Time is the Harshest Judge

Anyone looking to reform the criminal justice system in the U.S.—or most anywhere else, for that matter—should probably pencil in time for pulling out his or her hair in frustration. It’s an area in which good ideas generally meet resistance and good results can be elusive.

Image source: Museum of Hartlepool

One organization that has made real headway on reform, however, is the Center for Court Innovation—winner, as it happens, of the 2009 Peter F. Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation. (The deadline for this year’s competition closes July 1.)

The center’s director, Greg Berman, recently released a book called Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure. In it, Bergman argues that public policies can fail for all sorts of unexpected reasons but that we should learn from our mistakes and keep trying to pursue what works.

Peter Drucker wrote often about the merits of learning from failure—a notion we’ve discussed previously. And others, in addition to Berman, have hit on the same concept recently—notably, former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and Tadashi Yanai, the CEO of Japan’s Fast Retailing Co.

When it came to public administration, though, Drucker also stressed another essential point: the importance of timing.

[EXPAND More]The anti-poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s were one example Drucker liked to cite. “What made so many of these programs fail is not that they were the wrong programs, or even that they were inadequately supported,” Drucker wrote in Toward the Next Economics. “They were, in large measure, five or 10 years too late. These programs had been postponed, and when the time came to do them, that is, when Congress was willing to consider them after long years of resistance, they were no longer the ‘right’ programs.”

For those looking to try to new solutions in the justice system, or in any sort of organization, Drucker would counsel prompt implementation—or else prompt abandonment. What is to be avoided is persuading yourself that something can be put on hold. “Every experienced administrator knows that what one postpones, one really abandons,” Drucker wrote. “In fact, it is a sound rule not to postpone but to make the decision not to do something altogether or to give up doing something. For in strategy, timing is of the essence.”

Do you often see good ideas that get implemented too late? What’s the best way to eliminate that lag time? [/EXPAND]