Despite contemporary wisdom that traditional journalism is in decline, the 150+ year-old publication known as The Atlantic hasn’t lost its edge for writing substantive and thoughtful news commentary. I love this month’s article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, where Joshua Green argues that the Grateful Dead pioneered Internet business models before there was an Internet.
If you are interested in understanding how open and collaborative communities form across distances, look to the legions of Deadheads who connected, followed and enabled one of the most culturally and financially successful bands in history. The Grateful Dead gave their music away for free and it elevated demand, innovation and participation.
This same phenomenon is what the Obama Administration is striving for with open government – give the data away freely and allow innovation and participation to follow.
What I liked best about the Grateful Dead analogy and its application to open government is the concept of ‘strategic improvisation.’ The Dead thrived and survived for decades by constantly improvising on their strategy, which they could do because their openness enabled a unique flexibility. They were responsive to their fans and changing business conditions in the same way we hope government can be responsive to citizens and changing agency mission conditions. Strategic improvisation is a critical concept to embrace. The Grateful Dead contradicted industry practice and forfeited major revenue streams by allowing their loyal fan base to tape live performances, but it generated even greater success through community adoption.
So what does this have to do with the U.S. Military’s Southern Command? USSOUTHCOM certainly doesn’t come to mind when thinking about the Grateful Dead or open government … or disaster relief for that matter. But recently United States Southern Command contradicted strict interpretation of mission strategy when it decided to re-purpose its cloud based Defense Connect Online system as a local emergency response platform within hours after the Haiti earthquake. USSOUTHCOM’s collaborative and adaptive response harnessed critical resources and expertise to the region more quickly than anyone thought possible.
Aneesh Chopra described the inspirational response as “a function of commonwealth that is the foundation of open government.” He made these remarks during his keynote at the State of the Union for Technology event Tuesday, coincidentally hosted by the Atlantic (and not so coincidentally sponsored by Adobe). Aneesh did not use the term strategic improvisation or cite the Grateful Dead, but the significance of the behavior is the same. USSOUTHCOM is not trained for earthquake response, they provide force protection and logistics support in the southern region of the globe. But the community and technology they have developed to support their core mission made them well suited to adapt to the changing mission requirements of the region.
When government agencies begin to view their community as an improvisational amplifier of their mission strategy, great things can happen. I doubt USSOUTHCOM or Chopra would expect to find parity with the Grateful Dead, but if the traditionally conservative management consultants are finding value there, then why not? To borrow from the title of the Grateful Dead’s popular album, open government through strategic improvisation could become an American Beauty.