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September 1, 2009

Paul M. Anderson has learned that collective wisdom, if the CEO is willing to listen, is almost always right

“Haste maketh waste.”
—John Heywood (1497-1580), Proverbs. Part i. Chap. ii

“Getting it right is more important than getting it done right away or working on artificial timetables.”
—Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-South Dakota), 2009

So, let’s see. In the 430 years since John Heywood, modernizing for his day ideas first written in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1367, what have we learned about haste and its consequences? Answer: not much, judging by the great urgency of Congress and the Obama administration to pass, seemingly in just weeks, some of the most significant legislation to be considered in decades.

Certainly, speedy passage of economic stimulus legislation was warranted during the earliest days of this administration (and at the end of the Bush administration). But then there has also been hurry-up-and-vote pressure for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, children’s health insurance, mortgage forgiveness, climate change legislation, the union-boosting Employee Free Choice Act, and, of course, health care legislation, among other things.

Not only does some of this legislation significantly and irrevocably alter broad areas of public policy with important impact on future generations, it also costs trillions of dollars (see “New Legislation: What Will it Cost?”). That’s a debt burden every American will have to shoulder. It will mean higher taxes as the economy struggles to find its feet and major impediments for businesses to operate profitably.

When a business ponders a long-term strategic decision, one that has consequences for employees, their families, communities and suppliers, it takes great care, and plenty of time, to think it through. Often there is a deliberate process in place, a discipline that often helps frame important issues and devise solutions. Businesses do make quick decisions when necessary. But when time is available to reflect, they do.

So why the pressure on Congress to pass so much so quickly? Let’s take health care as just one example.

President Obama, who like many in Congress favors a move to a government-administered health insurance system, has repeatedly urged lawmakers to sprint to complete their work. You would think that such a momentous change would be approached with great care and much political discourse. Instead, the president insists that Congress pass a bill this year. In late July, he explained that he’s doing this because delay gives his opponents more time to organize.

“We’re trying to get this done,” he said. “But the American people can't wait any longer. They want action this year. I want action this year.”

Certainly, there’s reason for the president and his Congressional allies to worry about opposition. But isn’t a full, rich debate embedded within the nature of the American political process? Shouldn’t the governance process, like the business process, carefully consider all consequences of major change?

Some think so. Rep. Herseth Sandlin, a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats, quoted above, is one example. The Blue Dogs, worried about government spending, want to slow the process to permit less costly and invasive ideas to be heard.

On issues with significant multi-generational impact, politicians can learn a great deal from the business decision-making process. The many weighty issues—climate change, auto industry bailouts, stimulus legislation, financial regulation, etc.—of this year involve an immense drain on our mutual economic capital, and a tremendous bet on the future. With so much at stake, it’s worth remembering John Wooden’s tenet: “Be quick, but never hurry.”

It’s time to slow down, listen to each other, and make decisions that work not just for now, but for the long term.