In the current heated political climate, lots of air time is given to the failures of the opposing party.
“This policy was a total failure.” “That idea cost us a fortune and nothing worked.” “That was a horrible idea, and I will work to reverse it.”
This kind of rhetoric highlights two important issues that need to be addressed:
- The right kind of failure can actually be quite helpful.
- Negativity about failure obscures true successes.
1) The right kind of failure can actually be quite helpful.
The other day, I was watching a video of Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the United States, speaking at the recent NextGen Conference. Park was discussing why he loves working in government: because of the amazing opportunity to make a huge impact.
Park, while talking about how to have a huge impact in government, suggested applying the principle of Lean Start-Up from the book by Eric Ries:
- When you need to solve a problem, get a small, agile team who understands the situation and task them with implementing change. Apply the Rule of 5 – no more than 5 people should be on the team. Any more than that and the difficulty in communication trumps the value add of the additional person/people.
- Determine what is the smallest possible thing you could deploy rapidly to get customers to tell you what they really want? Go with that. That’s called MVP – Minimum Viable Product.
- Rapid Iteration – Learn from your customers and iterate in days or weeks, not months or years. Failing fast is actually the most cost effective way of doing things because you haven’t invested a ton of time or money into doing something fast.
I was also reading through Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims.* The book is all about how taking small risks, learning from your failures, and making improvements to your ideas is where true creativity comes from, rather than out-of-the-blue strokes of genius.
Sims writes, “The type of creativity that is more interesting to [University of Chicago economist, David] Galenson, and that is far more common, is experimental innovation. These creators use experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approaches to gradually build up to breakthroughs. Experimental innovators must be persistent and willing to accept failure and setbacks as they work towards their goals.”
What Park and Sims both touch on is the need for the right kind of failure. Implementing a series of small, rapidly deployed risks opens up the potential for huge long term success while minimizing the potential for colossal failure to occur.
For example, if a team of 4 people spent one week building a simple mobile app that never takes off, your organization hasn’t lost a lot. If that same team took 2 years to build a massive, database-driven web portal that addressed every possible scenario imaginable, and it bombs…lots lost!
Now let’s look at the converse. The same team builds a mobile app, and it gets a little bit of traction. It’s not perfect but people seem to like most of it. They spend a little more time fixing the bugs and adding features. More people use it now. More improvements lead to more interest, and ater a couple of years, you have a bona fide hit on your hands. Now, it’s possible that a big 2-year web portal is a hit, too. Great. But if it’s not, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money.
Question to ponder: How do you find ways within your organization to move quickly, fail fast, solicit feedback, iterate, and improve?
2) Negativity about failure obscures true successes.
Government oftentimes gets a bad rap. Lots of critique with little praise. When the rhetoric is constantly negative, people start believing that everything is dysfunctional. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the video I mentioned above, Park states that, with all his experience being an entrepreneur, he is most excited about the possibilities he has in his current role as Chief Technology Officer for the United States.
Because, as he puts it, Impact = Mass x Velocity.
Startups are great, but when they are in their infancy, they have a lot of velocity but little mass so their impact is small.
The government has a lot of mass. Once it is set on a trajectory toward innovation, and starts gaining velocity, the potential for huge impact is very high.
Park sites several examples where the government has embraced innovation, partnered with change makers, to turn a possibly negative situation into a path of innovation.
Here’s some I can think of:
- The America’s Economy mobile app that helps you take the pulse of the US economy with real-time updates for 16 key economic indicators. This was a joint partnership between the US Census Bureau, The Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This app was built so previously disjointed, large volumes of data could be accessed quickly and easily.
- The Milwaukee Police Department creating the coolest police news website in the entire country. They wanted a place where people would actually enjoy going to a government website and wanted to highlight the great work their officers were doing.
- FEMA’s Ready.gov program that’s using creative technology to bring people together to make emergency preparedness plans…this couldn’t be more timely given the damage Hurricane Isaac is causing. So, now disconnected people from across the country can come together to work on problems collaboratively.
- The Virginia Tourism Association had some fun and created an interactive map for a craft beer tour. How do you compete for vital tourism dollars? Highlight something no one else is doing!
- Louisville, KY has created one of the most comprehensive, informative YouTube sites out there. You have great content but no one is viewing it? Get it to the place where people are already congregating.
- And countless more…
Don’t become stuck in a rut of negativity. Rather, identify areas that need to be improved and start making small changes. You probably will discover that the once-negative problem quickly can become an area of success.
Question to ponder: What are one or two “negatives” you deal with that could be turned into positives by rethinking and reworking how you do things?
Government has the potential to create huge positive impact in people’s lives. It just takes a willingness to fail fast, learn, adapt, and iterate quickly coupled with finding ways to not get mired down in what’s not working by finding ways to create positive new velocity.
Interested in learning more? GovDelivery will be hosting a free event with Peter Sims as the keynote speaker. Register for the Annual Federal Digital Communications Event on October 16, 2012 in Washington D.C.