“Failure is not an option.” This is a great line from the movie Apollo 13. In so many ways it very much embodies part of the government culture. Failure really isn’t an option for us. There is too much at stake.
We are taught to carefully deliberate and weight all the options. We are told we must consult with all of the subject matter experts in our agency. And did I mention you have to obtain their clearances too? The reason why is we cannot afford to let the public down with a careless mistake. In some cases they may make us look unprofessional, but usually the stakes are higher than that. We have people’s lives to consider, people’s rights and we have all sworn an oath to serve the citizens to the best of our abilities. Most civil servants that I meet take their jobs seriously and recognize we are in positions of public trust. We don’t want to betray that trust. Therefore, we have developed a culture where failure is not considered an option. If we fail, then there could be serious consequences.
I would say that Government culture is not always well understood outside of government, especially if you live outside of the Beltway. People assume we are slow to react, that we don’t care or that our organizations are riddled with long clearances processes and endless paperwork. Granted all of those things are partially true, but the primary reason why is it is difficult for us to react in real time is because of this failure-is-not-an-option culture.
In order for Government to successfully evolve to the next generation of government, Government 2.0 (yes, there’s lots of talk about what that really means, but that is a topic of another post), we need to ensure we have established a means where we can continue to feed the evolution. Technology is changing faster than any one can keep up with it. This means we have to have an established ways for new ideas and technologies to be evaluated and integrated into government. One suggest being discussed is in Andrew P. Wilson’s latest blog entry.
This is only one piece of the issue. We still have the cultural issue of failure-not-being-an-option. Don’t get me wrong, all of that hand wringing and careful analysis isn’t all bad and sometimes it has ensured we’ve kept people safe and all risks were mitigated. In order for us to take advantage of and better understand the changes coming into government, we need to have ways to learn from those mistakes and better recognize opportunities. Many people have talked about this need. In fact most recently MobileActive.org hosted FAILFaire in DC to try and help people realize failure is an acceptable part of the process.
This is very difficult for government to be comfortable with. The words “fail” and “failure” don’t resonate well with us. They are scary terms since it implies we not only failed at our mission but also some how failed personally. Remember, we have your trust to uphold and consider. This is a serious thing!
We need to find a way to talk about failure differently. We do have things that don’t work as expected and absolutely fail, but we don’t talk about these things even within our own agencies. We are also missing the potential for us to start exploring other paths or opportunities earlier. One of my colleagues, Dana Schwartz, proposed the concept of implementing the idea of getting people to talk about their “Stumbled Upons” meaning their roadblocks, failures and things that just don’t work as expected. I love the visual of the phrase. And I think it covers more than just big spectacular failures. It covers the little things and the big things that we learn as we experiment and integrate new tool sets into our respective agencies. It also covers the unexpected surprises that we encounter both good and bad.
We will be piloting this concept with our internal Community Managers Group. We hope it will provide a valuable resource for people getting started and most importantly help change the culture of my agency to be one that is more open and accepting. An agency that can recognize, depending on the situation, failure can be an option and perhaps an asset. We hope to stumble upon new doors of opportunity by recognizing and embracing both our strengths and our weaknesses.
How are you working to make failure more acceptable in your organization? What tips and tricks would you recommend?