Failure is Not an Option

“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.

Buzz Aldrin Steps Onto the Moon - July 20, 1969 Photograph courtesy of NASA1fan/MSFC

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 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.

Overcoming Roadblocks - Photograph Courtsey of ncanup

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?

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17 Responses to Failure is Not an Option

  1. Dan Morgan says:

    Instead of “fail” and “failure,” let’s take a page from LOLcats and go with “ur doin’ it wrong!” But in order for that to work, organizations need to have a real, no-kidding lessons learned process – one that embraces frank discussion and truly disseminates the knowledge gained from “doin’ it wrong!”

    The military does this all the time when they conduct exercises – it’s called a “hotwash.” From our friends at Wikipedia – The main purpose of a “hotwash” session is to identify strengths and weaknesses of the response to a given event, which then leads to another governmental phase known as “lessons learned,” which is intended to guide future response direction in order to avoid repeating errors made in the past. A “hotwash” normally includes all the parties that participated in the exercise or response activities.

    A “hotwash” should never stop with an After Action Review – it has to result in After Actions, Knowledge Management, and Process Remediation.

    • Dan,

      Thanks for your comments. We are all supposed to have a Lesssons Learned component implemented as part of our project management process, but it is rare that I see these successfully held and as you pointed out implemented afterwards. Going through the motions isn’t good enough. We need to use these experiences to learn from them. Perhaps we all need a refresher course in good project management?

  2. Nice post, Lovisa!

    As I mentioned to you on Twitter, it would be an interesting exercise to start weekly team meetings going around the room and having people say something like:

    1. “I failed this last week in [insert failure here]…”
    2. “I learned [insert lesson here]… ”
    3. “As a result, this week, I will [insert new, improved action here].”

    And everyone says, “Congratulations!”

    Is this pie in the sky thinking or a way of changing culture to see failure as not just an option, but as a critical element in improving performance?

    • Andy,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think it is “pie in the sky thinking” but perhaps a bit premature. As you know, it takes time for government to change and more time for them to be comfortable with new things. I think we could get to the point you are talking about, but I think we need to establish some steps to get us there first. I know even in my office (which I find fairly progressive) would have a difficult time with the first step you outlined.

      What is the path to get us to this kind of open conversation?

      • Hi Lovisa – I think it begins with clear targets. If we know what we’re aiming for, we know when we’ve missed. All too often, the outcomes are not defined…so success or failure remains nebulous.


        1. Define target.
        2. Did we hit it?
        3. If yes, great!
        4. If no, let’s call it what it is: failure (aka “an opportunity to learn.”)
        5. Either (a) establish new target or (b) create new actions


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  5. Alan W. Silberberg says:

    This is a great post Lovisa. Too many in the Government 2.0 space and in business at large view failures as just that. But the trick is to see the opportunity that arises out of it. Without trying, failure won’t occur. But neither will change.
    Most entrepreneurs know that “failure” just becomes part of the success DNA. Can you roll with it or does it consume you, if failure leads to the next success than it was not failure.

    • Thanks Alan. Your comments make me think about the phoneix (BTW, that would be a great name for the innovations lab @andrewpwilson and others are discussing). Out of the ashes comes new life. There are no real failures only lessons we apply for the next iteration.

      You are right. Entrepreneurs are much more familiar and comfortable with this way of thinking. It is what we need to help teach our government colleagues in order to help them be more innovative.

  6. This is probably the best explanation I’ve seen about Government culture. It’s absolutely true. To be fair, though, this type of thinking–failure is not an option–is the way that Government culture had to be. To this day there are still reasons why “failure is not an option” may still be valid. What those are, I don’t know. However, it’s much more important now to accept that failure is not only an option, but that it’s an absolutely acceptable outcome. It’s seen as a bad thing, but it’s not.

    We fail all the time internally in our own offices, or within our own work groups, and even social circles. We learn from our lessons and immediately change the way we approach things. So it’s not out of the question for it be possible for Government culture to understand and accept. I think everyone does. However, it’s the public-facing failure that makes many uncomfortable. When your mistakes are opened up to a larger set of people who can be more critical of what you’ve done, talk about it more widely, and put a giant spotlight on a single person for the mistake happening. Making the justification to Government culture that this sort of failure is acceptable, and that something better can come from that public scrutinizing, is a very hard task to accomplish. It’ll only sink in with example…after example…after example.

    I agree that failing is an option. It needs to be if we want to continue learning, innovating, and growing as an organization.

    Note: The views expressed do not represent the official positions of any U.S. Government organization.

  7. @Andy
    For some reason WP lost the link for me to add my reply to yours. So here goes the old fashioned way. I think establishing goals and targets are valuable efforts. They do help us determine what “failure” is. But how do we recognize the kinds of failures that are really opportunities as Alan Silberberg states? Sometimes when we have good intentions (what’s that phrase about good intentions…;-) ) they don’t always pan out the way we would want them to. I think this is true when it comes to this discussion on failure. I have a hard time believing there are many things that are an absolute failure. There are things we could have done better, things that didn’t live up to expectation or things that didn’t work out how we envisioned but no one was hurt.

    Perhaps the bad conotation comes from the results of these events. If you spend a lot of money on a project that doesn’t work as expected it may not be considered a failure. But if as a result of this use of funding for a project that did not work as expected you ended up fired from your job then may reach the category of failure.

    It’s all in the meaning that we associate with the words fail and failure. We may need to change the expectations and better manage them in order to reach more acceptance of failing being an option.

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    • Lovisa – Thanks for the mention. There are a lot of dimensions to this.

      We should always:
      distinguish between failures that result in significant harm to human beings or significant financial losses, and failures that are merely embarrassing;
      understand that a willingness to tolerate reasonable failures is often the price of useful learning;

      When we’re designing actions ahead of time, we can deal with uncertainty (and even that ego thing mentioned above) through skunkworks, experimental design, and – as appropriate – informed consent by participants.

      It’s most challenging when we’re contemplating failure that wasn’t really designed for, after the fact. Oops. For this, the Morbidity and Mortality conferences, standard for decades in most hospitals and now also taking place on the web may be a useful model.

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