The Importance of Culture

September 25, 2013

Besides being an attorney my background is mostly in information technology and political organizing. Involving myself in politics in Connecticut and Massachusetts has allowed me to see the difference in those cultures and even experience the variations among the various schools I worked with for College Democrats. It has surprised me how the different cultures of two different places impacts them, even if they operate under the same rules. I grew-up in a house where we had the Internet when I was young and as a “nerd” in high school I was comfortable being the one that brought my gadgets to class and forced the teachers to figure out the implications after the fact.

The difference in the cultures among schools lead to College Democrats chapters and involvement that reflected the character of the schools themselves. Some schools had students that were involved because they thought they would have a career in politics. Other schools attracted students that enjoyed activism and thought it was a good way to change the world. Students at technology and business focused schools might not be searching for a political career but thought they had a duty to know what was happening and wanted to attend events to meet other like-minded people. As a result schools put on different events. Some focused on canvassing and raising awareness of issues in the community, while others focused on Congress and national issues.

One student from a business focused school once relayed to me the concern that students at their school often come from working class families that cannot afford the unpaid internships that are prolific in politics. Seeing people shut out of these career paths because of money has made me believe that ProPublica is right to be investigating them. Unfortunately, having been on the other side, I have seen how difficult it is to get campaigns to allocate intern budgets and how easy it is for organizers to just recruit them as volunteers. In a perfect world I would wave a wand and end (or at least reform) unpaid internships. However it is not that simple.

Changing culture is the hardest thing to do. In law school we learned the value of precedent and in culture it plays an even bigger role than in law. Some people believe there are shortcuts to changing a culture, but this is not the case. You have to work on finding and persuading people of your ideas one on one. Ironically this is easier in large groups than small groups because in the large groups you can usually find other people to persuade and build a critical mass. In small groups you need the respect of the core group and to persuade them, and if you do not persuade them then the change simply will not occur. This is why people leave groups or organizations, and likely why the group is small in the first place. If you do find one or two people amenable to your ideas you can work with them to recruit other like-minded people into the organization until you have a majority.

Sometimes people think they can prescript change from the top. For minors things this might work, but for most things you need buy-in from your constituency. If people dislike or do not understand a new thing they will often ignore it. In politics this might mean canvassers will not use targeted lists and people used to just attending events will not even bother to canvass at all. In an organization this might mean if you deploy a new tool like second monitors the users will turn them off or move them out of their way. It is not enough for innovation to be better, you have to show people how it is better.1 Furthermore this means eating your own dogfood. You can tell people that canvassing is important or that blogging is a good communication tool, but if they do not see you canvassing or blogging then they will not attach much credibility to it.

  1. In business or IT this is why there are pilot and beta programs. People look to early adopters for guidance on what they should do, and adopt the innovations they see their peers using.. 

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.