I have worked with government now for about 15 years and somewhere in that period I became infected with Public Service Renewal disease. I call it that because that was I how I first learned to articulate it. But you could also call it Blueprint 2020, Destination 2020, Gov.20, Agile Government, Open Government or the current favorite, Digital Government.
One of the differences I have noticed between the federal government and other sectors of society is a preoccupation with obligation. The bureaucracy of government sees itself as obligated to meet a higher standard. Mistakes are rarely tolerated and staff routinely strive to achieve the impossible; programs that will measurably create results with no risk. The goal is laudable but consider for a moment how difficult it is to achieve societal goals that are actually measurable in a 4-8 year term. Society changes, but it does so in decades and in ways that economists struggle to understand much less measure. The other side of the equation is risk and as my mother used to say; ” nothing ventured, nothing gained”, venture implies risk so if you are unwilling to risk being wrong for fear of unfavorable media attention, or just because you want to create the perfect solution, you are doomed to an eternity of cost overruns and mediocre results.
Part of the problem is the way that accountability and reward are structured. Senior managers with performance pay are motivated to eliminate mistakes are frequently adopt a strategy of micro-managing. Because that is so unsustainable they quickly become overwhelmed with details. When they are presented with an innovation that will take some additional effort, it is much easier to say no.
I started this post with the statement, “good enough, is”. Early in my career, (decades ago now), I was working for the engineering group in a telecommunications firm, I was writing the project charter for a five-year multi-million dollar product transformation. Working with one of the executives articulating project principles, and he insisted that one of them should be “Good enough, is”. His rationale was that engineers were constantly almost finishing projects, and then thinking of better, more elegant solutions and restarting the entire effort. This constant pursuit of the very best was getting in the way of actually shipping a product. It struck me then as interesting, and worthy of consideration in realms beyond engineering and telecommunications.
Since those days I have come across the sentiment expressed in a number of ways, from “perfection is the enemy of good”, to perfection is a moving target, to the minimum viable product. Whatever you call it, I think it is worth reflecting on the question of whether you and your team are pursuing excellence at the expense of good enough. In these days of extreme demands and minimal resources, ask yourself is it worth the price?
Recently I have been encouraged by all the talk about bringing Agile processes into more aspects of government. But one thing that concerns me is I am not sure that folks understand that “good enough is” lies at the heart of the process. I suspect that a few public servants with a passion for excellence, can pretty easily kill agile with good intentions. We have to remember that agile is an iterative process. We need to build this into our thinking. Each iteration of a policy or service development cycle may be just good enough, but that is OK, because we can make it better in the next iteration. This leads to the next challenge which is making the iterations short enough, as in next quarter rather than in five years.
This is not to say I think the public service should under-achieve. The idea of “Good enough, is” should always be countered by the concept of Kaizen or continuous improvement. The dynamic tension is a healthy thing.
What do you think?Note: This post originally appeared on the Government Executive Blog.