On Friday afternoon, Ronald Garan Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut, addressed about 40 students at a charter school in Kansas City, Mo. His talk featured plenty of pictures and videos of his time aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station. Garan’s talk was about cooperation and collaboration to solve the world’s challenges.
I had the opportunity to visit briefly with Garan after the talk. I wanted to know how he squared the principles of collaboration and cooperation with competition. After all, everything that made his career in the space program possible was accomplished through competition—whether a space race between nations or a bidding process among companies seeking to sell products to the U.S. government. That is when Garan distinguished between proper competition and destructive competition.
Proper competition gets us better good and services. It comes from having an even playing field; the company with the best product wins. A destructive competition does not bring us those things because it often lacks the necessary rigor, data, and transparency.
Without rigor and data, good intentions fail. To make his point, he offered an example from his experience working with developing countries. An organization might have a splashy website and a compelling celebrity endorsement. The company may show off the new wells they put in place, but if no one is focusing on whether those are working properly the whole effort is wasted. Garan said, “Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the new and shiny and not the tried and true.” No one wants to watch a TED Talk on the same old ways of doing things, he suggested, even if those ways are the most effective.
Therein lies the real lesson: Open yourself to rigor, data, and transparency. For governments it means fostering the productive competition that leads to legitimate innovation and improvement. For the taxpayers it means not getting caught up in new things simply because they are new; value what works, even if it is less flashy. And always make sure that government is transparent.