Golden Fleece, Golden Geese, And Winning The Right Award

Starting in the mid-1970s, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire would grant the “Golden Fleece Award” to a public entity who squandered tax-payer money. It was deeply cynical, but it made a point to call out poorly motivated choices. “Winners” included the Federal Aviation Administration who spent $57,800 on taking the measurements of several hundred stewardesses and an Office of Education program that spent $219,592 teaching college students how to watch television. How’s that for bureaucratic brilliance?

While the awards felt (and still feel) aneurysm-inducing, they served a purpose. Spending without an expectation of a reasonable benefit deserves to be called out. However, they also spawned a counter-debate. What about benefits that were not direct, but instead did create meaningfully positive outcomes?

In 2012, Congress (in a bi-partisan effort) started the Golden Goose Award to answer that question. Instead of highlighting pointless government bloat for the sake of shame, they would take a crazy sounding scientific study that had a far-reaching impact and publicly celebrate it. A study on massaging baby rats may sound strange, but it literally changed the way human premature infants are cared for in NICUs around the world. The study not only positively changed the emotional experience of the families involved, but it also was estimated to have saved $10,000 per NICU infant and $4.7 billion industry-wide.

Instead of redirecting funds towards personal interests and cronies, the Golden Goose Award praises the often unpredictable benefits of thoughtful experimentation. Tracking growth markers in baby rats wasn’t supposed to change the way we treat human babies, but the researchers understood the upside optionality that studying rats could help humans. Intentions always matter. 

The awards are useful beyond their political home as well. We are all impacted by decisions within our own businesses, whether from above, below, or at our level. We should dissect intent to understand when the goal is to obfuscate and create bloat, and when it is to transparently tinker to create upside optionality. We need to celebrate the right intentions and publically call out the wrong ones. When we don’t understand something, we need to ask.  There will be times when we simply don’t understand or see the whole picture. We won’t find out by staying silent.

Our industry continues to change at a rapid pace. An open and transparent dialogue about intentions does a great deal for both our shared vision and ultimate accountability. Our long-term survival depends on our willingness to sow the seeds of our collective potential. As we consider all of the metrics being applied to us, we need to do our part to make sure we don’t get fleeced, that we don’t fleece others and that the geese are well taken care of. Without them, we’ll never get a single golden egg, let alone several.  Let’s make sure we win the right award.

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