John Klossner

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Note to feds: Go forth and fail!

Monty PythonThomas Edison said a lot of things about failure. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," Edison said. "Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless," he also said. "Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure," is another Edison quote. And, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." Thomas Edison had pages and pages of quotes about failure. In fact, he may have said "I've made 10,000 quotes about failure that didn't make sense" but, unfortunately, that was one of them.

There has been much discussion about the "culture of fear" in the federal workplace, that fear being failure. This fear prevents personnel from trying new methods, as any failure results in consequences. This creates a mixed message: In a world where technologies and strategies change every 13 seconds, we are looking for new ways to communicate, new ways to work and new ways to do the job, but we are told not to screw it up. Heck, I make mistakes opening new jars of peanut butter (How do you get that paper off in one piece?).

How can someone find any fresh approaches to contracting without a couple errors?

I recently enjoyed one of those afternoons that I rarely -- okay, never -- have time for any more. I was able to find an open Saturday to join my good cartoonist friend Mike with a pizza, some beverages, and the "Monty Python, Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)" DVD collection -- more than six hours covering the beginnings and careers of the iconic British comedy troupe. It included visits to the material that influenced the members, interviews where the players talked about their relationships and, of course, the famous sketches. It is full of little-known tidbits for even those of us who consider ourselves knowledgeable in many things Python. (For example, I had always written Terry Gilliam off as an outsider, the weird American who did the animation. But I learned from this series how integral he was to the group's concepts and often held them together during internal squabbles.)

One particular nugget that has stayed with me is from one of the interviews where a Python member (I forget which one)  recounts how in their first season on BBC television in 1969, they felt that no one was watching them -- neither viewers nor station management. But instead of causing them to worry that their show was failing, this gave them a sense of freedom to create the material they wanted without fear of trying to please anyone other than themselves. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

The sense of freedom the Python members felt when they thought no one was paying attention allowed them to be more creative, and we now have the "Fish-Slapping Dance." Does this mean they could have put any content they liked on the air? Of course not! They were motivated to include the best possible material on the show, especially since if it went off the air they would soon be searching for other TV writing jobs.

But what if BBC management, in light of their ratings, had insisted on them writing what was then considered traditional sketches?

Am I recommending that all managers ignore their employees and pretend they don't exist in order to give them space to be creative? Yes. (Note to all my federally employed friends: I tried.) If only it were that easy. My point is, if you are looking for something new, innovative, creative or original, you have to step back and trust the people you've brought in to do the job. You also need to accept a certain amount of failure.

As with Edison's experiments, for every innovation, for each "success," there are many more attempts and -- again -- failures. Where does the federal workplace find space for these mistakes? And, equally important, if innovation occurs in the form of a mistake, will anyone recognize it?

Of course there needs to be oversight and control over the myriad work processes that occur in anything as layered as the federal government. But there’s a fine line between being on top of a project and stifling workers' skills. If you know what the results will be before you start the project, then you will not be open to discoveries along the way. And then you will not allow failure. And you will always get the same results. Forever. And you will become a dinosaur. And this will allow you time to go catch up on all those old Monty Python sketches and Thomas Edison quotes.

failure cartoon

Posted by John Klossner on Oct 07, 2010 at 12:19 PM


Reader comments

Tue, Oct 26, 2010

Failure is the natural process to maturity. However, the fear of failure can definitely hinder the maturity process. Innovation always comes at the expense of failure. We progress and grow through our personal and collective successes and failures. And innovation is simply the process of improving on someone else’s success and failures. In other words, Tesla improved on Edison’s incandescent light bulb by creating the fluorescent light. But he may have never invented it had it not been for Edison’s progress through failure to establish an example for him to study.

Tue, Oct 19, 2010

I worked for an agency who placed someone in charge of a major project because that person boosted they had failed and knew what not to do - - - senior executives because of their own inexperience missed a key element that you have to know what to do to succeed; the agency should have hired someone who had succeesses and put them in charge. I agree government and government contractors need to be mindful that taxpayers are funding and failure should be the exception not the norm - - -

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 ContractorBob

Freedom does indeed foster an atmosphere of creativity, which is appropriate in some circumstances, but not all; I for one don't like "creative book keeping". (And to the Oct 8 comment on cost overruns, contractors could bid spot-on if the Government knew what they owned and what kind of shape it was in.) It IS my money... I'm a taxpayer.

Mon, Oct 18, 2010

According to some sources Edison also behaved dishonestly with Tesla, reneging on a promise of remuneration to solve a problem. Tesla found a solution for which Edison took credit and never paid Tesla as promised. Wow! Theat DOES sound like working for the Federal Government! As Homer Simpson once said, "Trying is the first step towards failure."

Fri, Oct 15, 2010 CJ

They're taxpayer dollars, that's true - but only by pooling those kinds of resources can we achieve the GREAT accomplishments of mankind. There were some pretty stunning failures before we got to the moon, or explored the remote corners of our planet. Those endeavors have nearly always required large resource pools that only "governments" can collect, voluntarily or otherwise.

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