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Eat or Be Eaten

[Note this is cross blogged from cpsrenewal.ca; the original and its over 25 comments can be found here.]

Last week I happened upon a blog post from Geordie Adams via a tweet from Tim O’Reilly. In it Geordie explains what he thinks is the major issue facing social media enthusiasts in the public sector:

“Cultural change [is] the biggest impediment to a higher adoption rate of social media in the public sector… [it] gets mentioned, everyone agrees, and then conversation turns to a technical or implementation discussion. To not [dig into culture change] is robbing important momentum from public sector social media evolution.” – Geordie Adams, Publivate (full article)

Geordie’s right, I can’t even recall the amount of times I have heard variations of the phraseCulture eats strategy for breakfast”. Essentially, even the most well thought out strategic approaches are vulnerable to the workplace culture. It would seem that when social media meets the public sector it is culture, not content, that is king. Culture is eating breakfast in plenaries, in tweets and in blog posts on a daily basis all over the world. Initially I thought it was a great line, its retweetable, to the point, and when I hear it I implicitly understand the connotation.

Over my dead body

As catchy as it is, I would hate to see it on my tombstone. If we don’t do a better job tackling the problem we might as well give up, call the undertaker and order our tombstones with that very inscription. I can see mine already:

Here lies Nick
He went quick
always circled by a vulture
its name was culture

While Geordie’s list of cultural problems (failure, engagement, and transparency) is a good place to start, I prefer to start with what I think underlies all of them: complacency. It would seem that over the years many of us have earned the fat cat stereotype; even those who haven’t earned it directly are now guilty by association.


In John Kotter’s Leading Change, Kotter addresses the problem of complacency by arguing that a sense of urgency is a key determinant of success when it comes to deep culture change projects. In fact, according to Kotter, urgency is so important that he decided to write another book dedicated to that very topic. Urgency, it would seem is the penultimate catalyst for change.

If this is indeed the case – and I tend to agree that it is – then we must ask ourselves, where is the urgency in the public sector right now? I can say without hesitation that after three years, I haven’t seen it. Sure I’ve been busy, or stressed out or faced tight deadlines, and I don’t doubt that many of you have too. What I mean is that there really isn’t what Kotter would call a true sense of urgency: steady, unrelenting, purposeful, intense … trying to do things a bit better all the time.

That sense, simply doesn’t exist at the macro. That being said I find it everywhere I turn at the micro, I see it because I choose to associate with those, who like me, implicitly understand that urgency, that need for deep change.

Semi-Rant: I don’t understand

I apologize in advance, this is where you may find me ranting, but sometimes things need to be said because these are things that I just don’t understand.

I don’t understand why we in the public sector are so good at accepting the status quo. We accept it even when a great opportunity to question it comes across our desk or when our gut tells us otherwise.

I don’t understand why it is okay to blame the culture for our failures. It seems like a cop out. Somewhere along the line failure due to “culture” has become acceptable, completely mainstream. Any effort expended can be readily justified whenever someone exclaims: “It wasn’t me it was the culture” or “The culture wasn’t (isn’t) ready for it”. We have created an excuse for ourselves and it has made us lazy and weak. There is no other possible explanation for the prevalence of the “culture eats strategy” meme; now we hang our shame on it like a collective crutch.

I for one am done blaming our failures on the culture, we are the culture, if I blame it I blame myself. I might as well be honest and accept the blame readily instead of playing semantics. Accepting this is the first step towards moving forward.

Don’t we wordsmith too much already in government?

Eating Elephants

If culture is truly the elephant in the room, we must ask ourselves how we can best deal with it. My thought is that if culture is eating strategy for breakfast, than perhaps we should turn the tide and get hungry ourselves.

So, to borrow the old adage, how does one eat an elephant [in a room]? One bite at a time.

You may not have the stomach for it, but I don’t really see another viable option, we have reached the point of eat or be eaten.

[Image Credit:WallTea]

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

The problem is how we characterize culture. Most change theorists seem to treat culture as a single set of beliefs and processes and don’t realize that culture is a complex mix of beliefs, “tribal wisdom,” and practices that often contradict each other (https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/gov-20-and-organizational). Try to fight culture is like punching a sandpile – hit as hard as you like and you still won’t change that much. The key is to find the parts of culture that support your change and use those parts to advance your change and/or neutralize the parts of culture that oppose your change.

Jeff Parks

I recently lead a discussion on Design Research at the 3rd Annual Interaction Design conference in Savannah, Georgia. I was joined by thought leaders in design from the United States, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Australia. http://tinyurl.com/yl66wfc We discuss the need to focus on understanding different cultures when designing and communicating, accordingly.

In a related article I also describe (and show via videos from Germany, South Africa, and India) the need to create communities of practice with a global perspective. http://tinyurl.com/368q2hz

We deal with the “elephant in the room” by talking about it. Acknowledging what we don’t know (via lack of experience), while reaching out to others who can facilitate a greater understanding such that we can design and communicate while respecting the values of others.

As Sir Ken Robinson noted in his most recent TED talk http://tinyurl.com/3xc7o2o “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent. Not a singular conception of ability.” Respect. Trust. Giving up Control. These are essential to understand if Governments hope to work better within their own community and with the Global community at large.


I’ve been mulling on this for a bit. I really am fascinated about how change happens. Or also how ideas become actuality. Basically, I’ve been one of those people when I was a kid – I would see a math problem and just do 2 out of 8 steps and write answer down there. I kind of move quick, skip steps, and get to point.

But generally change has a pace that is hard to move. Think about how slowly music labels are moving to change their business models. They are on year 8-10 now and they face urgent problems and at least some of the answers are there.

Not sure what it means but I’ve been thinking a lot lately that…change is just really hard. And takes a lot of time. And takes a lot of battles/blood sweat and tears.

Now the trick for me…would be helping people push that change along. Managing expectations for people like me and Nick without being too negative. Or letting us know that change agents…part of their role is really to knock into the walls, push people around…all the hard stuff. For round 2 of change which will then happen.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

The status quo is all about comfort, whether found in our personal or professional lives. There is a human tendency to seek comfort.

The older generations grew up with the expectation of having to experience very little change. After high school you married your sweetheart until death did you part and you found a job that you would work for 25-30 years and life was fairly predictable.

The world has changed so drastically in the past 30-40 years that nothing is static anymore. People move, marriages fail, employment changes, and technology changes so fast that it is often obsolete by the time it hits the to market.

Perhaps a safe haven from change has been employment with union and government organizations. Big unions are able facilitate the slow the pace of progress and maintain an atmosphere mired firmly behind the times. Government also is resistant to change, as the lack of competition does not force the implementation of new practices and technologies in order to survive (in non-security oriented agencies, anyway). Enacting cultural changes in these environments where employees perceive that there is nothing to gain is very challenging undertaking.

Nicholas Charney

@Bill – thanks for the resource re: Gov20 and Culture.

@Jeff – great TED talk, and I wholeheartedly agree that we need to put it out there more. That was the main intention of my post in fact.

@Steve – Sometimes I feel like I’m paid to bang my head against the wall, sometimes I surprise myself when the wall isn’t there the next day. I just wish that there were more of us making noise.

@Bryan – I wish that we could harness more healthy competition between public servants; I think we’d see better results.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Can you wait 5 years? Maybe 10?

Prediction: We are going to have all the change we can handle starting around about 2015 when many of the older Boomers who are eligible to retire really start to peel off like a banana (to go with the eating analogy :-).

And I’m not making this about age – don’t misunderstand me! What I’m saying is that the present style of leadership and the culture sustained by it is about to get thrown out of the kitchen. Younger Boomers are different as are Gen X’ers…and we’ll be the ones moving into those leadership positions very soon…

How we like to work: projectized. We don’t want to be a supervisor or manage a bunch of people as a regular part of our job. We want to have a clear start and a clear end, then work as efficiently as possible toward solution. This will create a shift in culture – when we think of our work units as projects, we start to see more possibilities for “pilots” – super short projects that test ideas, but limit scope creep and risks of time and cost. It’s a “fail fast” model. Flexible, cross-departmental/discipline, moving from project to project relatively fast or tackling multiple projects at once.

More buffet-style vs. formal sit-down dinner with all the structure and rules.

Grab your knife and fork! We’re storming the ivory towers/silos!

Gary Berg-Cross

Culture is big like an elephant and tough, but it is also mobile like a cloud and regenerates parts so we need a pretty agile process to consume/change it in the way we might want.

But even there it is not going to fall to a rigid strategy and needs to be evolved in stages at multiple levels.