In my experience, failure and risk management in government is a taboo subject. Old school style leaders are quick to bring down the hammer anytime someone makes a mistake. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Zig Ziglar.
There is no shortage of research and expert analysis on the importance of failure in the innovation process. But how much failure is acceptable in government? That is a question that I think many government leaders struggle with. The problem with the question is that failure comes in many different shapes and sizes.
The truth is that small failures rarely cause big problems. It is when they are compounded over time and ignored that they become an issue. Governments can manage small failures but there are a few things that need to change to make that happen.
Reduce or Eliminate Large Failures
When failure is not accepted in an organization it tends to make problems swell. Nobody wants to be on the chopping blocks so failures are hidden and covered up until they grow so large that failure is no longer an option. This type of failure is very bad for government.
The alternative is to make lots of small mistakes at the beginning. To mimic the product development process that many startups embody. Techniques such as split-testing, minimum viable product, user testing, agile development, and the constant process of evaluating assumptions against actual results. These techniques allow organizations to learn early on and hopefully eliminate problems before they grow out of control.
Rethink Project Planning
The budgeting process presents some unique challenges to how governments plan for projects. This is unfortunate but should not be an excuse. Reframing projects to address a problems instead of implementing a specific solution is one way to go. Another option is the implementation of an innovation fund or a set amount for discretionary spending within each department.
Once you have funding you need to simplify the project planning process. High level planning should be kept to an absolute minimum. Large project plans make it very difficult to adapt and learn throughout the process, plus they take up a lot of time. You will know more about the project once you start working on it then you will during planning. Start small and see what works, then do more of that.
Delegating Authority Appropriately
To embrace small failures you should give frontline individuals authority to solve challenges as they present themselves. You should not tolerate inaction and look for ways to reward people for trying to make a difference. Sure there will be failures but they will be much more tolerable then issues that arise from not doing anything.
To accomplish this, employees should know exactly what they have authority to do. Then let them have that authority and management has to continue to respect that authority. Organizations hire people for their talents and creativity, you just have to let them use it. The worst thing you can do is force employees to become complacent through micro-management and stripping them down to just an order taker.
Eliminate the Word Failure
For some organizations embracing failure may just require a change in terminology. Innovation is a process of hypothesizing, testing, and learning. In this process, failure is really just learning. There is significant data that can come out of experimenting even if the experiment does not meet the initial expectations.
If you are able to keep these learning opportunities small then you can treat them as such. Real failure should only come into play when this process is not followed. Those are true failures. Focusing small and eliminating the word failure from your vocabulary is a huge step in building a culture that is constantly looking for ways to do things better.
Creating an environment that manages failure appropriately is critical for innovation. This is critical because innovation is a requirement for the long-term sustainability of government programs and services. Organizations will be placed under increasing demands while resources are going in the opposite direction. Innovation is the primary tool to address these challenges.
To succeed at innovation government agencies have to create a culture of experimentation. Leadership has to relinquish some control and allow employees to make mistakes without repercussions. The fact an employee is taking action to improve the organization is a step in the right direction.