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Building Sand Castles on the Beach

I watched a young boy build a sand castle on the beach. His labor was intense. He scurried around it with the energy of an eight year old, scrutinized every angle with the precision of an engineer, and when he was done – jumped into a marketing campaign that would put the best firms to shame.

“Look at what I made, Dad!” he yelled. Pride beaming from his eyes.

I bet that boy talked about that sand castle for days. Every day that passed, the castle would grow larger in his mind. He did something good. He used his hands and summoned his skill. He created something from nothing but a flat bar of sand.

After the boy and his father moved on, I watched another group of boys climb that sand castle. They ran at it with smiles on their faces, jumped, landed on it, and stomped it into little piles of sand. They left – presumably to find their parents – laughing, kicking sand, and splashing water along the way.

I watched the waves of the next tide wash the remains of that castle flat. It didn’t take too many waves. After a few rows rolled neatly over the humps, one would never know they were there. The beach had reset. The world was as it was before the boy came along.

As a leader in government, I have been asked to build many sand castles. We still talk about them over coffee in friendly cafes. They seem bigger than they were in real life, and the men and women who built them with me still smile when we remember together.

People loved kicking those sand castles down once we were gone. I occasionally got word from those who watched the sand-castle-kickers play. It seems they started jumping on them almost as soon as we left. I’m betting they had a good time.

Today, the places where we built our sand castles are gone. Some energetic groups are building new ones just a few yards from where ours once stood. Waiting in the wings are groups of people who will take them down and waves that will wash them away.

I’m smiling as I write this. It’s all good fun.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Or is it?

So many leaders think they’re building something that endures and pour all of their lives into it…only to discover that all they had built it, well, sand.

So can you really build on rock?

Or is it all just sand in the end?

Peter Sperry

Often the best castles are the ones built on sand. They are built by motivated people with a clear goal in mind and serve a very specific purpose. When the goal is met and the purpose served, the builders move on to new challenges and the castle is either put to other purposes or pulled down to make room for new ones. This is actually a much better model than trying to maintain a castle long after it has served it purpose with no real goal other than organizational self preservation. Government today is littered with castles built so long ago few people can remember what goal they were meant to achieve and what purpose they fill today. Building something to endure is only meaningful if there is a good reason for it to endure. Otherwise, it is just an organizational version of Groundhog Day.

David Dejewski

Ahh… very Darwinian, Peter. 🙂

Not necessarily “survival of the fittest,” but “evolution and change is normal.” I like it.

Sort of like the Superbowl. Every year, the game seems to get more intense – more records are broken and more things that seemed impossible become possible. We evolve.

Bill McDermott

With 37 years of Government service, I totally agree that much has been working in sand and the systems and software deployed should change over time, but there are true visionaries at work that make major changes where the work can be more like building the cathedrals of Europe. My first job in 1975 was working for the rollout of electronic funds transfer at what was the predecessor of the Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service, my boss was Les Plumly a career bureaucrat who had spent his career printing checks. But he saw the future and it was electronic payments, and was moving the goverment into this arena with Social Secuirty and other benefit payments. His work was the laying of the foundations and the buidling of the main structure and opening of the doors. It was a surprise to me when last year 2011, I saw a press release that the government was announcing the end to mailing benefit payments including Social Security checks. It took over 35 years for the cathedral to be finished. Here is a link to 1975 Time article, which used to be in public domani but is now covered by subscription service As to that other newer technology smart cards, the feasibility study on them was done by my colleagues in 1977.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

If more people could learn to ‘let go’ maybe we could get rid of more of the castles that long ago stopped serving their purpose. I pretty much expect things to change because I am all for bigger, better, faster, more. I want the tools to do my job faster, easier and better than it was ever done before. I hope that those following me can springboard off of my best and brightest ideas and make them better.

It is rewarding when you talk to someone from an area where you worked and they are still living with your castle and like it. I experienced this twice and walked away amazed that what I left behind was still there and relevant. Doesn’t happen often in this fast moving/changing world. Great post.