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Column: On Public Sector Ninjas and Rockstars

Friday, July 23, 2010
We have long glorified them. We love stories about them. Against all odds a former unknown, faced with tough decisions, backed by key enablers, and thrust into the right circumstances emerges on the other side a hero.

Through hard work and perseverance she overcomes her enemies and is redeemed.

After slugging it out for years in his garage, he finally makes the big time.

She the ninja and he the rockstar.

If you spend any time in or around the government 2.0 meme these images will be familiar. For lack of a better explanation, they seem to be en vogue right now.

I have said previously that I think one of the core challenges of the public sector is story telling. Generally we do a terrible job of telling the stories that matter most, the ones that could completely transform public perception. We don't have to be paper pushing fat cats, but the truth of the matter is that if the dominant stories being told are those of waste and indifference then the far more important stories simply get lost in a tidal wave of apathy.

Invoking images of ninja and rockstars is useful in so far as it helps mitigate the fact that there is little discussion about how it is okay for public servants to love their job and chase their passions even if the odds of achieving them look slim.

Rockstars are iconic, they're sexy, they sell, and quite honestly their typically rebellious nature is the closest that government workers can get to raging against the machine.

Ninjas are stealthy, skillful, and their clandestine nature offers public servants a means of bringing down the system from within.

You know what else these images share? An undercurrent of insurgency.

We meet in cafés, trade information, and disrupt traditional business models and hierarchies. We embrace asymmetry if it suits our needs, and at times our outputs cannot be easily be reintegrated into the collective. We vilify the old guard and celebrate our successes.

I can't help but think this is somehow connected to the idea of edge versus fringe whereby:


Fringes are marginal, by definition. A political group with extreme views. An artistic movement without commercial ambition or potential. Most of us try to avoid the fringes, unless we're trying to make a point of some kind, because fringes rarely lead anywhere useful. They're dead ends, to mix metaphors. They neither grow big nor powerful enough to influence the center — which we call the core — of society and commerce.

Edges, like fringes, also exist on the periphery of a given domain or place. But that's where the similarities end. In business, edges are the places where the potential for innovation and growth is the highest. They are where unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities.

So the real question is whether or not invoking the ninja and rockstar memes puts us on the edge or the fringe. I honestly don't have an answer on this one. Personally I enjoy them, they get people excited. They help public servants rediscover the art of the possible. Yet my fear is that ninja often leave a trail of carnage behind them and rockstars choose to burnout rather than fade away.

I think the thing we often forget is that becoming a ninja or a rockstar takes dedication, hard work, patience, and mastery of difficult arts. As much fun as the vernacular can be I feel as though that everything that comes before the image is often lost or at least undervalued.

This is one of the primary reasons why I like telling my own personal story of renewal. I feel it does a good job in highlighting the trials and tribulations that are associated with public sector stardom.

It's been a great journey this far, but I've had my share of bumps and bruises. I've taken risks. I've had things not pan out.

Fittingly, like ninjas and rockstars, the most important thing in my career has always been perseverance.

[Image credit: Don Solo]