Seth Godin said it best: you either seek validation or you seek to improve. You can’t seek both at the same time. It’s a great way to think about how you, as a person, strive. It’s also a dead-accurate way of understanding an organization. The organization faces the same dilemma as you do. Do they strive to improve or strive to be validated? This question is especially hard in local government.   

Striving to be Validated

Every local government I’ve ever served has faced the validation challenge. Some more than others. People ask: why are you doing this instead of that? Why are you deciding so quickly? Why are you so slow? Why do you have that rule?

Because local government is public service, the public can question it all. And these questions really point to one core challenge: what are you good for, anyway?

Ron doesn’t care about your quest for validation

It is a challenge to one’s validity. Some people get it every single day. The only show ever created for local government even had a character embody this mentality—while working for the local government.

Jokes aside, this creates a crisis. Work enough in that environment and you’ll find yourself both jaded and desperate. Jaded because you truly can’t care any more. Desperate because you want someone, anyone, to just say thanks now and then. The weight is so great that you’ll find yourself going to great lengths for validation. Whatever a person wants, let’s just get it to them quickly.

This is when, suddenly, the customer is always right. All customers. Trouble is, you’re a public servant so everyone—literally everyone—is the customer.

When you face the validation challenge at every turn, you can’t help but question your job, your worth, your agency. You can’t help but crave someone’s thanks. Now you’re wildly responsive. Now you’re “busy”.

Striving to Improve

As the old saying goes, if Henry Ford had listened to his customers, there would be no Model T; he would have built a faster horse instead. That is what validation brings—faster horses. But no one really questioned Henry Ford. Not existentially, anyway. They didn’t have to. He was just selling something–something they didn’t have to buy. So validation came after the improvement. He sought an improvement, sold that improvement, people bought it, and thus he earned not just money but the validation of being right.  

Had he sought validation first, simply doing what people wanted, he wouldn’t be featured in a blog article 110 years later.

Improvement Leads To Validation

Validation or improvement. You can’t do both at the same time. But you can get both in due time. With the right sequence and proper time horizon, you can improve something amidst everyone’s doubts and be thanked later.

So next time you face the validation challenge (Why are you here, anyway? What are you doing?), check your narrative. Are you building a Model T or a faster horse? Both are perfectly valid. Both are an improvement. One starts with validation. One ends with validation. If you seek improvement first (and I hope you do), you’ll change things in ways people didn’t really ask, ways they might not appreciate at first. So you won’t get everyone’s approval at first. But if you do it right, you’ll get their gratitude later. That’s worth striving for.