By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Risk-taking and short-tenure leaders in government

One of the nice things about being around a lot of smart students is that they regularly come up with interesting ideas that their professor had never thought about before. My class notes for cases I teach in my management courses have been enriched over the years by comments students have made during the class discussions, providing insights I hadn't thought about when I originally developed my class notes and teaching plan.

A nice example of this occurred recently in a meeting with a first-year master's student, Brian, who had come by my office to talk about some questions he had about the course and about managing in the public sector. One question he asked was about the willingness to risk failure in government versus the private sector. I replied to him with the standard view that in government, compared with the private sector, the upside benefits of trying something risky are small, so that government people tend to focus more on the downsides of failure.

He then asked whether this applied equally to short-termers as to career people. His example was actually military officers on short tours of duty who would then be considered for promotion. His idea was that short-termers had only a short period of time to establish a record that might produce a promotion, so they'd be more inclined to take even long-shot gambles -- sort of managerial Hail Mary passes -- in the hope that an outstanding achievement would distinguish them from the crowd.

I hadn't thought about his point before, but it seems plausible and also provides another argument for providing a role for short-timers, including, importantly, political appointees, in government organizations. It is often argued by academics who think about these things that political appointees provide a good leavening to a career-workforce-dominated dough, because they are a force for new ideas and change. If all the system produced were new ideas and change, this wouldn't be good, because it would place an organization in constant upheaval. The suggestion is that career and political folks (or short-term military officers in an assignment) provide a good point-counterpoint that provides a role for the ballast the career folks provide along with the new directions the political people stand for. You want some of both.

Brian's idea suggests something similar for risk-seeking versus risk-aversion. One would not want government organizations that were routinely betting the farm on some untried approach that well might not work. On the other hand, I don't think we should want government organizations that are scared to pursue even prudent risks because of excessive risk-aversion. Here as well, then, the balance between risk-seeking short-termers and more risk-averse lifers might be a good mix for the system.

Posted on Nov 21, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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