Being Busy is Not Equivalent to Being Successful

Posted on August 28, 2020

Quote by AJ Fawver

Governments are often obsessed with quantifying and measuring. The rationale makes sense; after all, how better to determine performance and effectiveness? In an industry that is known for both tangible and intangible results, an understanding is crucial. This is further demanded by a desire for accountability and transparency by citizens, the need to evaluate programs by legislators and decision makers, and an increased focus on results. There’s no argument here that cities need this level of knowledge and awareness to pursue their quest to become future proof.  

However, simply tracking those numbers does not guarantee success. While elected officials and city leaders may be content to have the ability to generate neatly organized charts and tables in their annual budget document, it is not enough to count the things that are easily counted. In our personal lives, we keep measure of things that are important to us. Put another way, you can apply the Earl Nightingale quote, “We become what we think about most of the time…”. 

What is your city becoming because of their primary focus? What does your community think about most of the time? What do they measure? Here is the powerful truth: if it isn’t something that is tracked, monitored, and discussed, it simply just isn’t that important. In today’s environment, cities are catching on and speaking out about the importance of inclusion and diversity in their staffing, the effects of climate change on their future, and the sustainability of their land development patterns. If cities are not tracking measures related to those priorities, are they really priorities? I would argue not. 

There are also unspoken consequences for these communities. It becomes increasingly difficult for constituents to trust and believe that the priorities of city officials align with their own needs and desires. Imagine working in an environment where the verbal proclamations of your company leaders indicate a set of values that fuel your desire to work for them. Over time you notice that the system of rewards and consequences in your company is based on measures that do not appear to connect to those values at all. How frustrated would you become? Can you understand why citizens would become cynical and dissatisfied when the values espoused in key initiatives, like planning initiatives or program creation, have no relationship to the numerical reports that are supposed to demonstrate success? Can you appreciate how employees would feel underutilized and frustrated by being graded in ways that do not contribute to achieving the values the community is supposedly focused upon?

For a time, lengthy reports showing activity levels in government might be impressive. They might be useful in quantifying the number of staff and resources needed, or in showing how busy a department or organization is. But there is little long-term usefulness. Being busy is not equivalent to being successful. As author and productivity guru Tim Ferriss writes, “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” Or, take it from Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”. If city leaders are content with demonstrations of “busy”, discussions of values and a unified vision is nothing more than theater for their constituents.  

Thankfully, there are alternatives. 

  1. Spend less time in strategic planning sessions talking about the grand vision or the values that are most important, and more time talking about what is critical to achieve them. Without a cohesive strategy everyone can rally around, the vision may never materialize.
  2. Be transparent about the expectations for city staff, leadership, and citizens. 
  3. Exemplify the values you hold dear and make them part of every discussion and decision.
  4. Take the time to ask the important questions. 
    • If we say yes to this, does it lead to the vision and uphold our values?  
    • If we say yes to this, what are we saying no to?

This monthly blog series by AJ Fawver, Community Consulting Program leader for VERDUNITY and based out of Lubbock, Texas. She shares her take on planning for communities and securing their future in a time where legislation, fiscal pressures, disengaged citizens, and diminishing resources make it increasingly challenging. You can access all of the posts in the series and learn more about AJ on the Future-Proofing Cities homepage.

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