Analysis paralysis in government?

Finding a balance between studying a problem to death and taking swift action can be tricky, but there are signs that federal managers are trying to address the challenge.

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Last week for the first time in executive education at the Kennedy School, I taught three classes on how managers can benefit from consciously developing a strategy -- a small set of goals and a plan for the most important steps that need to happen to achieve those goals -- to guide their behavior and to improve their organization's or unit's performance.

The first two classes focused on non-U.S. federal organizations, which seemed to be fairly disciplined and systematic in thinking in advance about goals and plans that could then be applied to prioritize activities and guide reactions to specific situations the organization confronted.

However, the third class involved a case study of how Martha Johnson, who was named administrator of the General Services Administration at the beginning of the Obama administration, set a very aggressive goal for GSA to reach "zero environmental footprint" for IT activities. GSA's approach was far less-disciplined and more intuitive.

Johnson was quoted as saying, "I didn't want to spend weeks in a conference center, talking about our mission and our goals and so on.… I was trying to give people relief from forever-and-away planning, sifting, strategizing, talking, meeting and so on because GSA is an organization of action, and it really simply needs a couple of big channels to work in and then everybody will take off."

One of her early decisions was to totally redesign of GSA's office at 1800 F Street in Washington to get a building that previously housed 2,200 employees to accommodate "all 6,000 GSA employees working in D.C." That idea came up during a meeting about the building's renovation, and Johnson committed to it after minimal discussion and essentially no consultation with GSA staff. Ultimately, the redesigned headquarters expanded capacity to roughly 3,300.

(And as many readers will remember, Johnson was later sadly made the scapegoat for a scandal involving a GSA training conference in Las Vegas, which continues to cast a pall over federal conference activities. But that happened after what is described in the case.)

Johnson's approach triggered a fascinating class discussion about strategic planning -- an activity designed to improve performance by having managers think more systematically and in consultation with employees about goals and priorities, as opposed to making quick seat-of-the-pants judgments. Strategic planning is still rather widespread in government. Indeed, about one of every 10 participants in this executive education program has a job title or an element of strategic planning in his or her job description.

Although strategic planning carries a positive aura of rationality and forethought, it has many critics. They believe the process is yet another example of government officials studying problems to death and being too slow to make decisions and get around to acting -- a malady often known as analysis paralysis.

There is a related worry -- which is reproduced in discussions of agile software development (a topic I have blogged about a number of times) -- that the world changes so fast that it is better to start acting without much foresight, and adapt and iterate as you go along.

I took a class vote on the subject by asking participants whether their organizations more often made mistakes because "we study and deliberate so much that we have a hard time getting around to doing things" or because "we move too quickly and impulsively." A third alternative was "we have a good balance."

The results were fascinating. Forty-nine percent thought their organizations' problem was analysis paralysis, only 25 percent that it was impulsiveness, and 26 percent thought their organization had a good balance. If you believe, as I do, that impatience with analysis paralysis reflects an orientation toward getting things done, those results are good news from this group of GS-15s (for non-U.S. federal readers, approximately senior middle managers), especially given the stereotype that feds are non-action-oriented paper pushers.

In terms of strategic planning, I invited those from the 25 percent who thought their organization had a good balance to talk about why. One woman from the Commerce Department said her organization had a strategic plan that included goals and priorities. But officials met every quarter to discuss both, particularly the specific priorities, to see if they needed to make changes because of changes in their environment.

There are advantages to thinking in a disciplined and systematic way about what the organization should be doing. In a paper I wrote a number of years ago with Jeff Myers, then of Booz Allen Hamilton, we found that strategic planning was the management practice that most strongly distinguished political executives who had successfully executed an ambitious strategy from a random sample of political executives (75 percent of the successful group used strategic planning versus 11 percent of the random group).

However, when strategic planning is taken too far -- by spending too much time on it and being inflexible about using and adapting the results -- its effects turn negative. That reflects a common phenomenon in organizational and individual life, dubbed by the brilliant Wharton School organizational scholar Adam Grant (in collaboration with Barry Schwartz) the "inverted U."

The basic model for achieving a balance of strategic planning and "just do it" approaches -- and for many other elements of managing an organization -- is the idea from both Western and Eastern philosophies (Aristotle and Confucius) of the "golden mean."

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