Cox Tells Us to “Start by Stopping” to Address Local Government Issues

Featured Speaker Kristen Cox discusses common and ineffective tactics organizations often use when responding to problems.

By Kerry Hansen | Nov 15, 2019 | ARTICLE

Sponsored by Cigna

In her Tuesday featured speaker presentation at the 2019 ICMA Annual Conference, Kristen Cox had a message for local government leadership—we’re (probably) going about things all wrong. As executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, she knows how both government and industry commonly attempt to solve problems, but she asked attendees ask themselves if they’ve been making real progress or is it just the illusion of progress.

At the age of 11, Cox began to lose her vision due to a rare genetic eye disorder, so she has the unique perspective of being a recipient of many of the services that attendees in the room work to create and maintain in their communities. She has served as executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services and Secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, as well as numerous positions for the National Federation of the Blind. Those experiences have informed her work that she’s recently put into book form as a co-author, Stop Decorating the Fish, which highlights common and ineffective tactics organizations often use when responding to problems.

Cox asked the audience to take a hard look at their own work and consider whether they are truly making a difference with the initiatives they’re focused on or the problems they’re trying to solve. It’s just as important to know what you shouldn’t be focus on as it is to know what you should focus on. She asserts that most problems are not worth solving—breakthroughs happen not from necessarily finding a solution, but from looking at the problem a different way.

We need to “start by stopping." Local governments have similar struggles—aging infrastructure, high employee turnover rates, etc. To address those struggles, Cox believes that local government leaders should ask themselves, “What are we doing now that we can stop doing so we can capture that possibility and then reinvest it?”

She recounted the famous quote from Steve Jobs, “Real leadership is knowing when to say ‘no’ to things that only give the illusion of progress.”

Cox introduced her Seductive Seven, a list of seven things we think we need in order to solve a problem:

  1. More money.
  2. More training and communication.
  3. More data.
  4. More reorganization.
  5. More technology.
  6. More strategic planning.
  7. More accountability and assigning blame.

She says she deliberately chose the word seductive because “the things that often seduce us away from focusing on the core problem are shiny, alluring, and ubiquitous. They often promise an easy fix or immediate gratification while the real problem isn't quite as obvious.” These seven things can all be helpful, but they won’t give you the results you need on their own.

She touched on several “illusions” that we often find ourselves operating under:

Illusion: We need more money.

We believe we’re already as good as we can get at optimizing our current resources. The answer seems to be that we need more money, but why do we need more money? “We settle for small improvements. We should expect massive improvements.” Cox said, “We look at the input (what’s coming in) and the output (what’s going out), but we don’t look at how the engine’s running.” She believes that if you have the curiosity, then you have the right tenacity to examine how things are working. It starts with believing there’s hidden capacity there that you just haven’t noticed yet. Always believe there is hidden capacity.

Illusion: We need more training and communication.

We believe people simply need more information to improve or change their behavior. Figure out what the incentives are and what process (or processes) needs to change. Figure out your colleague’s motivations. Training can complement or reinforce the change you’re trying to make. But you usually just need to make process better.

Illusion: We need more data.

We believe the more data we have, the more we will uncover reality and deepen our understanding. We develop fancy dashboards and data visualizations, but we can’t find the insight. Cox says that more often than not, it’s not a data problem; it’s a thinking problem. Data are just words and numbers. “In this country, we’re going down a rabbit hole of data.” Cox continued, “Data describes, but it doesn’t inform. We need less data and more insight.” What are the questions you’re trying to answer? Decide on a your hypothesis, then use data to support it.

Illusion: We need more technology.

We believe we need a new capability or tool. “Technology should be used for a very specific reason,” says Cox. “But we need to think about the business problem and then the process change.”

We believe we need a new idea. But what we really need to do is tweak the execution of existing ideas. Strategy is just the direction of the solution, but is there a problem in the first place? Cox believes that the problem is usually not what you think it is. Define the problem, then focus on excellent execution. “We feel pressure to launch something without fully knowing what we need to change,” said Cox. “Know your goal, know what’s blocking you, stop doing everything that won’t help you achieve the goal, and be excellent in your execution.”

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