What We Don't Know
I once heard an executive, fresh from interviewing a job applicant, pay a high compliment to the prospect. "He knows what he doesn't know," she said. Part of what she was talking about was obvious. The candidate didn't pretend to possess knowledge he didn't have, a pose that would have failed quickly once he started working. But what really impressed her was that the candidate knew when to ask for help.
Let's fast forward a few decades and put that job applicant in the CEO's office. Now you have a leader who isn't afraid to say, "That's outside our area of expertise. We either have to get smart quickly, or find someone smart and ask for help."
Getting smart might require a significant investment of time and resources, and so it becomes a judgment call. Can we afford to invest the time and talent? Is it important to our future that we develop this competency internally? Will there be other pay-offs for this learning effort? Sometimes it's in the organization's best interest to say, "This is complex stuff and amateurs shouldn't be dabbling."
The federal government should not get in the business of making vehicles because the it has no expertise in doing so. Developing that expertise doesn't make sense strategically. This adventure with General Motors points out an area the government should develop expertise in: not in developing performance standards for cars, but in establishing performance standards for the industry. The benefits we citizens stand to gain are immense.
Government agencies--both federal and local--tend to think that taxpayers can either have more and better services or lower tax bills. However, if the government demanded increased productivity of its agencies and provided the requisite oversight, citizens could have both.
Managers at modern industrial companies are very familiar with the notion of increasing productivity: "Next year, we have to make more widgets with a lower error rate, all while using fewer resources." These managers have to find greater efficiencies, better technology and ways to remove waste from the process. While it's true that productivity measures alone won't stimulate growth, the money saved can be used to fuel the innovation that does lead to growth.
The recent enormous outlays of taxpayer money--GM will probably get even more bailout funds during bankruptcy--provide a great opportunity for the government to learn to keep tabs on our money and use it wisely. Corporations big and small do it all the time; the techniques are not mysterious, but accountability comes first.
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