The Grey Area

I talk a lot about the importance of brave public service – community-focused, impact-led policy and strategy decisions that change our world.

This pure approach to public service fits the textbook neatly, but for many of us it can feel unattainable. What about those of us who have a more complicated job? Who are expected to deliver on commercial or financial targets at the same time?

There’s a cliché about working parents: that we’re expected to turn up to work as though we don’t have children, and parent as though we don’t have a job. That tension and dual-identity is the source of grief for working parents everywhere – how do we balance competing priorities to give the best results to everyone?

Welcome to the grey area. That muddly, murky place where those of us chasing both revenue and impact live. Those of us who are juggling the quantitative and qualitative, the outcomes and the outputs, the aspirational and the operational, walking a tightrope between starry-eyed and pragmatic.

I never thought I’d be quoting Justin Timberlake in a Wednesday Wisdom, but I couldn’t resist this one (even with the American spelling of grey…):

“The gray area, the place between black and white – that’s the place where life happens.”
– Justin Timberlake.


The truth is that it’s all a grey area, whether we like it or not. Whether we’re juggling competing stakeholder interests, trying to meet revenue targets, or trying to be a present parent, there is no straight line between our goals and our actions.

My take: our drivers are generally less conflicting than we think. The beauty comes from harnessing them to create new opportunities. In fact, research tells us that operating within constraints is often the breeding ground for innovation.

For the working parent, this might mean taking stock of all the ways that our work life adds value to the way we parent and our children’s wellbeing, while channelling our learnings at home into the workplace. For the conflicted public manager, this might mean thinking about how to create new commercial and community partnerships, or distil our value proposition to create a more meaningful impact.

I worked with a team last year who faced the seemingly intractable challenge of increasing non-rates revenue from commercial facilities, while also delivering better services to under-served communities. Once we moved past the frustration, the way ahead became clear: tailoring services locally, and achieving more value from facilities with innovative local partnerships. You can read more about this here.

Are you in the grey area?

How can you flip the narrative, and harness your constraints to be more creative?

Til next week
- A