Category: Change Management


Failing Forward

A recent article by Lee McCormack in the May 2010 issue of Government Executive Magazine discussed innovation in the context of the public sector (PS).  His key barriers to PS innovation – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – are not unfamiliar to anyone who has tried to transform or create an organization, product, or service.

What struck a chord as I read this article was the phrase “Fail Forward”.  Many practitioners, including myself, within the product or service innovation space will have used the term “fail fast” and/or “fail often” at some point in time to convey an approach to innovative work where an organization progresses initiatives at a pace that allows them to know quickly whether or not that initiative will fail so that investments are minimized.  But to Lee’s point, and to the chagrin of many within the PS who have attempted to do something with good intentions but who have failed, failure often presents negative and significant career ramifications for public servants which is one of the key reasons why the PS has had challenges innovating.  The notion of Failing Forward – accepting that sometimes innovation will fail and that it shouldn’t hamper an employee’s advancement – is critical.

As I thought about this further, I couldn’t help but equate this situation – the mandate to innovate and improve but the lack of a cushion to fail on – with the situation parents face almost every day.  With children, it is our job to facilitate our children’s development; their mental and physical growth.  If we define innovation as at-least incremental improvement to <something>, we are indeed the shepherds of our children’s innovation.  Their improvement at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano is directly related to our practice as parents to ensure they know there is a cushion to fail on.  For mistakes made at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano are good mistakes because they learn from them and get better because of it.  In fact, after guiding them through a few mistakes, we know they eventually won’t need us any more.  In an organizational context, this is a path to efficiencies and employee engagement.

Don't take the bike away if they fall a few times

We usually don’t take the bike away after a couple of falls.

A culture of risk intolerance can be such a disservice to an organization.  First,  it creates so much fear of failure that even the “right thing to do” is not done.  Second, when failure occurs and people are subject to negative consequences, the learning from the failure is lost and not applied to the next situation so organizational learning grinds to a halt.  While changing a culture built up over decades is a significant challenge, when approached one thought at a time it becomes more manageable.  So for PS executives and leaders, one thought exercise to engage in when facing decisions about how to deal with failures and learning in the context of an innovative/new work initiative is to picture a young child on a bike with training wheels and remember the approach you’d take to shepherding their improvement.

GTEC 2009

Systemscope returned to GTEC October 6, 2009 with a full day of open sessions focused on top-of-mind issues for public sector leaders: making appropriate and effective use of emerging technologies to support employee collaboration, citizen engagement, and government transparency; improving information management maturity in an enterprise setting; and delivering results in a time of unprecedented challenge and transition for the public sector.

Systemscope is one of Ottawa’s Top Ten Employers

Employees’ Choice Awards 2008/09

Ottawa HR Magazine
A publication of the Ottawa Business Journal
November 3, 2008

Of the 10 companies receiving Employees’ Choice Awards in 2008-09, one shines. While most of the winners impressed for one or two main reasons, it is a small consulting firm that proved to be the full package.

Systemscope is an information, management and technology consulting firm that consists of 16 full-time employees, along with various individuals that work for the company when the need arises. What people don’t realize is that they are among the best in their industry and are working hard to attract those best suited to join their team.

“We don’t just hire to a position,” says Stephen Karam, partner. “We don’t have open positions. Our philosophy since we took over is to look for top talent, go after them and get them part of a team. And that would attract more top talent, because it’s not that people necessarily want to work with Systemscope, it’s because they want to work with the people inside Systemscope, they want to work with the Systemscope team.”

And to not only attract, but keep top talent, you need to be a unique operation.

“I think in order to attract and obtain top talent, we have to have a philosophy that is flexible,” says Karam. “The mantra we like to use is that we are all big boys and girls, we know we have a job to do. So however you need to do it to accommodate your life, please do so but understand as well that you are part of a community and that’s part of what draws people here.”

Their method is certainly working. Since Karam and his partner Denis Barbeau took over Systemscope in 2004, they have only lost two employees, both of whom have gone on to become clients. In an employee survey Systemscope was rated incredibly well by its staff. All respondents felt their job gave them a sense of personal accomplishment and 93 per cent said they would recommend the organization. When it came to company management and leaders, the impressive scores continued. Overall senior leadership was rated at 97 per cent and overall immediate management was rated at 95 per cent.

But not everything is rosy at Systemscope, at least not all the time. The company is in a very competitive industry, and its sole client is the federal government. This makes for a lot of big projects and with them comes a lot of stress. Karam and Barbeau try to keep the office professional without being too stiff and feeding that stress.

“When it becomes a job, that’s when things are getting too serious. We make sure there is enough levity in the company and the culture of the company,” said Karam.

When stress does hit or someone’s hard work needs to be recognized, senior management make sure to award employees with a day at the York Street Spa or reservations at a nice restaurant.

And to ensure their team is prepared for the projects they will be working on, training is a focus at Systemscope. Time is set aside for each employee’s professional development, research material is paid for by the company for any employee looking to learn on their own time and any training requests from employees are welcomed.

“We like to stay two steps ahead of our competitors and certainly our client base,” says Barbeau.

employee's choice awards - den_steveECAlogo_