Winning Organizational Culture

In his comments on an earlier post, Don Zauderer suggested that this blog look at The Secret of a Winning Culture by Larry E. Senn and John R. Childress ( - which lays out strategies for building high-performance teams. Among other questions Don would like to see addressed are: 

  • What was it about the NASA culture that contributed to the Challenger and Columbia disasters?
  • What was it about the FBI and CIA cultures that made it difficult to share information across agencies?
  • What is about organizational culture that propels senior leaders to essentially ignore survey data suggesting a distressing sense of low morale?
  • What is it about the values embedded in organizational culture that makes it so difficult to create trusting communities of learning and action? And how do our executive selection processes influence these distressing realities?
  • Why is it we often don't hold managers accountable for building human capital? 

For developing people? For positioning them for higher responsibility, etc.? What are some good models in the public sector? Don, who is a professor emeritus at American University and currently consulting on a variety of leadership challenges in the public sector, also suggests taking a look at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Gallery - highlighting leaders in specific offices whose "employees would kill for (them)."    

Turf Wars among State, FBI and theCIA

On the matter of the FBI and CIA, let's consider two recent books that offer insight on organization culture influences performance: Steve Coll's GhostWars, with its focus on turf wars and related tensions between the US Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, with adds a more personal dimension to the insularity of these organizations - particularly the FBI.  

In Steve Coll's Ghost Wars (, the author includes a host of references to turf wars and related tensions between the US Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Owing to a more legalistic approach to terrorism adopted by the Clinton Administration, FBI agents risked going to jail if they shared certain leads or evidence with the CIA that they had gathered in local investigations. Coll notes that "...The FBI's hermetic culture had become infamous by the early 1990s: ...agents would not tell local police what they were doing, were deeply reluctant to work on interagency teams, and would withhold crucial evidence even from other FBI agents." He concludes that "...All of this inhibited the CIA's reaction to the World Trade Center attack."  

Beyond these turf wars, the author cites numerous examples where State and the CIA were at loggerheads on both basic policy and tactical matters. He refers to "The CIA's Near East (Division) hands (being) increasingly annoyed at the State Department's diplomats ...wheedling onto the CIA's turf at the moment of victory, continually questioning the agency's assumptions, ...and wringing their hands about peace settlements." In another instance, Coll characterizes interagency debates as "caustic," with one team expressing optimism for their strategy and the other viewing matters pessimistically. Moreover, "...By early 1991 the Afghan policies pursued by the State Department and the CIA were in open competition with one another."   

In The Looming Tower (, Lawrence Wright adds another more personal dimension to the insularity of these organizations - particularly the FBI. He notes that "...In a country as diverse as America, the leadership of the FBI was stunningly narrow in its range. It was run by Irish and Italian Catholic men...Jersey boys, or Philly, or Boston. They called each other by boyish nicknames...picked up (as) altar boys or playing hockey for Holy Cross. They were intensely patriotic and were trained from childhood not to question the hierarchy." (Moreover), "...The bureau's culture had grown up in the decades when the FBI was fighting the Mafia...people from similar origins." As for the new threat - radical Islam - they didn't have a clue.  

Towards Understanding Bureaucratic Cultures

Adding to our seeds for understanding the traditional culture of bureaucracy, then, let's include such attributes as: the extent of diversity in hiring and staffing practices, a tendency towards sharing power and information vs. protection of one's turf, and of transparency and collaboration across organization borders vs. hiding within silos and stove-pipes.  Yet another colleague, Geralyn Miller, associate professor and director, Institute for Pension Plan Management at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, advises checking out Working with Culture: The Way the  Job Gets Done
in Public Programs
by Anne M. Khademian ( The formal publisher's review notes that the author draws "...on detailed examples from federal, state, and local agencies, ...(showing) that cultural roots not only determine the way work is performed, but also dictate the ultimate success of reform efforts."


As we proceed with this examination of public sector organization behavior - be it praiseworthy or not - my goal is to sustain a coherent, practice-oriented exchange on the "culture(s) of bureaucracy." One of the first hurdles, I suspect, will be to clarify the variety of perspectives emanating from the different "units of analysis." For example, those with a psychological bent seem to see things in terms of the personality of the leader. Those with a management systems frame of reference are inclined to explain culture in terms of occupational ethos. What I typically see is a messier arrangement of a truly mixed bag of contributory assumptions - including a wide range of demographically-derived values, views that depend on rank, status, geographic location (e.g., headquarters & the field), organization history, political vs. career positions, and countless other internal and exogenous factors that drive such core behaviors.


More on how we talk about the culture of bureaucracy and specific organizational case illustrations in the next post. Meanwhile, let's hear from you as well.