Fixating on failure

Failing fast is the best way to get better -- in agile development and in life.

(Image: Shutterstock)

There was no shortage of interesting discussions at ACT-IAC's recent Management of Change conference. Does agile development really work at agency scale? Should the government ever serve as its own systems integrator? Do federal workplaces have what it takes to attract and retain young talent? And what, in a large and regulation-bound organization, does it take to truly innovate?

Perhaps the most important question, though, cut across all those conversations: Why is everyone so afraid to fail?

I'm not talking about failure at the level of HealthCare.gov or the Expeditionary Combat Support System. No institution, public or private, can afford to let critical projects run off the rails at that scale. But many feds avoid risking even the tiniest misstep or paper over smaller failings until they produce truly serious problems that can no longer be ignored.

There are legitimate reasons for risk aversion, of course. Government is held to a different standard. The "waste" of a single taxpayer dollar can be construed as a career-ending offense, and plenty of politicians are happy to rake agencies over the coals. Silicon Valley reveres bold experiments that don't pan out, but inspectors general can see them as reckless disregard for process and prudence. And there are still pockets of the federal workforce where "why try?" attitudes can beat down would-be innovators.

And yes, there is the media. One particularly candid conversation at the conference focused on the press' fixation with failure and why successes so rarely make it to the headlines. Shouldn't the Department of Veterans Affairs' impressive progress on clearing its claims backlog get coverage alongside the allegations of "secret lists" and delayed treatment?

It's a fair question. FCW does better than most in covering both the problems and their fixes, but we ignore our fair share of "isn't this great?" stories. That's not inherent negativity, however; it's a desire to help the federal IT community learn and improve. It's not just that stories of problems identified and addressed make for better reads. Failing fast is the best way to get better -- in agile development and in life. We're trying to share those lessons more broadly and learn from our own mistakes in the process.

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