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History matters

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 4, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

I just received this comment from AJ which I thought you would enjoy. I will let her comment speak for itself.

I’m an anthropologist who’s just finished a study of a small government department. After reading your story above, I thought I’d share the value of understanding corporate histories, corporate kinship & traditions I learned during my doctoral fieldwork.

This particular agency had a culture of purposely obfuscating exact budget expenditure amongst the executives and reporting incorrectly to Treasury. Don’t interpret this the wrong way – no one was taking any public money, rather, they were shuffling it about so that money given for one purpose but not spent was being used elsewhere within the agency. Lower ranked managers and field staff widely condemned this practice, and simply couldn’t understand why it happened.

When I examined the agency’s history, it turned out for the first three years of its existence (1955-1958) it had been legislatively created *without* a budget. Thus, the original directors had to fight, lie and cajole to get money just to employ staff and maintain public infrastructure etc. Also, this agency had its own powers to employ staff directly rather than via usual public sector channels. This upset the mandarins in the public sector and they gave the agency a really hard time for more than 20 years by consistently withholding funds … this was around the same time the executives who I dealt with were first being employed as junior officers. It was stated quite openly to me by people now retired that they didn’t tell Treasury anything truthful because the buggers would cut their budget if they did …!

Of course, this habit of ‘shuffling’ money and not telling Treasury everything became a tradition passed from one group of senior managers to the next – even when the organisation became large and powerful during the 1980s & 1990s.

The senior execs all drank with each other, went bush with each other, played golf etc etc. and inducted newly promoted members into their ranks in this way… thus the tradition was passed on until last year when a director from outside was hired, came in, took one look at the annual report and the figures on the computer and went HUH?!?!

So just a short tale about the role of history, tradition & kinship in g’ment … from an ethnographer living in her tent (like Malinoswki) studying natives in the field.

By the way, Anectdote is a great resource. Thank you so much for your work and sharing.

Some people say to me, “why are we worrying about the past? What’s done is done. We need to keep focussed on the future.” These categories of past, present and future can lead us astray. Time is a continuum not a category.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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