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By Steve Kelman

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How to succeed at failure

Two opposing views exist about how the organizational culture of the federal government reacts to failure.

Among the general public, the common view is that government organizations don't care about failure, and there are never any consequences for people who fail. In common parlance, "there is no accountability" — a nice way of saying nobody got fired or sent to jail.

Inside government organizations and among many academics who study public management, the common view is the opposite. Government organizations are scared to death of bad headlines in the news and, hence, are too cautious. In this view of the culture of government, it is better to stay off the radar screen than to aim high and miss the mark.

People in a recent executive education class of mine at the Kennedy School — mostly federal GS-15s and colonels — brought that up. The conversation took place in the context of a discussion about situations in which people had voluntarily agreed to take on a performance goal they were not certain they could achieve. Whenever I ask students whether they have done that, the majority — usually 80 percent to 90 percent — say they have done so at least once.

In the context of this particular discussion, one student said her boss would accept failure on an ambitious goal under two conditions: She as a manager must be able to provide an explanation for why she hadn't reached the goal, and she had a plan to succeed on a later try. That observation was remarkably similar to what former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton used to say — that a commander would never get in trouble for not meeting a target, only for not knowing why and not having a plan to improve.

Another student said his boss believed that if he reported being green on all his metrics and yellow or red on none, the boss would conclude that the targets were not ambitious enough. That reminded me of the statement one frequently hears in the business world that if every new product initiative succeeds, the company is being too cautious about developing new products. In a government contractor context, I recently heard somebody say that if a company won 75 percent of the contracts it bid on, it was not bidding on enough contracts.

A third student said the government needed to be better at two things in this regard: failing fast and learning lessons from failures. By failing fast, the participant meant trying a lot of new things but moving quickly to stop ones that aren't working. The other participant noted that if you fail, the organization needs to distill lessons from the failure. Again, both those observations could have come from business management practice.

At the end of the discussion, I took a vote among the class. How many felt their organizations were like Bratton's New York police, tolerating failure if a person had an explanation and a plan? How many felt their organizations were more like the common image inside government, for which a failure was a career-stopper? Interestingly, about 80 percent put their organizations in category one and 20 percent in category two.

Posted on Apr 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, May 5, 2011 Mike

Oh, I've seen people get canned. When the mission changes; When the civil service position is no longer needed (down-sizing; RIF; etc.); When it's a 'Temp' position; When someone changes their mind and ends up giving-up a position to someone else, etc. (the list goes on). Management Directed Reassignment notifications: if you don't take the new position in some other location at a reduced grade by such-and-such date, you're released from civil service. I don't know why I see so many complaints from Contractors. Almost every equivalent civil service position makes far less (and yes, I realize an awarded amount for a contract is not paid in full to a particular employee, rather it's paid to the Contractor company, then the employee gets their share, which still averages more than the equivalent civil service position). All of this being said, there are still places for both. Diversity is healthy; just don't continue hammering the civil service folks!

Wed, May 4, 2011 Fred the Fed (contractor)

"George" drifts into ye olde I-am-gonna-lose-my-job line of evasion. Honestly, no matter how bad the failure/mistake/error, federal employees never get fired. Look at Sept. 11 or the financial collapse or the failed investigation or the botched audit or the lawsuit or the bad press or missing the target. No one gets canned. The 80 percent figure in your class, Professor, sounds like an understandable denial.

Mon, May 2, 2011 Mike

I agree with the 'explanation' then a revised 'plan' theory. If you've ever been a government employee, you know the mission is to ensure daily operations are priority number one (e.g. replenish the force, sustainment, etc.). You'd also know of the constant shift in priorities: 'hot tasking' or 'suspense' due tomorrow. Long-term projects/timelines tend to take the hit in order to focus on immediate/urgent requirements. Multi-tasking can work, but it causes a slower pace towards overall accomplishment. The bottom line is always $$$$. Hire more people=get more done, but pay more $$$$ to do it. Down-size=get less done (or reduce the pace), but save $$$$ from down-sizing. We should ensure fair analysis of a 'priorities' list, and adjust/revise accordingly, while monitoring and balancing the workload. Easier said than done, right?

Mon, May 2, 2011

For the Government, it has never been about failure. It is about the appearance of failure. So if the program is a failure, all you need to do to fix it, in the Government's eyes, is to make it appear as a success. Appearance is, unfortunately, everything because, unlike in the private sector, the Government is a money spending operation, not a money making one, so there is not a profit factor that clearly says you succeeded.

Mon, May 2, 2011 George

Well... that's obvious. With no reward for success and only hassle/side-lining/no-promotion for failure, who would rationally try to change anything in Govt, our greatest bureaucracy? I've seen it many times - the larger the organization the more risk adverse and lethargic it becomes. Only small groups are nimble, only small groups can make change. There is very little synergy to be gained by mergers. (Can we say DHS?) Small, externally funded groups can ignore the overhead and just drive ahead with thier mission. Likewise, only individuals whom have other options (or are fools) take risks. Most of us need to pay the mortgage & thus can't take risks. This is self-reinforcing because risk-adverse managers dare not hire proactive employees lest they take down thier little group.

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