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.


Stephen Karam is a Systemscope Partner with over 15 years of experience providing thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of government service transformation, multi-channel service delivery and related information management projects. Stephen has extensive experience in providing business transformation, project management, and business development services, giving him a unique background that allows Systemscope’s customers to realize the value of feasible service solutions within the context of their business. His in-depth understanding of the Government of Canada’s policies, practices, and culture contributes to his ability to propose workable, reliable, and repeatable business solutions for Systemscope’s public sector clientele. Stephen has more recently focused on government service transformation initiatives, including business vision & strategy, service delivery strategies, enterprise architecture, information management and project management consulting services for Systemscope’s clients.


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