The Culture Chasm

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When Doug Ross arrived in Washington in 1993 to run the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration, he was convinced that the 1,800-employee organization did not treat its customers very well. ETA's Employment Service funded and oversaw the nation's unemployment offices, where millions of people turned up each year to obtain unemployment benefits, receive job counseling and apply for job openings.

Ross hired a respected polling firm, Yankelovich Partners, to organize a series of meetings in which small groups of customers-blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, African-Americans, and small business owners who used the service to find new employees-talked candidly about their recent experiences. Ross took his top managers to the sessions, to listen from behind a one-way mirror.

They got an earful. "These people said they were treated like numbers, not people," remembers Carolyn Golding, then a deputy assistant secretary. "That was the most devastating thing I had ever heard. They said they weren't called by their names, they were called 'Next.'"

"What came across actually stunned some of the civil servants," Ross says. They couldn't believe how angry their customers were. In one of the focus groups, he recalls, a customer declared, "I hate this place, and if you gave me a chance, the first thing I would do is privatize it!" Another unemployed worker complained that government workers "talk down to you like they know better. I want to be treated as a customer!"

When a blue-collar group in Baltimore said that going to the Employment Service was as frustrating as visiting a motor vehicle bureau, "That immediately hit the ETA professionals," says Ross. "It was something they dreaded having to do, too."

Yankelovich later summarized the customers' dissatisfaction this way:

"Workers feel they are treated as second- class citizens, given inaccurate information about prospects for employment and provided with little guidance that can help them find a job. . . . Workers feel that the staff is poorly trained and unmotivated to provide customer service. There are also complaints that the service is impersonal-there is a lack of interest in the individual."

Ross showed video clips of the focus groups to ETA employees who had not been there. "The visual impact had a long-lasting impact," says Lorraine Chang, who ran the agency's reinvention office. "You can talk forever about being customer-focused and listening to the customer, but it is important to actually be struck in the face by the image-either in person or on video-of who the customer really is. ... the customer focus groups were one of the first key steps in getting the organization to begin seeing the world differently."

Golding and some of her colleagues threw themselves into Ross's struggle to reinvent ETA. During the long, mind-numbing hours of negotiations with ETA administrators, state and local governments, and public employee unions, the focus group experience became a touchstone for them. They doggedly steered discussions back to the issue of customer service. "Bureaucracy is like water on a stone, it does wear you down after a while," Golding says. "You really need something to hang on to that is worth fighting for. That's what the customer experiences gave us."

Doug Ross was attempting to change the culture of his organization. This is not easy, as many a federal manager has discovered over the past decade. Bureaucratic culture-too often marked by a tendency to avoid risks and duck responsibility, blame others for problems, follow the rules, settle for mediocrity, and resist change-is deeply embedded in most public organizations.

The most powerful ways to transform bureaucratic cultures are to give organizations clear missions and goals, create consequences for their performance, make them more accountable to their customers, eliminate many of the rules that constrain them and empower their employees to deliver results.

But these strategies are rarely sufficient. Bureaucratic culture fights back. Some people comply with change but don't embrace it. Others avoid or openly resist it. Even when the culture changes, it rarely does so fast enough. These realities have led experienced reinventors of government to conclude they need a strategy that seeks to reshape the culture consciously and deliberately-in specific, intended ways.

What would such a strategy look like? Well, think of culture as a product of experience interacting with emotion and reason. No one set out intentionally to create bureaucratic government cultures, after all; they grew up because people experienced bureaucratic government realities. These experiences produced a set of unspoken, often unconscious emotional commitments: expectations, attitudes, hopes and fears. Together, these experiences and emotional commitments shaped a set of ideas and assumptions-a mental map of reality.

All of these elements hold the keys to culture change. When there is dissonance among them-when new experiences conflict with one's mental models or emotional commitments, for instance-people either reject the new experience (reinterpreting it or simply denying its significance), or they change their ideas and emotional commitments. Changing a culture is the process of provoking this dissonance by exposing people to new experiences, new emotions and new ideas-then working with them to help them adjust the other elements to align with the new one.

Using this framework, there are three basic approaches you can use to change your organization's culture. We call them Changing Habits, Touching Hearts, and Winning Minds.

Changing Habits

When Doug Ross had his staff sit through focus groups, he was giving them a new experience designed to challenge their existing cultural paradigm. Meeting customers is one of many tools you can use to do this. An even more powerful tool is walking in the customers' shoes-having employees file for unemployment insurance and work their way through the system as a customer, for example.

Another alternative is to help employees experience new roles by giving them encounters with other jobs, other organizations and other people. Tools here include job rotation, internships and externships.

Once people begin to let go, you need to coax them through what author William Bridges calls the "neutral zone," to get them to begin to commit to new behaviors. Several tools can help, including institutional sponsors. In most governments, the risks of innovating outweigh the rewards. By creating institutional sponsors for innovation-people who encourage, protect, and assist innovators-reinventors can change this balance dramatically. Michigan's Department of Commerce used an internal "business incubator" to turn loose civil servants with promising ideas, for example. They received seed budgets, advice, and the visible blessing of top management.

Redesigning work is perhaps the most profound and permanent step you can take to give people new experiences. When the New York City Veterans Affairs office reengineered its work processes, it shifted people from rote jobs in which they performed one function repeatedly to teams that handled all aspects of processing a customer's application. Traditionally, says VA undersecretary for benefits Joe Thompson, then the regional director in New York City, "We really broke things down into pieces. We had jobs called searchers. Their only job was to find lost things. Some of it was just disheartening, it seemed to me."

Once VA employees in New York began meeting customers face-to-face and performing the many tasks necessary to serve them, their attitudes changed. "I went up there when about a third of the operation had been converted to teams, rather than this assembly line process," says Doug Farbrother, then with Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review. "I talked to people who were working on teams, and people who were working the old way. The old people called their job 'the hump,' because it was just this burden you carried through your life, having to get up in the morning and go to the hump. And the people on the teams were just wildly enthusiastic about what they were doing. They kept talking about helping the veterans. And I think all Joe Thompson did was change the work they did every day."

Touching Hearts

When Gen. Bill Creech took over the Air Force's Tactical Air Command (TAC) in 1978, he was determined to change its culture from the bottom up. He wanted a culture focused on quality, teamwork and performance. One of the first things he did was to begin refurbishing the shabby buildings and equipment he found throughout TAC.

"Quality begets quality," Creech wrote later in his book, The Five Pillars of TQM (Plume, 1995). "And one cannot justifiably expect employees to appreciate quality, think quality, and produce quality if top management shows by its actions that it is indifferent to it."

During his journeys from one TAC base to another, Creech ran across a beat-up old office chair used by a maintenance supervisor responsible for more than 100 people and hundreds of millions of dollars of resources. "One of its four casters was missing, stuffing was coming out, and its general appearance was atrocious," he recalls. "In using that chair he was making a graphic statement regarding the quality standard he expected."

Creech took the chair back to his headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va. "It became my symbol of the way we had been neglecting our people, their attitude, and the quality mind-set," he said. "Everyone got the message."

Fifteen years later, people were still talking about that chair. But by now the legend had grown. Maj. Carl Williamson, then deputy director for quality education at the Air Combat Command (successor to TAC), told it this way: "The chair was a beat up kind of chair, very small, and had a brick under one of the legs. He asked the young man, 'Have you tried to get a chair? Do you have another chair?' He said, 'Well, yes, sir, we've requisitioned that, but you know, it's going to take a lot of time for it to get out here.'

"[Creech] took the chair, he had the chair flown back to Langley. So he flew himself back to Langley and walked into our senior logistician and said, 'Can I have your chair?' Now we're talking about a beautiful, plush chair here. He took that chair, he flew it out to the young airman, and took the chair with the brick under it and gave it to the senior officer and said, 'And when you fix the system that supports the people, then you can get yourself a chair.'"

This tool-creating a symbol-is one way to signal the change you want in the emotional commitments of your employees. Organizational cultures are rooted in these commitments, many of which are barely even conscious. Typically, many people are committed to their status in the organization's hierarchy. Others are committed to deep resentments-toward management, toward unions, toward politicians. Still others are committed to their powerlessness, to their status as victims.

To create a more entrepreneurial culture, you must get employees to commit to new things: to leading change; to taking personal responsibility for the health of their organizations; to performing well for their customers; to collaborating with their colleagues; to trying new approaches. There are at least five elements in this process of conversion:

  • Dislodging old emotional commitments through experience, using the Changing Habits tools.
  • Creating new emotional touchstones to guide behavior, such as symbols and stories.
  • Staging events that embody new emotional commitments.
  • Investing in the workplace to build new commitments.
  • Using bonding events to create new emotional commitments.
New touchstones, such as Gen. Creech's chair, give people a gut sense of the new values and norms you are trying to create. Events such as celebrations, honors and rituals embody and reinforce the new emotional commitments you want people to make. They actively fortify people when they begin to embrace the new culture, by recognizing and cheering on their efforts. They proclaim to everyone in the organization, "This is the kind of behavior we want!"

Celebrating success also makes people feel good about their work, their colleagues and themselves. More important, it reinforces the values and mission of the organization. Celebrating the behavior you want to see is one of the easiest, most effective ways to get people to buy into a new culture at an emotional level.

Honoring failure may be equally important, however. An innovative organization will always have failures, simply because its members are trying new things. This is widely recognized in the private sector. "Tolerance for failure is a very specific part of the excellent company culture-and that lesson comes directly from the top," wrote Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman in In Search of Excellence (Warner Books, 1988).

The same is true in the public sector. When the Ford Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government launched their Innovation Awards in the mid-1980s, one of the first things they learned was that the winners experimented constantly. Just as in any other field, they made progress through trial and error, and they learned from their errors.

Yet federal organizations typically have little tolerance for error. To change this, it helps to honor those who try new things and fail. Ted Gaebler, the co-author of Reinventing Government (Addison-Wesley, 1992), created a good example when he served as city manager of Visalia, Calif. At the suggestion of two of his department heads, he created an award for the year's most spectacular failure. One year he even won it himself.

Dan Beard, former commissioner of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, issued "forgiveness coupons" to his senior managers. They read: "It is easier to get forgiveness . . . than permission." Managers could cash them in when they made mistakes.

Another good tool for Touching Hearts is investing in the workplace. This strategy helps answer what Creech calls one of the four great management questions: "What's in it for me?" Employees read management's indifference to workplace quality as a signal that they, the workers, are not valued. This affects their attitudes, reducing their sense of commitment to the organization and producing a culture of low expectations. Smart leaders make upgrading the workplace a central part of their culture change strategies.

Creech was a fanatic on the subject: He had virtually every building in TAC repainted; he gave the mechanics new uniforms and cleaned up their facilities; and he launched programs with names like "Proud Look" to refurbish every part of the organization.

Finally, a fifth method is to build new emotional bonds between people-covenants-based on the values and commitments you want, through bonding events, such as retreats. This can be a powerful way to solidify the new beginnings you are asking people to make. Webster's says a covenant is a "solemn and binding agreement." When your people make that kind of agreement with one another, they are forging the new culture.

Winning Minds

Every organization has a set of governing ideas, the compelling concepts that guide its members' behavior. These include its values, its mission, its vision, its assumptions and even its language. They have power because they become part of people's mental models-their understanding of how the world works.

To change these governing ideas, you must change peoples' mental models, one by one. This involves a process of inquiry, discovery and reflection, which, like the Touching Hearts process, also can have five elements:

  • Opening minds by dislodging old mental models.
  • Introducing new mental models.
  • Collectively building the new mental models.
  • Creating new mental touchstones.
  • Spreading new mental models through teaching.
Sometimes new experiences dislodge old mental models, but often someone with a strong paradigm will ignore or deny the validity of contradictory experience. For some people, rational processes such as benchmarking performance are necessary.

You can then introduce new models, using tools such as learning groups and site visits. Officials in Hampton, Va., send "venture teams" to other cities that are on the cutting edge. Phoenix, Ariz., has a study tour budget, so it can send a team on a site visit whenever it needs to.

Taking employees to see something for themselves is always more powerful than telling them about it or having them read about it. People not only are exposed to new concepts, they experience those concepts in action. They talk to leaders, employees, customers and stakeholders. They get a visceral feel for the new reality.

Gen. Creech used site visits constantly. If he wanted to convert someone, Creech says, "We'd get 'em to come down. We'd give them a briefing, but most of the trip was devoted to going down and touching and feeling and seeing and sensing. We didn't just set 'em down and jawbone 'em, we took 'em down to the front line, and they could see the numbers, and how much better we were, but more than that, they could measure the enthusiasm of those kids. The proof's in the pudding. So when they saw all those data, and then the kids explaining all they did, and what they used to do, they became converts."

Bob Stone, former director of the NPR, believes the site visit is the single best way to convert people. In 1993, he fought hard to make sure Vice President Gore's first trip in the reinventing government crusade was to Langley. "It was wonderful," he remembers. "Gen. [Mike] Loh [one of Creech's successors] had an awful lot of charts that he briefed Gore on. I was afraid Gore was going to be irritated, but he was really captured by them. And then they walked around, and Gore and his staff talked to young pilots and mechanics. When we had our reinventing government summit with corporate CEOs, he insisted on having Mike Loh there. He wanted Loh to be the last person to speak in the last session of the day, because he wanted to punctuate the day with . . . an example of government working well."

Group site visits have even greater benefits. They give people an opportunity to analyze and discuss what they are learning-and its relevance for their organization-with their colleagues. And they help people bond as a team. Done well, a site visit not only gives people powerful images of alternative futures they could create, it gives them the emotional bonds necessary to take on the job.

The third element is probably the most important part of developing new mental models: a collaborative process, such as a retreat or group process, for building shared mission, vision or values statements. Collaboration is so important because an organization's culture changes when its members change their minds together. It is not enough for a few leaders to change their mental models-the rest of the organization must, too.

The next step often is to codify the new models in ways that provide touchstones for everyone in the organization. Although mission, vision, and values statements play this role after they are written, it is not as important as the role they can play as employees help create them. Many leaders also use new language as a way of providing new touchstones. As Ted Gaebler once said, "Our words will think our thoughts for us, so we've got to change our words."

When he was in Visalia, Gaebler wanted people to think more like entrepreneurs than bureaucrats. He wanted them to ask themselves, "If this were my money, would I spend it this way?" So he talked about the city as a corporation, himself as its CEO, and the council as its board of directors. He used phrases like "product lines," "profit centers," "business reports," and the annual "corporate report."

"It was important to talk a different language-very important," he says. "You've got to get yourself rid of the tar baby of bureaucratic words and images-get that stuff off of you-before you get more entrepreneurial behavior."

Finally, most successful leaders of culture change do not stop at creating the new governing ideas, even collectively. They work hard to spread them, through tools such as in-house schoolhouses and orienting new members. In-house schoolhouses are transformational schools; they train employees to be cultural change agents. They reorient employees' thinking and prepare them to spread the gospel.

One of the most impressive examples is the Quality Center at the Air Combat Command, which has trained thousands of change agents in TQM and leadership. In a typical year, more than 600 senior officers attend courses in the organization's leadership philosophy and the team approach to quality improvement.

The in-house schoolhouse was a crucial part of Gen. Loh's effort to change the ACC culture. "We're talking about 150,000 people out there," he points out. "You don't do this overnight."

David Osborne and Peter Plastrik are co-authors of a new book, The Reinventor's Fieldbook: Tools for Transforming Your Organization (Jossey-Bass), from which this material is drawn. Osborne is also a partner in the Public Strategies Group, a consulting firm.

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