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Fitch’s Advice to Members: Good Intentions Won’t Sail Your Ship

Clear, written goals provide a reality checkpoint in the final stages of strategic planning

Next month, the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management will release a new study, “Life in Congress: The Member Perspective.” It is based on CMF research during our 35-year history and a confidential survey we conducted of 25 members of Congress about their work habits, interests and goals. One of the interesting findings relates to how members view their goals. Nearly all members (95 percent) agreed, “My staff clearly understands  . . .  what I’m trying to accomplish.” However, only 43 percent said, “I have written, defined goals for what I want to accomplish this term in Congress.”

The CMF views this incongruity as somewhat disturbing. We know that it is challenging to have clear goals without written goals. In more than 500 strategic-planning and management assessment sessions the CMF has conducted in the past decade, we see a lack of clear strategic goals as a leading factor for a legislator’s ineffectiveness.

This makes perfect sense. Selecting three to five strategic goals forces members of Congress to make tough choices on which issues or groups they will focus attention and precious resources. It forces politicians to do something they hate doing: saying “no” to a group or issue. However, if members do not make these tough decisions, they will face one of two outcomes: 1. if they are in a safe district, they will become ineffective, or 2. if they are in an unsafe district, they will become former members. Fortunately, there are ways to focus a legislator’s attention on some clear goals.

Strategic goals should be derived from two sources: the member’s vision/mission and an analysis of the member/district-state strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Goals should involve multiple staff members, ideally involving a partnership of Capitol Hill and district/state staff members. They also should have clear metrics to assess office/staff performance. Finally, a key question is for the goal to answer “why” or “to what end.” Why is this goal relevant to the member and his/her constituents? What ends will it achieve?

The embodiment of strategic goals is the action plan, which outlines how the goals will be achieved. The strategic goals are the “what” of the process; the action plan is the “how.” Having a clear written document provides a reality checkpoint in the final stages of strategic planning. Finally, the plan acts as an accountability agent — a reference tool for the member and management to use in assessing individual staff members and team performance.

Nonetheless, the CMF recognizes that the greatest challenge of managers/staff is to get a member to make the tough choices — to be able to say “yes” to a few initiatives and “no” to many others. For them, we offer the following historical guidance.

In the 17th century, Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus wanted to create the mightiest warship ever built, the Vasa. He hired the best shipbuilders and laid before them his grandiose plan. The shipbuilders began designing and then constructing an amazing ship. The king took an unusual interest in construction, examining every detail. He directed the builders to double the number of guns and to change the ship’s basic engineering to make room for articles of vanity such as statues.

Finally, the day came when the Vasa was completed and was to set sail on its maiden voyage. King Adolphus stood proudly, marveling at the wondrous creation standing before him in the harbor. The Vasa pulled away and fired a mighty shot from its imposing gun deck. But then, suddenly, the ship began to rock back and forth unstably. The crew ran from side to side to try to balance out the weight but could not prevent disaster. The overweight and imperfectly designed ship sank within minutes.

The moral of this 17th-century story applied to members of Congress? First, hire the best staff you can, provide them clear goals and then let them manage the day-to-day activities of the office. Second, you cannot continually add new priorities and new initiatives to your agenda without making conscious and difficult trade-offs. If you do, your boat won’t sail well or may even sink — regardless of your good intentions.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and former editor of “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide.”

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