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Innovation is Driven by Failure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keith Reester
November 13, 2017

“…mistakes are impossible not to make and, what’s more, they’re integral to learning. A life…requires an unshakable dedication to learning and, therefore, a dedication to moving on from mistakes.” (Matt Cote, Guilt Trip, Backcountry, November 2017)

Every week government officials hear the constant ring of pundits and others saying — Why don’t you act more like a business? Why aren’t you more innovative? Even with the advent of technology, big data and more significant public engagement, it is harder today to drive innovation in government than it ever has been. We have seen incredible leaps in innovation in the private sector over the last 20 years, yet we have not seen parallel success in government even with similar tools. What’s driving this gap? It is often the inability to create room for mistakes.

Many factors can inhibit innovation in government at all levels, restrictive regulations, insufficient funding, lagging technology and limited vision by leaders. But all these parameters also exist in the private sector, so why is the burden so heavy in the public sphere? Within government, failure due to innovation and experimentation has become taboo. Elected leaders and the public have pushed toward zero tolerance for trial and error gone wrong, creating an environment where the willingness to take risks diminishes exponentially to the potential for change. The manifestation of limited patience has become more intense with the broader proliferation of social media and on-demand news coverage. The vilification of public leaders who experiment and don’t deliver has become fodder for both ends of the political spectrum regardless of party affiliation or political leanings. The advent of social media interaction has also focused attention on the smallest of failures; there are many cases where experimentation produced innovative solutions that were 90 percent effective, although coverage focuses on the 10 percent that didn’t deliver.

One factor being demonstrated most heavily among elected leaders is the flogging of current teams for sins of the past. There are dozens of examples where elected leaders, often at the local government level, will continually thrash staff members seeking to grow or innovate for past projects gone wrong. In many of these cases, the staff under duress was not even part of the organization when something failed perhaps a decade or more prior, at some point, this is just grandstanding and provides no positive benefit to ratepayers, citizens or business.

So how does professional staff innovate in this muddled environment?

Embrace a mission and measure success and failure against the mission principles.

It is critical, even in the face of policy-making indecision, to develop a fundamental mission for your team. Such a framework allows staff to focus on critical decisions and helps in triaging work when moving both short and long-term projects forward. Measuring how teams perform against key performance indicators can provide motivation and sets a target for innovation if it is a crucial goal.

Build an internal culture based on learning for all team members.

In today’s highly mobile and information-rich business environment organizational cultures must embrace employees growing both professionally and personally to keep them engaged. When “people stop learning, they start looking,” following this adage will keep leaders focused on developing and sustaining a learning culture.

Embrace recognition for excellence and innovation – small and large.

The first thing that goes in a budget cut is employee recognition and then education, both death knells for innovation. Innovation comes from people, not technology, so embracing recognition to support success is essential. In a government “employee recognition” programs are often based on the large scale and forget the little keys to success; the pat on the back, the recognition among peers, or the small gift card for coffee. Many little recognition moments add up to a far more significant impact than big ones, use this methodology to support innovation.

Create opportunities to “pilot” small creative projects.

Government tends to go “whole hog” on doing innovation or trying to solve problems, we can’t be everything to everyone, embrace small solutions to build compelling success. New ideas should be piloted and tested in small targeted efforts to solicit feedback, learn and understand lessons, and develop strategies that can be scaled up for greater success.

Data, Data, Data!

At every step of the way collect, solicit and collaborate for data collection and analysis. Data helps verify success or failure, enunciates the principles of improvement, and provides a basis for arguing for more significant innovation and change.

Tell your story.

Let communities, leaders, employees, advocates and naysayers hear your stories of success and failure. Use storytelling to help craft a vision, share lessons learned and argue for innovative efforts… even in failure. If no one knows, no one cares.

Government can innovate, be part of crafting the future.


Author: Keith Reester is the Public Works Director in Littleton, Colorado and also a consultant with Reester & Associates. With over two decades of public, private, and non-profit experience Mr. Reester works to create great places through effective, visionary community building. Keith’s recent book Define, Measure, Create is available through Amazon. Feel free to contact Keith at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Innovation is Driven by Failure

  1. Jon Mathis Reply

    November 14, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    What I saw during 37 years of federal service tends to support your suggestion that risking failure, including failure stemming from experimentation and innovation, is perceived as “taboo.” But it would be very interesting and useful to know of any studies done to explore this hypothesis. Are there any that you would recommend?

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