The Art of Cultural Transformation

Getting the rank and file to think differently and embrace change can be a daunting task.
by | May 21, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

Many who advocate a "better, faster, cheaper" approach to government bemoan how difficult it is to alter the established norms of public service. Getting the rank and file to think differently and embrace change can be a daunting task.

A recent column by David Brooks of the New York Times points out that in just the past five years or so, the U.S. Army has undergone a dramatic cultural reorientation. Arising out of the painful struggles in post-conflict Iraq, a new approach has taken hold that emphasizes the need for Army personnel to embrace new approaches to nation-building activities.

The change, championed in part by General David Petraeus, didn't come easily. First, a new manual was written by those with firsthand experience on the ground, who understood how and why the old approach wasn't working.

The goal of the manual was to guide soldiers on how to behave in a hostile but non-combat environment. Soldiers had never been trained for that. Proponents of this new approach, dubbed “COINdinistas” from the Army acronym for counterinsurgency, then had to sell their idea up and down the food chain. Brooks writes:

Petraeus and others had to go on a base-to-base campaign tour, selling the approach, especially down the chain of command. Many people join the Army to kill bad guys, not to build fisheries. The COINdinistas had to persuade them to get out of their trucks and wear less body armor. Soldiers often became receptive on their second or third tours of duty, after they’d killed plenty of insurgents without result, and seen buddies lose limbs.

Then there was the institutionalization process. Some of the training programs were still preparing soldiers for tank battles or big urban warfare. They were scrapped…. In the new courses, officers practiced negotiating with "sheiks." Bands of bloggers were set up to help those in Iraq and Afghanistan share information with those about to deploy. Gen. Ray Odierno adjusted the balance between combat and community operations.

How did this change come about? What can state and local government leaders learn from the Army's example? One lesson is that the firsthand experience in the field was combined with an understanding of the academic literature. The lessons being taught in the classroom were developed months before out in the field.

Brooks notes that the change process was led by what he calls "dual-consciousness" leaders -- those who could be practitioners one month and then academic observers the next. I couldn't help but think of Stephen Goldsmith, who has gone from mayor of Indianapolis to professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, returning to the front lines once again to serve as deputy mayor of New York City.

Here's how Brooks describes those who jumped back and forth between seeing action and studying strategy:

They were neither blinkered by Army mind-set, like some of the back-slapping old guard, nor so removed from it that their ideas were never tested by reality, like pure academic theoreticians.

It's a wonder that more institutions aren't set up to encourage this sort of alternating life. Business schools do it, but most institutions are hindered by guild customs, by tenure rules and by the tyranny of people who can only think in one way.

In addition to the art of war, perhaps the Army can provide some lessons in the art of cultural transformation.