I recently completed a homeland security project with a significant private-public element. I have begun the assessment process and intend to include a personal note on the issue of “cultural tensions” between the private and public sector.
Following is the first of an expected three or fours posts where I am trying to think through my impressions. There are empirical findings, but the data can reasonably be interpreted in a variety of ways. We are left with analysis or interpretation or persuasion. I would very much value your feedback. What seems sound and what sounds wrong? Given your own experience of private-public engagements, what are your questions or alternative answers?
Clearly this is radically reductionist. At best this is an effort to identify some helpful heuristics. At worst — well, heuristics are always double-edged.
Perceived Context as a Source of Cultural Differentiation
I am the son and grandson of grocers. Over the last three decades I have not been employed by an organization I did not create or co-create. I have worked with various public sector entities and have been compensated for this work, but I have never been employed by the public sector.
I have never been employed by a large organization of any sort. I have been a consultant to large organizations, but my professional home has typically been an enterprise of 10-to-40 persons. Very early in my career I was part of a global consulting firm of a few thousand, but we were organized in mostly independent small offices and teams. It was a much looser arrangement than I encountered among our Fortune-100 client-base.
I share this personal background because it no doubt influences the following findings. As my Dad often says, “We are who we are because of where we were when.” Our understanding of context influences every other understanding.
Fundamental to private sector context is failure: competitors fail, customers fail, colleagues fail. Start-ups fail. Market-dominating firms are killed off in a couple of CEO-cycles. I have mostly failed. Even when the organizations I have created have continued they have never achieved what those present at the beginning envisioned.
Private sector culture anticipates failure. Hitting 300 is very good, especially if you are regularly up to bat, even more if you can hit when the bases are loaded. Knowing that failure is likely you look for back-up opportunities, maintain exit plans, and cultivate an ecology of opportunity. Many private sector enterprises use failure much as an organic farmer uses waste to fertilize the next generation of crops.
This is because the U.S. private sector is heavily oriented toward growth. Good growth from a minority of successful initiatives will more than cover the losses generated by failures… especially failures that are brought to an early demise. Know when to hold them and when to fold them. Walking away from failure at the right time — and learning from the failure — is a key characteristic of the most resilient private sector enterprises.
As an outsider looking in on the public sector I do not perceive this creative anticipation of failure plays a similar role. Rather, avoiding failure seems a regular characteristic of public sector clients and colleagues.
This may be related to a lack of growth opportunities within the public sector. In an essentially static resource context failure is seen as waste rather than exploration or innovation or investment.
There is at least as much diversity within the private sector and public sector as between them. The US Coast Guard and the Navy Chaplain Corps are among the most entrepreneurial of organizations I have had the pleasure to encounter. Education and training organizations are — weirdly — often the most bureaucratic regardless of their private or public status. I have watched up-close as proud private sector brands have stubbornly avoided taking reasonable — much less market bending — risks.
But as a general rule, public sector organizations are loathe to fail. In some cases it is precisely the prospect of imminent failure that generates “growth” opportunities for the public sector. Just when the private sector would probably be walking away is when the public sector is tempted to double-down to ensure success — or at least avoid failure. The public sector too often succumbs to this temptation.
The temptation to avoid-failure-at-all-cost is reinforced by the way public sector failure is framed (in a couple of meanings of the word) by the media and elected officials. There is a cult of personal accountability that practices a cruel liturgy of public humiliation.
For the private sector failure can also come with considerable personal costs, but it is balanced with upside possibilities. In the public sector the outcomes of failure are heavily weighted toward all-costs and almost no incentive. Culturally the private sector has mythologized reality as a space/time where possibilities abound, failure is temporary, and the universe is expanding. The mythology of the public sector is much more a matter of light and dark, success or failure, and the universe is static.
Next week — maybe — the operational concepts that emerge from these alternative contexts.