Admit failure already occurs: how public servants can overcome their fears and become better innovators

By David Donaldson

Monday August 24, 2020


The fear of failure stops too many government agencies trying new approaches. A new study looks at how to shift workplace cultures to do better.

Failure is a sensitive subject in the public sector — so much so that running a project about overcoming the shame of failure is itself a touchy topic.

“No less than four department leaders politely requested that we change the name of our workshops from ‘Failure Foundry’ to just about anything without the word ‘failure’ in it,” notes a new report into how local government can improve its innovation capability.

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In 2019, the Centre for Public Impact teamed up with the Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation and over 150 public servants at six American local governments to look at “the sticky, anxiety-inducing topic of failure”.

“When we asked what words they associated with failure, some of the most common responses were ‘loss,’ ‘shame,’ and ‘waste’, says the resulting report.

“However, when we surveyed program participants to understand these feelings better, every respondent felt that failures were very likely to occur in the workplace. Furthermore, all participants believed learning from failure was critical to improving outcomes for residents.”

Indeed, “all innovations begin with failures”, argue the the report’s authors. And they’re not just talking about innovation as the result of some complex pilot program, but simply as “the process of making things better”.

So how can public servants become better innovators?

The report looks at how public servants can “fail forward” — learn from missteps. They find there are four steps to doing this successfully:

  1. Identifying failure
  2. Communicating about the failure
  3. Understanding the failure
  4. Taking action

Culture is the critical element. Viewing failure as a learning opportunity, rather than a source of shame, is a necessary condition for talking about mistakes and using them to inform action.

While there is no silver bullet, the researchers found a range of important factors that come under four headings.

Mindset and beliefs

Acknowledge that failures are already occurring in the status quo and view failure as a necessary step towards positive change, the report recommends.

Failure is typically seen as not being an option in government, but this makes it difficult to try anything new. Reframing the discourse to recognise where failure is already happening in existing policies and programs makes it easier to push for change.

And beware the tendency to accept ‘old’ failures everyone knows about. Overlooking known problems can result in catastrophe, as was seen in the Challenger shuttle disaster, and more recently with the multiple governance and healthcare problems that have exacerbated the pandemic, particularly in the United States.

Human relationships

Staff need to feel comfortable being honest about failings so they can work together to create solutions. After all, learning from failure can’t be done alone. For this to occur, it’s important there is an environment of psychological safety — feeling confident you won’t be reprimanded for discussing difficult topics — though many government workplaces do poorly on this measure.

READ MORE: Teams that admit their mistakes perform better. How to boost psychological safety in your workplace

Leadership is the most effective way to change the culture. Celebrating learning from failure — whether through awards or group meetings — can help shift a risk-averse mindset.

Yet this isn’t always easy, even if leaders are willing:

“Particularly strong barriers include reshaping a culture after staff had negative experiences with previous leadership, regular turnover that leads to change fatigue, and skeptical middle management.

“Leaders can attempt to break down these barriers by developing closer relationships with staff built on trust and modeling the behavior they seek to foster, such as being vulnerable about their own failures, providing support and coverage when failures occur, and promoting learning opportunities whenever possible.”

Systems and processes

Organisations should redesign their systems and processes to promote identifying failures and learning from them.

Giving staff more control can allow them to make changes to improve the services they provide.

“Hierarchical decision-making power in governments can demotivate and disempower frontline staff from addressing the failures they notice. Frontline staff might know the programs they implement do not work for residents, but without inclusion in decision-making processes they often feel it is ‘not their place’ to raise issues to management.”

They also recommend rebuilding performance management processes and breaking down silos.

“Many government teams that work on the same topic area or cover the same physical space do not have effective mechanisms to speak with one another if something appears to fail. These physical barriers can reinforce social ones; separate teams can develop animosity or mistrust of others, particularly if they do not understand how each other operates.

“Developing approaches to poke holes in, rather than completely tear down, these silos (e.g., quarterly meetings for teams that focus on similar challenges or cross-departmental process walks) are essential to promote learning.”

Organisations should also build learning into policy from the start, providing the opportunity for conversations around what works and what doesn’t.

External ecosystems

Consider how to shape the ecosystem in which public sector innovation occurs.

It can be difficult, but building trust with the community can help create opportunities.

“Innovation methodologies that require public servants to meet and test out ideas with the public in low-stakes environments, such as human-centered design, can be helpful paths forward.”

Redefining relationships with the media can help too. Fear of ending up in the Herald Sun is understandably a break on trying new things, but “finding opportunities to bolster learning-oriented narratives in local press might ameliorate these anxieties”.

Amending funding structures is another possibility. Many grants come with tight conditions, making innovation difficult. If federal or state governments can be convinced to give implementers more control, there may be more space to adapt output.

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