Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Difference Between Sports and Government

The difference between sports and government might be a perfect model for the difference between the private and public sectors.

Sports: let me confess publicly here that I'm a lifelong fan of the Miami Dolphins
Team Website). Three years ago, they had the worst year in team history and one of the worst in NFL history, going 1-15 (sorry, Detroit Lions). As the off season started, the head coach, Cam Cameron, was fired and Bill Parcels brought in. Soon, Tony Sparano was hired as head coach. They went about the business of putting their administration into place, firing old coaches, hiring replacements, releasing players who they thought didn't fit in any longer (such as Zach Thomas, and Jason Taylor - two stalwarts of the previous years) and bringing in others (QB Chad Pennington). They never said a word publicly about the previous coaches, just acknowledged that there were problems that needed to be addressed. The following season, they went from worst to first and won their division. Admittedly there was luck involved in some of those wins. There is always luck involved. Much of that luck vanished last year, but there's not much doubt that the major problems are at least being addressed.

But the bottom line was: the new leaders were leaders. They didn't bitch about the situation they inherited, they sat down and tried to find ways to fix it. They didn't blame the previous coaches for ruining the team. They came in, got to work, and worked long and hard to get themselves out of a bad mess.

Government: surely I don't have to link to the number of times the Obama administration has talked about the problems it inherited from the previous administration, do I? Even now, over a year in office, I don't think a week goes by without someone saying it. How about the Christmas Day underwear bomber? First we got "The System Worked" from Janet Napolitano, then an explanation that it worked in the sense that it didn't work at all. The only thing that saved the people on that plane was that the bomber was incompetent, and then the passengers jumped him. Not only did the system not work - this guy did everything but tattoo "Terrorist" on his forehead in fluorescent pink ink - but no one has been held responsible. No one has been fired or put in jail for it. Going back, no one was publicly held responsible for the 9/11 attacks. No one was held responsible for the sub-prime crisis. No, bad things "just happen" in a good system.

Look - no leader gets everything the way they want it.
In industry, you get hired to be the leader specifically because the company thinks the current situation is broken. You suck it up and get to work. Leaders don't blame other people. They take responsibility for what they're hired to fix.

And that's the essential difference between a private company trying to make a profit and a government office, trying to maintain itself.

When I started work as an EE, I worked in a company doing government contracts - DOD work. A wise, older, systems engineer had a model for the government that is as valid as any I can think off. Most of us have seen pictures of the rubber sheet model of gravitation, where a heavy object deflects the space-time continuum like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. Gravity well is pretty much everyday language - at least for geeks. Think of a flat rubber sheet but add in peaks and valleys of responsibility - he called it the blame density function Every action a bureaucrat makes can be thought of as trying to avoid a localized peak of the blame density function. Every system is designed to spread out blame so that no one is left with high blame density.

Whatever happened to Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here" acceptance of responsibility?

I hold the highest title an engineer can hold where I work. I have been told it is because I "take ownership" of my projects. My philosophy comes from a simple fact: I know who's going to be fixing the thing at 10 o'clock on a Friday night and it sure isn't the "previous designer" (if there was one) and it sure isn't the guy telling me "you can't do it that way". And, yes, BTDT on a Friday night before.

But let me put it as an even easier question. If you were a fan of a losing team, which you would rather have: the leader who takes responsibility and tries to fix everything, or the bureaucrat who wants to assign blame?

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