This is a blog series about “Leading Culture” by Rae Buckley and Lindsey Bineau, with the expertise of retired Chapel Hill, NC Town Manager, Roger Stancil. Read all installments as they’re published online here.
“A public manager interested in managing culture must focus intently on the dimensions of culture that require change, have a flexible plan, and pursue that plan relentlessly. The pursuit will no doubt be rocky, full of learning and adjustments, but the intensity of the process of change is crucial. If tenure is short and the effort tentative, then culture change will be negligible; if, on the other hand, the effort is relentless then a leader may achieve a critical change in the organization’s culture.” – Anne Khademian
Roger had two consistent – and sometimes intense – approaches to organizational change that were critical to managing the culture in the Town of Chapel Hill.
Roger called his first approach to change “sowing the seeds.” He would propose an idea to an individual or group and tell them they’d be a great leader to undertake the project. The person or group would either tell Roger why his idea wouldn’t work or feel special enough to give the project a shot. Little did they know, Roger would have the same conversation with other people or groups as well.
For example, Roger sowed the seeds about an open data project with Technology Services, Communications, and the Public Library. When people ask why Open Data is located in our Public Library, Roger answers, “because it bloomed there.”
The next, more intense tool is something Roger liked to call “positive turbulence.” Positive turbulence is a friendly name for some of the organizational moves Roger made to intentionally disrupt norms. One of the most significant moves Roger made was appointing himself as the leader of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan update.
By appointing himself as the leader of the project, Roger established that the comprehensive plan would guide all of the Town and not be seen as just another “planning document.” His reason for doing this came from experiences he had trying to improve the Town’s developmental review process.
During those efforts he held sessions where staff from multiple departments mapped out their part of the review process. Roger found that many of the employees working on the process had never met each other and didn’t understand the role other employees played in the process. It was a classic silo situation that prevented leaders and employees from seeing themselves as part of a system.
The intensity of this positive turbulence provoked the organization in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, the Planning Department felt a decreased sense of ownership in the process, and the process ended with a product that was far-reaching in its policy scope but less specific in its land use direction. On the other hand, there was a strong executive message of shared leadership which inspired a sense of shared ownership over the process.
Roger likes to talk about “reversing and move forward” when something isn’t working – much like the way one reverses a car to either push through or find a better way around obstacles.
Like Anne Khademian discusses, relentless persistence on the part of a manager has the power to transform organizational culture. In sowing seeds and creating positive turbulence, Roger created opportunities to “reverse and move forward” when things weren’t working in an organization.
In doing so, Roger demonstrated a persistence that allowed the Town of Chapel Hill’s organizational culture to change and develop into the culture we see today.
- Khademian, Anne M. “Culture as a Management Tool.” Working with Culture: The Way the Job Gets Done in Public Programs. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002, 35.