February 28th, 2020

The "Leap-Year" school of management theory

Throughout your career, you'll no doubt be called on to make some very important decisions. Oftentimes, we tend to approach these situations with trepidation. The more important the decision seems, the more time we want to spend analyzing, considering options, and weighing pros and cons. 

As public servants, our decisions are made out in the open, and as a result we can get stuck in a mode of paralysis by analysis. We let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

However, many times simply making a decision is better than making the "perfect" decision. There's a lot to be said for momentum, trial and error, and forward progress. 

Need an example? Consider the leap year.

It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of defining standard measurements of time. Global commerce depends on a shared understanding of how long something like a day, an hour, or a second is ("9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom" in case you were wondering). 

Despite this seemingly precise measurement, every so often we simply add a day to the calendar to fix the fact that our decision doesn't quite match up with the world as it exists! 

The leap year is, for all intents and purposes, a post-hoc workaround to account for not being 100% right when we chose the official length of a second*. If something as important as measuring time can be fixed with a workaround after the fact, we can take solace in the fact that we can often come back to fix a "wrong" decision later.

Of course, this is easier said that done. No one wants to make a "wrong" decision.

If you struggle with this, one option is to try making the problem smaller. Break a problem down into a series of smaller decisions that can be made quickly. This allows you to iterate on a solution and see what works without investing as much time and effort as a "big" decision might require.

Keeping your decisions small while you're on the road to your ultimate goal allows you to constantly evaluate whether you're on the right path. 

When the decision is small, it doesn't necessarily need to be the "best" decision, however one might define that. It just needs to be better than the status quo

And if it turns out not to be better than what you already had, that's OK. It was a small decision; simply do something else!

The next time your organization is agonizing over the perfect travel policy, or the most efficient street maintenance schedule for next year, just remember the leap year. 

* This is of course an exaggeration to prove the point. There is obviously more going on with the earth's rotation, orbit, interplanetary physics, etc. Saying we standardized on the "wrong" measurement of a second is an intentional simplification. We appreciate your indulgence in service of the broader point.