Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 27, 2013

Private and Public Cultures: Action

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 27, 2013

This is — depending on your responses — probably the last in a short series of posts on perceived tensions between private and public sectors in homeland security.  Prior posts have considered context, concepts, and communications.


In the June Harvard Business Review a three-piece collection focuses on “strategy for turbulent times”.  HBR authors aspire to be evidence-based and action-oriented.  This usually results in story-supported assertions with to-do or not-to-do lists.

In “Transient Advantage” Rita Gunther McGrath argues we now live “in a world where a competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year [and] companies can’t afford spending months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy”.  After a couple of stories she lists seven dangerous misconceptions and offers paragraph-long explanations for “eight major shifts” in the ways companies need to operate.

If you are a public servant can you translate any four of these into near-term action in your agency… without risking jail-time or, at least, very stern comments by the Comptroller General?

1.  Think about arenas, not industries.  ”An arena is a combination of a customer segment, an offer, and place in which that offer is delivered.”

2. Set broad themes, and then let people experiment.  Is that what happened in the Cincinnati IRS office?

3.  Adopt metrics that support entrepreneurial growth.  The author quotes a business executive who advocates, “fall in love with the problem you are trying to solve.”  I have not seen that metric referenced in any GAO publication.

4.  Focus on experiences and solutions to problems.  Okay, that’s a gimme.

5.  Build strong relationships and networks.  Two gimmes.  But accepting is different than adopting which is entirely different from practicing.

6.  Avoid brutal restructuring: learn healthy disengagement.  And how do you explain this to the oversight committee(s)?

7.  Get systematic about early-stage innovation.   When Poindexter et al attempted to do this publicly with Total Information Awareness the NSA learned (see number 8) to do essentially the same thing behind closed doors.  See where that got us.

8. Experiment, iterate, learn.  What do you suppose TSA has learned from its experiment in changing the rules related to onboard knives and related?  It might have learned something about number 5.  But instead I expect it mostly learned that number 7 involves pain.

The private sector organizations I know have been talking about these shifts for the last quarter-century or more.  Some are making the shifts.  A few live in fifth-gear.  Almost everyone dreams of the two-door top-down wind-in-the-hair shift-into-fifth.

Most public sector organizations I have encountered dream about a Prius (or more politically-and-patriotically correct, a Ford Fusion Hybrid SE) or a very large truck of some sort. All go… but the destination, route, and experience tend to be dissimilar.

The private sector celebrates, mythologizes — essentially worships — action.  What can we do?  Now?  Just do it.  As is often the case believers fall short, sin, and are hypocritical.  But almost everyone can also tell a powerful story of redemption.

My private sector patron saint has been Peter Drucker who claimed innovation and sales are the only sources of value.  Everything else is a cost… and costs, like sin, are to be minimized.

Innovation and sales emerge from the crucible of creativity and customers.  The entrepreneur perceives a need that becomes an opportunity.  The entrepreneurial enterprise probes the desires and deficiencies of the market through which a compelling experience and a persuasive solution emerge (see number 4).  Rapid, continuing, and (if successful) increasingly crowded customer feedback informs creative adaptation and an idea becomes reality. Hallelujah.

I have known public sector enterprises that share similar beliefs and behavior.  Hospitals and water systems are among the most action-oriented.

There is also an — obvious — action-bias among police and firefighters.  But in my experience there is an important distinction with broad implications.

In the private sector, and a segment of the public sector, action is targeted to stimulate or facilitate specific actions by others.  Among enforcement agencies action is (mostly) aimed at stopping or controlling specific actions by others.   Many public sector agencies — especially homeland security agencies — are organized to stop undesirable behavior rather than start or serve desirable behavior.  Feedback comes much more slowly, more hierarchically, and is often reported as a reduction — as opposed to growth — in key indicators.

A stop-it culture is not much like a start-up culture.

I spent most of my career in a series of start-ups.  I soon learned to keep lawyers, accountants, and most academics away from the creative process until the enterprise was generating some sort of market-based results.  The critical-thinkers — as opposed to creative-thinkers — were important contributors to refining promising products; but they very seldom saw the need for anything beyond fourth gear and third was fine most of the time.  Government lawyers and accountants seem especially talented in this regard (apologies Bill).

None of this is meant to suggest one culture is innately superior to the other.  Personally I feel more comfortable in the private sector.  But that is an aesthetic rather than an ethical or existential judgment.  Each culture, at its best, is well-adapted to its particular context and purposes.  The two cultures need each other if those who depend on both are to be well-served and if each is to flourish.  In the homeland security domain both cultures are in any case persistently present.

If a stop-it guy and a start-up gal were tagged for a blind date would opposites attract or deflect?  It depends on the self-awareness and sense of humor of each.  If either or both tend toward self-righteousness, watch out for yelling or someone walking out in a huff or no real conversation and no second date.

But we often reserve our greatest affection for that which is mysterious to us (see number 3).  Engineers call this tension, poets may prefer frisson.  It keeps opposites positively engaged. Whatever we call it, homeland security needs to cultivate it in our private-public relationships.

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Comment by Rubin, Claire

June 27, 2013 @ 2:54 am

Interesting post. Thanks for the provocative piece.

Comment by HGRATTAN

June 27, 2013 @ 6:24 am

Five frogs sitting on a log.
Four decide to jump off.
How many are left?
Answer 5.
Because there’s a difference between deciding and doing?

See: Five Frogs on A Log http://www.amazon.com/Five-Frogs-Log-Accelerating-Acquisitions/dp/088730981X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372331881&sr=8-1&keywords=Five+Frogs+on+A+Log
Cited in Failure of Initiative http://www.uscg.mil/history/katrina/docs/USHouseOfRepKatrina2006MainR1eport.pdf

This stop it guy matured and wanted to be hybrid stop it/start it guy. NYPD COMPSTAT dictated otherwise. Even when COMPSTAT had a good idea (and there were many in the beginning), accepting was different than adapting and entirely different from practicing.

Conversations at a recent NYPD reunion suggested that we are still a long way from practicing many of the things we espouse.

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