Workplace Culture- Government's Buggy Whip

Michael DeAngelo, Deputy Director, E-Government Area, Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech)
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Michael DeAngelo, Deputy Director, E-Government Area, Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech)

The Problem Statement

In 2004, the Harvard Business Review republished an article by Theodore Levitt titled “Marketing Myopia” where he described the buggy whip industry as an iconic example of not recognizing the need for change resulting in an industry’s failure. Culture is government’s buggy whip. And for us, our failure will be the inability to hire the right talent to serve the citizens. As a government, our primary pitch to prospective employees has been better benefits and job security. But now, the first is no longer true and the second is no longer relevant.

Nearly half of the Washington State government workforce is at retirement age or soon will be according to our 2014 Washington State Workforce Data & Trends Report with half of the workforce eligible to retire within the next five years. This problem is felt by many government organizations as described in Governing magazines May, 2015 article on governments attracting the millennial generation to fill in behind the retiring baby boomers.

For Washington, this challenge is compounded by the fact that the state competes for talent in a region that has some of the biggest brand names in technology in the world including Microsoft, Amazon, Disney, Expedia, Valve, Apple plus many more. If the state is unable to position itself as a viable competitor of talent in the region then the state will be unable to hire the people we need.

This raises several questions: How will we compete for talent in our region? If our traditional value propositions are no longer relevant, how will we differentiate ourselves in a compelling way? What will be our new pitch as an employer of choice? What will be government’s new “brand?”

Can We Compete?

As leaders we now, more than ever, are in the culture business. We need to create a culture that resonates with the current and future generation of workers. If we combine an updated culture with our compelling value of making a difference in the world we can compete as an employer of choice. In fact, I think we can out compete our competitors in the region. But what does “updating our culture” really mean?

Government’s leaders born during the baby boom era, now in their 50s and 60s, were trained by those that only knew a command and control form of culture. This is why we still have corner offices, privileged space, and set work hours as part of the prevailing workplace culture. Much of the rest of the world has changed; the values, expectations, and needs of the current and new generation of workers are completely different since they grew up in the knowledge economy unlike their predecessors.

Our competitors have already adapted their culture to align with the needs of the new workforce to remain competitive. We have not. For the most part, key aspects of our culture have remained unchanged on the inside while the world around us has iterated many times over.

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” –Jack Welch

Washington State feels this pain and so we’re pushing into areas that challenge our status quo in order to change the culture of government; even if it means thinking way outside the box and creating a disruptive change.

How Do We Organize?

In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor from the MIT Sloan School of Management described two theories of human behavior: Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumes individuals are inherently lazy and unhappy with their jobs. Therefore, they need an authoritative style of management ensuring that individuals meet their objectives. Theory Y assumes individuals are self-motivated, ambitious, apply good judgment, and enjoy work. Work is a natural form of play and individuals are creative in their problem solving. Given the right context and freedom, they will want to do well at work.

For the last 30 or so years, companies all over the world have been frustrated with the constraints and problems with a hierarchical form of organizational structure and have been looking for a way to tap into and double-down on the talent and capacity of Theory Y. Fredric Laloux researched this phenomenon in his book “Reinventing Organizations” which describes the evolution of hierarchy and the emergence of teal organizations which empower employees through various self-organizing systems of management.

“We need to create a culture that resonates with the current and future generation of workers”

The state of Washington began implementing a self-organizing system called Holacracy in February of 2015 within the Office of the CIO. This was setup as an experience to learn more about self-organizing systems and begin the conversation with the authorizing environment to identify impediments to implementing a self-organizing system in government.

In the first five months, we created an opportunity to experience self-organization in practice and invited conversations about the applicability and ability to operate a self-organizing system in government. Questions like: Can a self-organizing system actually work in government? How does it work with represented labor? Is it even legal in government? These questions and many more have come up and been discussed with the Washington State Human Resources (HR) Director, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), Labor Relations Office (LRO), and many others. The outcome of the experience is captured in a blog that documents and shares key learnings.

Now in the sixth month, the effort is beginning to enter the second phase in the new Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech) agency, established as the consolidated technology service agency for the state on July 1, 2015. The second phase will be setup as a scientific experiment to test the hypothesis: “A system of self-organization will produce better employee outcomes.” The experiment is being led by e-Gov, a division of WaTech, and in partnership with the agency HR office, State HR, and the Harvard Business School who is helping design the study to ensure it achieves academic rigor.

Time to Think Differently

To quote Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Washington is thinking differently and fighting the inertia of the status quo created by the last 50 years. Some of the ideas are disruptive and represent a cognitive jump for some but key leaders are passionate about making Washington government an employer of choice in the region and willing to be bold and push the status quo outside the comfort zone. In the end, our ability to be successful will be directly related to our ability to rise to the challenge, take bold action, and push through the change resistance.

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