When I was at Cisco, the company was like a self-contained city. There were 65,000 employees at peak worldwide, but they were subdivided into particular suburbs (business units) and power-cliques that transcended business units or geographic boundaries. Over time, these tribes began to permeate the broader organization as it grew, so you'd find yourself running into the same old people ten years later in a completely different role.
When I got there in 1996, it was the Wild West. Everyone was working their tails off, sleeping at their desk, tensions and stress were running high, and we were kicking ass. Political correctness was a capital offense if it got in the way of making the next 20 million for the company. Over time, as the growth began to slow, people surveyed the fallout of the previous years. They realized they had made enemies (or at least, engendered ill-will) of people that were now in positions of power and strength in groups they needed to work closely with. I was among many that 'never saw a bridge I didn't immolate'.
The result? By the post-dot-bomb years, the culture had changed from one of risk-taking to risk-avoidance, and from accountability to political correctness (PC). You never knew when you were going to bump into the person on the other side of the desk (who completely failed at upholding their commitment/deliverables to the project), or end up working for them. Critical feedback stopped, people had no accountability to speak of, and it became a culture of keeping the peace versus getting things done. My last years there were like navigating a mine-field of old grudges, power-blocs, and ego-fests, just in order to add shareholder value. I sadly learned the catchphrase "Nobody ever got fired for saying 'no' (to perceived risk)."
Des Moines is like that too.
It's a small town, and an even smaller professional working population. At some levels, the 'bench' is very shallow and the people you meet are practically (if not actually) related.
When I left Cisco three years ago, and realized that I'd be doing business locally, I started a brain on the people I met and their relations to each other. It grew rapidly at first, then slowly, then rapidly, and so on. It's essentially a social graph of the connections between everyone I've connected with professionally in the city, who their colleagues, coworkers, golfing buddies, etc. are. When I met with someone, I'd quickly drop them in the brain so I had context when I came into contact with them again. I followed Albert Einstein's attributed maxim to "never memorize anything you can write down".
Here is what it shows me (and no, before you ask, you may not have a copy. If this blogpost doesn't get me crucified, that certainly would):
- There are approximately two degrees of separation among everyone I've graphed, which is nearing two thousand people. Occasionally I'll encounter an outlier, who is also a hub for a hereto-unknown-sphere of individuals, but it's getting increasingly rare.
- The quantity of tribal knowledge (aka baggage, context) is staggering. A brief and harmless example is if you are planning on renting an office downtown, you'd benefit from memorizing the original name of every building before you start, not unlike a London cabbie and The Knowledge, because that's the semiotic domain that the commercial real estate world operates within. It's not 304 15th Street, it's 'The Fitch Building'. It's not 300 SW 3rd Street, it's 'The Brewery', even though it hasn't been a brewery since before prohibition.
- Everyone has worked with everyone in this city for decades, except for the 'up and comers'. The up and comers are taking great glee in being the antithesis of PC, and many are cultivating enemies right and left that they'll have the opportunity to encounter over and over again should they opt to not move out of the state (and that is seldom any assurance either, as the dominant industries in town are rather small tribes on a national level anyway).
What this has resulted in culturally reminds me of how Cisco evolved from '96 to '08. There is very little honest, open, genuine, critical feedback. People are typically excessively PC or branded a heretic, and risk-taking is lauded publicly while being scorned privately. There is abundant Schadenfreude in celebrating the failures of your enemies, therefore failure is a Very Bad Thing in this city rather than being accepted as a step on the road to success.
We've got to change this.
It's holding us back as a city, and it'll be the bounds that strangle us if we don't outgrow this passive-aggressive PC culture and reinvent ourselves. We'll calcify, and eventually stop, if we don't take more risks, speak honestly and openly, and hold others accountable for their commitments and actions. That doesn't mean you should run out, buy a gallon of kerosene and matches, and go hunting for bridges, but that does mean we need to find a sustainable path to taking risk and growing this city if it has any chance of survival.
These views are solely my own, and I will gladly take any and all responsibility. Someone had to say it.