Short-term Thinking and Why Communication Can't Defeat Silos

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I'm wary of efforts to carve the world into types of people, but let's imagine this rough divide: those who focus on the direct impacts of their decisions, and those who can imagine a cascade of effects. In other words, those who see only a single link in the cause-effect chains they start, and those who know that it continues into the distance.

Businesspersons who burn bridges to make deals, networkers who abuse relationships and trust to make contacts, and managers who step on employees fall into the first category. Mentors teaching others, collaborators giving their time to others' projects, and leaders who ensure the long-term health of their workplaces are examples of the second.

We might adopt Adam Grant's nomenclature, and call these people Takers (or Matchers) and Givers. The research in his book, Give and Take, bears out the truth of these causal chains: those who take the What's in it for me? approach lose out to the altruists in the long term. Appreciating the long-term and indirect impacts of decisions (or at least, understanding that long-term and indirect impacts exist in the first place) creates healthy systems and workplaces, engenders trust, and allows positive-sum games that benefit more people.

However, there's a anomalous third type of people: public servants.

Collaboration and Institutions

The population of public servants probably breaks down into the above types proportionally to the public at large. But within their environment, they are paradoxically incentivized to take on Taker and Matcher identities.

Takers in the public at large are the product of the failure to appreciate the long-term, indirect impacts of decisions. And it's neither good for them, nor the people they interact with.

In a public service, the same result is created both by A) the failure to appreciate the long-term, indirect impacts and B) the much more common failure to convince others to appreciate those impacts. In their roles, public servants make decisions on behalf of, and in consideration of, many actors.

These could be hierarchy superiors, colleagues, watchdog groups, citizens, journalists, anyone. The result is the same: public servants become largely limited to those actions which directly and immediately benefit their specific mandate, in the manner intended. This is antithetical to the give-and-take nature of collaborative relationships, in which one can help others without any guarantee or timeline of reciprocation.

The mere ability to communicate between silos, to be aware and to coordinate actions, is not the sole prerequisite for tearing those silos down. 

Keeping Score

It's impossible to completely understand every way in which our actions reverberate. This world defies measurement. And the world simply works better  when we're not always keeping score - we help, we look for mutual wins, and we build relationships. Yet, we live in an era that is as much about high standards for government as is it about transparency and accountability. I would never suggest that we sacrifice either, but the typical approach to this tension will do that on its own.

Unfortunately, instituting the typical approach alone - checks and balances, rigourous measurement - is a neat, tidy, single-link cause-effect decision itself, and is therefore defensible.