Government Managers as Risk-Takers? Not So Much

Wunderkind Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about risk taking: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.[1]

And yet a recent government-industry conference[2] included a discussion on the question of whether federal leaders will take on personal risk to propel innovation.

Sometimes, if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.

In general, they won’t.

And why not? Because they are rational creatures.

A very senior federal manager once used this quote from Machiavelli in a presentation to the agency leadership on the challenges of driving organizational change:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.[3]

Now this quote comes from a 1903 translation of a tract first circulated more than 500 years ago, so let’s try a modern paraphrase, in the person of a rational federal manager:

There’s no upside to trying to be innovative. Too many people have a vested interest in the status quo and will try to stop me. I can’t even get the people who would benefit from my ideas to support me. They’re afraid to buck the system. They’re afraid to support something new and unproven.

It’s something we’ve known for at least 500 years—bureaucracies, by their nature, stifle the kinds of innovation that are driven by individual and collective risk-taking.

This is part of the reason why procurement / acquisition reform is so hard.

So how do we encourage and support the mavericks, the innovators, and personal risk takers in government who are ready, willing, and able to put their performance reviews on the line in the name of better government for all?

The GSA seems to get it; the number one critical element under “Leadership Competencies” in their “Performance Plan And Appraisal Record For Non-Senior Executive Service Management And Supervisory Associates”[4] is:

Creativity and Innovation – Develops new insights into situations and applies innovative solutions to make organizational improvements. Creates a work environment that encourages creative thinking and innovation. Designs and implements cutting edge programs/processes.

Seems like at least GSA is looking for risk-takers!

Jim Tyson

If you would like to share your experiences, ideas, or insights on this topic, please comment or call me.

[1] Tobak, S. (2011, October 31). Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — Insights For Entrepreneurs. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebooks-mark-zuckerberg-insights-for-entrepreneurs/

[2] American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC), “Management of Change 2014”.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, N. (1903). The Prince, London; Grant Richards, 1903. p. 22, available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=kWBAAAAAYAAJ

[4] Form GSA3440B, revised 05/2005, available online at http://www.gsa.gov/portal/forms/download/116710

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Really intrigued by the GSA performance plan element for “Creativity and Innovation” but wondering if anyone has a similar element that is more of a measurable objective. The big push here in performance reviews has been objectives that are clearly measurable or quantifiable.

Jim Tyson

Erica, I appreciate your comments: There seems to be much talk surrounding the topic of change and innovation in regards to procurement / acquisition within federal government however very few federal managers that I have had the opportunity to speak with have actually seen much over additional training or as you point out, management by performance measurements. These are very useful but, do they address the root causes of the problems or are they more expensive bandaids. Can a solution utilizing technology address the larger picture and provide training of needed skills, performance measurements, management oversight and collaboration while at the same time reducing risk?