in 1981, so he was very opaque. He did reveal that CIA agents met with External Affairs staff in Ottawa and participated in the crafting of false documents, in particular the entry visas into Iran to be used by the departing diplomats. He also revealed that there were CIA agents in Iran and especially at Mehrebad Airport when the diplomats left. Finally, he obliquely referred to the Argo cover story by recounting that the diplomats called themselves a delegation of business men and women from Canada.

Pelletier focused on the Canadian aspects of the story, in particular Ken Taylor and John Sheardown’s initiatives in Teheran to protect the houseguests, External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald’s efforts to pressure the Americans to act quickly to exfiltrate the houseguests, and the attempts of the public servants in External Affairs who knew the story to suppress it.

Writing in the third person, Pelletier and Adams went on at considerable length about how Pelletier, acting on a hunch, pieced together the story; about how External Affairs, in particular Canadian Ambassador to the US Peter Towe, leaned on him to suppress it; about his discussions with his own editors when the diplomats were still in Iran about whether to publish; and finally about publishing his article as soon as the diplomats were safely out of Iran.

Put simply, these are two different perspectives on a story. They don’t necessarily contradict one another. If Pelletier and Adams had carte blanche to tell the complete story back in 1981, they might have revealed more about the CIA’s role, in particular that of Mendez. Given the nature of his work for the clandestine service, Mendez was not permitted to tell his story. It was only after his retirement and the passage of considerable time that he could. Even so, we are informed on the copyright page that the manuscript was vetted by the CIA to prevent disclosure of information that remained classified.

Ken Taylor got to tell his story immediately, and in a very public way, right after the events happened. He became a very rare creature, a celebrity diplomat. He traded on his celebrity in the US for quite some time, getting the plum post of Consul-General to New York, and, after leaving External Affairs, becoming a senior executive at RJR-Nabisco.

After retiring from the CIA in 1990, Mendez wrote two memoirs about his experiences, but it was Argo, published in 2012, that became the basis for the movie, and that brought Mendez a measure of fame.

I can understand why Taylor was incensed that the movie Argo understated his role. But I can also understand why Mendez wanted to tell his own story.

The essence of a partnership is that the partners work together to achieve an outcome no one of them could have achieved separately. The exfiltration of the six guests was a prototype of such an outcome. Still, each partner has his own perspective on the events and his own story to tell. The book and subsequent movie Argo came from Mendez’s perspective and told his story.

A narrative involves a set of real or fictive events. But a narrative also involves a narrator who relates those events. The Argo-Canadian Caper controversy is a classic illustration of how different narrators from different perspectives use the same events to tell different stories. As a student of narrative, I’m glad to hear Mendez’s new story, even if it leads to a repositioning and a rethinking of Pelletier’s and Taylor’s earlier stories.


May 2nd, 2013

Challenging Real-World Public Management Problems

Government, Politics

I’ve always believed that the questions on a final exam should be as challenging as the problems managers face in the real world. This year in my public management course, I came up with five such problems, and asked the students to solve any four. Here are the questions and my comments.

First, how would you implement the merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in terms of both organizational structure and resource implications? I was looking for answers that recognized the complexity of merging two big and distinct organizations. Would it be a complete merger, in the sense that CIDA people right up to Minister Fantino blend into the DFAIT structure (for example Canadian embassies having development officers working with political officers and trade officers) or would it be a merger in name only? Possible resource implications involved savings from reduction in staff in either or both organizations and reductions in foreign assistance.

Second, how should Justin Trudeau go about writing a new red book of Liberal Party policies prior to the 2015 Election? I reminded students that Trudeau’s predecessor Jean Chretien issued his first red book in 1993, slightly before the Internet age. Perhaps in response to that hint, most answers emphasized social media and polling. But they were often unclear on who would do the policy development work. I was looking for answers that realized Trudeau won’t have time to write it himself, and must establish an organizational structure to produce his red book. Two groups that must not be overlooked – but often were overlooked in the answers – are the Liberal caucus and the Liberal party.

Third, which criteria should a prime minister use to appoint directors of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board? A short description of the organization – a Crown corporation whose mission is to ensure that fund maximizes returns without undue risk – elicited a response from most students that directors should have expertise and experience in investment management. Many students stopped there, without recognizing a role for any other factors. Given the pool of people with those skills, the expert board might end up composed entirely of older white guys living in Toronto. The challenge to the prime minister and his advisors is to find some people with the necessary expertise but who display some diversity: women, minorities, and people based elsewhere.

Fourth, assume that in the next election campaign, NDP leader Tom Mulcair promises to review and end most of the Harper Government’s now elaborate set of income tax credits, which he criticized as elitist, because they can be used only by people who pay income tax, and expensive, because they total up to a loss of income tax revenue of $1.5 billion (professorial confession: I made that number up). Mulcair promises a speedy review that will decide which credits to keep, which to terminate, and which to replace with other policy instruments.

The protagonist in the question is the deputy minister of finance, who should be preparing for the possibility of a Mulcair Government. A good answer included analytical criteria for reviewing each tax credit, for example: the number of taxpayers who use it, revenue foregone because of it, characteristics of the taxpayers who use it, such as their average income and geographical distribution. It also included political criteria, such as the interest groups that champion it, and who could be expected to protest if it were cancelled. Finally, the question called for some thought about the organizational structure the deputy minister should use. He should start with an internal review team to do the analytic work, but should he prepare for public consultations after Mulcair takes office?

Fifth, what should Canadian Ambassador to the US Gary Doer be doing to persuade President Obama to sign on to the Keystone Pipeline? My question assumes that Obama will not meet with Doer. Several answers mentioned advertising and social media campaigns, other answers mentioned meeting with whomever in the West Wing, State Department, or EPA would be willing to meet with him. One answer mentioned Mitt Romney. Many students missed the broader notion of looking for allies: American organizations or groups who (would) support the pipeline and answers overlooked lobbying Congress.

Overall, while the answers had lots of good analysis, one area of weakness was in thinking about organizational structure, the groups of politicians and/or public servants who would have to be put in place and given a mandate to make something happen. Maybe this is because undergraduate students are not sufficiently familiar with large organizations to think on those terms. But I’m not sure of that, because they do take organizational behaviour and amny have had co-op assignments in large organizations. I’ll have to think about how to make the point that implementation requires organizational structure more forcefully when I teach the public management course next year.


April 25th, 2013

The Liberals Strike Back … Finally

Narrative, Politics

The night before last, I watched the Conservatives one-two advertising punch during a Jays’ game: their Justin Trudeau attack ad as well as an Economic Action Plan ad, the latter being nothing more than taxpayer-supported political advertising.

Yesterday I saw Justin Trudeau’s reply to the attack ad, and I consider it a good first step. Despite being titled “let’s put an end to attack ads,” it’s really a counter-attack ad. Using the words “we deserve better” to refer to the Conservative attack ads and ending “together, we can build a better country,” he’s putting forth his intention to set a higher standard in both political conduct and public policy than the Conservatives. By asserting that he’s “proud to be a teacher” and that “he’s a son, but also a father,” he’s beginning to tell his own story. He’s refusing to let the Conservatives define him, and tell their misleading version of his story.

Most importantly, he’s signaling that, unlike recent Liberal leaders, he’s willing to fight back. It’s essential that he send this message right at the outset of his leadership.

The YouTube count as of today, April 25, is promising. The Conservatives’ ad, which has been running for 10 days or so, has 258,000 views, but the Liberals’ ad, by only its second day has 202,000 views. It may well overtake the total for the Conservatives’ ad. Clearly there is a lot of interest in Trudeau, from both the Liberal faithful, who were waiting for this, and from citizens who want to check him out.

As I mentioned at the outset, the Conservatives have their positive story about the Harper government, which claims that it has delivered economic renewal, and their negative story, which claims that the Liberal (and, in the future, NDP) leadership combine ambition and incompetence.

The Liberals also need to develop their two sided narrative, with a powerful story of hope, determination, and gravitas attributed to Justin Trudeau, and a negative story about the failings of the Harper Government.

We saw the makings of the first part of this with the counter-attack ad. The Liberals should not – I emphasize not – put an end to their attack ads. If they want power, eventually they have to develop attack ads that delegitimize Stephen Harper. They should be watching his every word and every move, looking for inconsistency, hypocrisy, mendacity, and corruption. Political survival demands no less.