Failure? Bring it on!

GovLoop members have been discussing the merits of failure for improving personal and government performance

“Morning, boss! I just wanted you to know that beginning today I am determined to fail more frequently. I find that I learn more and over time will become a more effective employee. Thanks for understanding, and please don’t dock me on my annual review. In fact, I’d like to make ‘ability to fail’ a performance element, if that’s OK with you.”

If you’ve been reading GovLoop in the past couple of weeks, you’d get the sense that many members would applaud any employee bold enough to make that speech. In the final days of summer, no fewer than four conversations have erupted in the GovLoop community related to failure. The overarching theme was that failure should be incorporated into government performance and project management models.

Here are three key points from those conversations.

  1. Plan to fail. “I have been an advocate of embracing failure and other cultural drivers of innovation for a while,” said Geordie Adams, managing director of Ottawa-based Publivate. Adams presents some key questions for public-sector practitioners, such as, “How do we help leaders understand the benefits of higher risk and potential failure to advance innovation and collaboration?” and “How do we change public-sector processes such that everyone is more comfortable with sensible ‘trial and error’ as a regular approach to initiatives and programming?”
  2. Fail to listen — and learn the hard way. Bill Brantley, a human resources specialist at the Office of Personnel Management, revealed a recent story of personal failure. “Despite all of the theory and training I had in management,” he said, “I failed to learn the fundamental technique: Listen to your people.” Brantley admitted that he did not gain buy-in from key stakeholders. Lori Hudson, communications director for Hillsborough County, Fla., concurred: “Enthusiasm is not enough to propel a project to success.… It comes down to relationships and not sales pitches.”
  3. Share your failure. In response to Brantley’s revelation, John Bordeaux suggested that “we learn more from failure than success.” Noting that “it isn't natural for us to share failures,” he commended Brantley for exposing his hard-earned lessons. Dannielle Blumenthal, a public affairs specialist at the Customs and Border Protection agency, agreed: “Bravo for the courage and humility to put yourself out there. I learned a lot, especially from the part where you say that sometimes suggesting change makes the organization react badly because it implies that they were doing something wrong previously.”

Government employees often recoil at change, claiming that the stakes are higher in government because the public perceives failure as a waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Maybe that’s true. But wouldn’t it be an even greater waste if the government failed to take measured risks that lead to innovative advancements that better serve people?

I’m not suggesting that government should deliberately fail in its key functions — some failures are unacceptable. But there’s definitely room for more employees who are eager to break out of bureaucratic thinking and boldly seek to advance novel approaches to old problems — approaches that initially miss the mark but ultimately lead to improved government performance.

 

About the Author

Andy Krzmarzick is the community manager for GovLoop, a social network for people in and around government.

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