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Commentary: How the Public Sector Can Accelerate Exponential Growth

To keep up with ever-changing tech, government can no longer see growth as linear — it must stay ahead of the curve. Government must make its growth exponential.

Business growth, no matter the industry, is often expected to be linear. Success is a series of steps: you put in the time, you work hard, you make one sale and then another and another, you hire another person, and your numbers climb steadily. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

But in practice, step-change progress is exponential. Adoption of new technology has accelerated through the years, making growth that used to take 20 years to accrue manifest in a matter of months. It’s a matter of an industrial outlook versus a digital one—the former focusing on change that is reliable and incremental, the latter exponential and disruptive. 

This chart, from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, demonstrates the difference between linear growth and exponential growth. Clearly, while slow and steady growth initially appears to be more successful, the people, companies, and government entities with an exponential growth strategy far outpace linear change.

Of course, that’s only if they make it through the “Valley of Disappointment,” when it feels like they’re investing the time and effort but not seeing measurable improvement. Especially for large organizations like governments, the time a program or initiative spends in that valley feels like high risk, or even imminent failure—which makes it likely to be on the chopping block when budget hearings come around in June. Incremental change feels like a more stable investment.

But as Mark Boncheck of the Harvard Business Review wrote: “Incremental is satisfied with 10%. Exponential is out for 10X.” That’s because the incremental mindset focuses on making something better, he posited, while the exponential mindset makes something different. Entrepreneur and author Salim Ismail similarly wrote that an exponential organization “is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionately large—at least 10 times larger—than its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies."

So how does a government agency (often grappling with tight budgets, aging infrastructure, and competing citizen and political priorities) move through modernization and to acceleration?

In many ways, we can already see the acceleration of government technology. Adoption of new tech, like moving online processes to a mobile platform, is happening faster, spurred by improved security and increased trust in hands-off tasks, and driven by forward-looking public-sector leaders. Yet looking at this e.Republic chart above from five years ago (source) and comparing it to current gov tech, there’s still a lot of progress to be made to catch up to the world of augmented reality and predictive technology citizens live in today.

That gap is partially an issue of what ExO Works called the “Corporate Immune System,” which focuses on preserving stability and controlling risk. Sometimes an organization can get into an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to new tech, thinking that if a total investment and overhaul can’t be done smoothly, it’s better not to mess with existing systems at all:

“The most important function of the corporate immune system is to protect the core activities of the organization (developing services, products, solutions, etc.) because these have been proven to help the organization to grow," says Paul Epping, partner in Philips Healthcare Transformation Services. "If these activities are being challenged, a first reaction is resistance, which is fully understandable.”

To overcome a cautious immune system and take the next two steps toward positive exponential growth, it helps to have a private-sector partner already experienced in augmented and predictive technologies. For example, there are forecasting engines in the market that take the data that government organizations have been collecting for years and create a measurable structure of prediction, feedback and adjustment. This can help optimize processes and reduce cost in agriculture, energy use, health care, road construction, and just about any vital everyday function that impacts all levels of government. (More on public-sector use of predictive analytics here.)

But even more important, exponential change begins with leaders who believe in its possibility. From Ismail’s Exponential Organizations, here are the six characteristics of exponential leadership:

1. Visionary Customer Advocacy. “If customers see their needs and desires being attended to at the highest levels, they are much more willing to persevere through the chaos and experimentation that often happens with exponential growth.”

2. Data-Driven Experimentalism: “To create order out of high-speed chaos requires a process-oriented approach that is ultimately nimble and scalable.”

3. Optimistic Realism: “Leaders able to articulate a positive outcome through any scenario, even downside scenarios, will be able to help maintain objectivity within their teams.”

4. Extreme Adaptability: “As a business scales and its activities morph, so too must its management. ... Constant learning is critical to staying on the exponential curve.

5. Radical Openness: “While many leaders and their organizations ignore most of the criticism and suggestions [from within and beyond], creating an open channel to the crowd [outside of the given C-Suite] and the mechanisms to determine signal from noise can provide new perspectives and solutions, allowing access to whole new layers of innovation.

6. Hyper-Confidence: “Two of the most important personality traits for an exponential leader to have are the courage and perseverance to learn, adapt and ultimately, disrupt the given business.”

It is understandably difficult for public entities to knowingly incur risk in initiatives that affect their constituents. However, to fulfill the mission of serving their communities, government tech must accelerate with — or even ahead of — the curve and meet the citizens where, when, and how they need it. Linear growth is now out of line. It’s time to truly embrace exponential government.

Davood Ghods served for more than 25 years in the public sector, most recently as chief of the California Office of Technology Services (OTech). He currently leads Direct Technology’s Government Solutions division.