In Congress the stakeholders’ desire to put just one more ornament on a piece of legislation leads to “Christmas Tree Bills” which often collapse under their own weight. Trying to pack too much into a project (or our lives) can lead to a diffusion of priorities and efforts. Keeping in mind an instructive saying that has passed down from my mother-in-law into our family’s vernacular, “Choose your battles” can assist in either sphere.
Early in our marriage my wife and I faced a daunting list of interrelated projects:
- Raising three young daughters, including a set of twins
- Managing a daycare in a church basement to have affordable options for the above
- Housing a series of college interns in early childhood education to work at the above
- Renovating a 1920s era house to have room for the above
- Running an IT consultancy to pay for the above
- Invitation to the wedding of an old friend of my wife’s, the groom a potential new client for the above
Fortunately the current intern was available to baby-sit and we gladly dragged our sleep deprived bodies to the noon wedding at the father’s mansion. They served champagne before the ceremony, unusual but welcome. Seating was limited so we found ourselves standing in the front to the side of the wedding party itself. After about 30 minutes, as the magic words were approaching, my vision started to tunnel and sparkle. I suddenly realized that I was going to pass out right at the climax of the event. Without a word to anyone I started down the center aisle to the exit. Just as I was congratulating myself on making it out I tripped over the photographer’s tripod, bringing him and his gear down in a huge crash. I managed to stagger on out to the front yard and sit on the curb to recover.
The next thing I remember the bride’s father was asking me if I was OK. I told him yes and started to apologize profusely. He interrupted and said “Don’t worry about it; this is one wedding that no one will ever forget.”
In a similar fashion, many programs that start with a limited number of objectives catch the “just one more thing” syndrome… and then the dominos (or guests) start to fall. Government programs in particular tend to accrete more and more goals. Failure to recognize the importance of opportunity cost and boundary setting can foil any individual or organization’s efforts. For every project, goal, or activity we put our limited resources into we must ask “what opportunity did I give up?” The “choose your battles” mindset mandates that any attempt to alter an endeavor’s boundaries must overcome the default decision to “just say no.”