The Challenge of Changing Organizational Culture

For this special anniversary issue of PM, Members discuss cultural change and its implications for how local governments will conduct business in the future.

Aug 15, 2014 | ARTICLE

Leading for the Greater Good

In their 2013 book Leading from the Emerging Future (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013), MIT’s Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer argue for a new world view that moves from a self-focused, ego-driven model of society to one in which government, business, education, and the broader community work for the well-being of the “oikos,” which in Greek means the “whole household,” creating institutional innovations for a truly global advancement.

It is this ecosystem model of enlightened and compassionate leadership to which public managers will also have to increasingly turn to ensure that their local governments and communities continue to thrive. Managers have learned, sometimes the hard way, that actions taken in isolation for a narrowly focused result cannot achieve the comprehensive greater good that residents, elected officials, and employees expect and require.

As they keep their focus on the greater good, the local government management vision—and its methods—will need to embrace a perspective of a borderless world—one that requires sustainable, cohesive, and integrated solutions that bring together neighbors, schools and universities, unions, business leaders, activists, young people, artists, seniors, and soccer moms and dads.

Whether it is addressing the consequences of mankind’s ecological footprint, in which some scientists estimate that people are using 50 percent more resources than the planet can regenerate, or repairing the social spectrum in which billions of people live on less than $2 a day, the strategies that managers adopt to lead their communities into the future will have to demonstrate an awareness that values and serves the well-being of all others.

A Bigger Vision

So where does one start? Scharmer and Kaufer recommend focusing not on what should be avoided but on what should be achieved. In other words, start with a bigger vision of what can be built together for the well-being of the whole.

Then take time to observe and reflect on how what is happening right now can help local government managers move from the past to the future they desire. Next, accept the challenge to act and explore the future by creating pilots and prototypes.

And, most importantly, managers will need to have open minds, open hearts, and an open will so that they can conquer their own fears and help their organizations to make way for the new.

Managers are the architects of their communities’ future. No one else is as uniquely positioned to ensure the best possible future for all constituencies. It’s your calling to take joyful responsibility for your communities and your profession as you lead boldly into a future that serves the greater good.

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Katy Simon, ICMA-CM, is president, Simon and Associates, Reno, Nevada (ksimon@simon


Building a Culture of Excellence

Excellence doesn’t happen by accident. Throughout my career it has become increasingly clear that excellence—with individuals or organizations—is something that requires daily commitment and constant attention. Excellence takes time, effort, and passion.

As we move into the future of city and county management, I believe local leaders must have a deep commitment to excellence and continuous improvement. We have to change—and be prepared to change again—the way we do business.

The days of “trust-us” local government are behind us. Now and in the future, our role as managers includes modeling transparency in all our operations and actively pursuing authentic public engagement in order to best serve our residents. Our organizations need to be flexible and nimble, able to adapt and change as our communities evolve and residents’ expectations continue to rise.


A Mandate of Continuous Improvement

Building a culture of excellence is the best way to attract high-caliber staff, which in turn drives exceptional service and innovation within our organizations. That culture of excellence requires a deep commitment to continuous improvement, and ultimately is something that goes beyond a mission statement to become part of your city’s and employees’ DNA.

Of course, continuous improvement is the responsibility of individuals as much as the collective organization. As managers, we must challenge ourselves and set an example among our colleagues for both personal and professional growth. We should expect our executive teams to do the same.


A Clear Vision

To be an effective manager in this kind of an aspirational environment requires extremely intentional work and a refined focus on community goals. While the future may not be clear, as leaders we must achieve clarity in the vision we develop for our organizations. We have to strategically align our resources to achieve that vision, and we must be resilient and able to embrace change, challenges, and new circumstances to keep moving forward.

We must persevere in building meaningful relationships with our elected officials, community partners, and staff. This relationship-building puts us in the best position to unite around shared community goals and work collaboratively toward those outcomes.

Remember that culture change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and it takes some trial and error. I tell my staff that outside of ethical, legal, or safety violations, mistakes are okay. It’s how we learn, and it’s how we ultimately arrive at the best solutions.

This spirit of learning and continuous improvement is deeply embedded in the city of Fort Collins. Excellence in pockets isn’t enough to be a truly innovative and effective municipal government. It takes all of us continually pursuing a common mission.


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Darin Atteberry, ICMA-CM, is city manager, Fort Collins, Colorado (


 The Next 100 Years

In 100 years, it’s likely that local governments will be facing some of the same challenges they are today. But between now (i.e., 2014) and 2114, local governments will enjoy a spring, summer, and fall, and be in the midst of our next winter. Here are the possible scenarios:

Spring (years 2021–2042) will be a renaissance period in our communities. “Me” thinking will be replaced by “We” thinking as millennials, those born from 1982 to 2001, hit their stride as leaders and import their values of sharing, interdependence, and respect for diversity.

During this period, investments in parks and common spaces may rise in importance, and innovative communities will make breakthroughs in assets like affordable housing (we must have housing for everyone) and outcome-based education (we must educate all students). Trust in local governments may reach an all-time high.

Summer (years 2043–2065) will be a period when the iGeneration (born 2002–2020) asks deeper questions about why things are as they are. These will involve issues that had long been taken for granted, including immigration, food security, and water rights, which will become front-page news. (Not that there will be newspapers.)

This could be a period of spiritual and moral reset in our country, similar in scope to the one ushered in by the baby boomers in the 1960s. It will, however, happen more quickly because our connectivity will be greater due to social networks. Local governments that operate transparently and in alignment with this shift in the zeitgeist will attract new residents and their communities will become the next generation’s “best places to live.”

Fall (years 2066–2088) will be a period when the things built during spring start to show signs of age—physically, financially, and perhaps even morally. The country may retreat from “We” thinking back to “Me” thinking as institutions begin to creak and crumble.

Weaknesses in all systems will be exposed and a new kind of leader will emerge: one who capitalizes on people’s fears and promises safety. During this period, local governments may become the “enemy,” an example of institutions that don’t work and can’t be trusted.

Winter (years 2089–2110) will start with a single, strong jolt to the nation. It could be an act of terrorism, a pandemic, a shock to food or water systems, a financial crisis, or something else. This jolt will set off a series of events that will pile on and leave the country feeling uncertain.

Individuals will trust only those closest to them, whether family or neighbors. Local governments will be forced to respond to issues they couldn’t have predicted but nonetheless inherit. “Back to basics” will become the mantra, once again.

So 100 years from now, in 2114, it will feel quite similar to today—emerging from winter and facing a new spring.

Rebecca Ryan - Cover Story


Rebecca Ryan is founder, Next Generation Consulting, Washington, D.C., and author of Live First Work Second: Getting Inside the Head of the Next Generation and ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America’s Future Leaders. She also serves as resident futurist for the Alliance for Innovation, Phoenix, Arizona.


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