My old friend Jack Fiorito once got a fortune cookie that told him to “curb the tendency to go off in several directions at once.” He had attached this admonition to his office computer as a reminder to keep his research focused and programmatic. Discipline, Jack had learned, is a recipe for success.
I was reminded of Jack’s fortune cookie warning this week when I attended a keynote address by Professor Alan Blinder that was sponsored by our Economics Department and the College. Professor Blinder is a very well-known Princeton economist who served as a member of President Clinton’s economic team as well as an eighteen month term as vice chair of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. He was speaking to a group of economics educators about why President Obama’s stimulus package was such a political liability despite the fact that in Blinder’s view the empirical evidence strongly suggested that it did much to reduce the severity of the economic downturn. Blinder thought the negative reaction was so bad that it would be difficult to get enough political support to use Keynesian fiscal policies the next time the economy needed them.
What went wrong? Although Professor Blinder thought some of the stimulus money was poorly targeted for job creation, a primary problem in his view was that President Obama had initiatives on too many fronts (e.g. The stimulus, reform of the financial sector, healthcare, education). In effect that the President had gone off in too many directions simultaneously. Many of these initiatives resulted in new legislation, but all this seemingly disparate activity made it difficult for people to understand the primary goal of his administration (e.g., how did healthcare reform help the economy?). In a time of severe economic distress, President Obama would have been better served to act like a laser beam on the economy.
As I reflect on the many discussions I have had in my first four months and what they tell me about the aspirations of our stakeholders, the challenges we face, and the opportunities that lie before us, that fortune cookie and the President’s experience weigh on my mind. Organizations have a finite capacity to embrace change. An over-riding goal helps give actions a clarity of meaning and makes it easier to communicate our accomplishments to stakeholders. We need to keep it simple stupid.