Monday, June 21, 2010

Eat or Be Eaten

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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