By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Innovation, Risk, and Failure Redux

As part of a research project, I have just been interviewing the first two senior political executives among ten nominated by fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration and principals of the Council for Excellence in Government as outstanding examples of executives who came into their jobs with a strong vision for how to improve their organization that required significant organizational transformation.

The interviews lasted several hours each, and many of the points the two interviewees made about their experiences were different. However, there was one point both of them made that tracks what we have been observing in the procurement area these past few years.

Both interviewees were concerned that the unwillingness of the political system to tolerate failed initiatives is something that shatters the government's ability to innovate and thus to improve.

Both noted that innovation involves risk -- when you try something new, you will sometimes fail. Both said that they consciously tried to imbue in their organizations the idea that failure was acceptable or even desirable, as long as it was not based on malfeasance or stupidity. Both stated that if every new thing you try succeeds, you've been too cautious.

But both also said that their management styles -- which led them to be nominated by public administration experts as executives worthy of study -- ran against the grain of the political system, where anything that goes wrong quickly produces demands from Congress, the media, and self-appointed "watchdog" groups for "heads to roll" and stories about scandal.

These two executives were working in areas having little to do with each other and nothing to do with procurement, but their observations sure sounded familiar -- and will be immediately recognizable to anyone observing the current dismal procurement landscape, where fear of failure has driven change, innovation, and improvement underground. Their observations also remind us how much we should treasure executives who try to counteract this attitude, in the service of better government performance.

It is often noted that the failure and scandal obsession of Congress, the media, and the self-styled "watchdogs" makes public servants "risk-averse." Let's stop using this psychological language and start using organizational language. We should state that the obsession makes public officials "innovation-averse." Using that phrase reminds us of the price all of us concerned about good government pay for this approach.

The irony of is that those pursuing failure and scandal honestly believe that they are promoting the public interest by their approach. The truth, unfortunately, is closer to the opposite.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 22, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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