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Okay to Make Mistakes: Leadership in Innovation

This past Wednesday, GovLoop’s Chris Dorobek hosting another special live edition of the DorobekInsider. In it, Dorobek and his guests discussed the necessity of more innovation in government (For the full recap, click here).

Lined up, we had Lena Trudeau, Associate Commissioner of the GSA’s Office of Strategic Innovation and who also runs the Presidential Innovation Fellowship; Matthew Burton, who’s served in multiple leadership positions of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, including both deputy CIO and acting CIO; Jay Nath, San Francisco’s Chief Innovation Officer; and Jason Shen, Presidential Innovation Fellow and author of the memorably-titled book, Winning Isn’t Normal: Meditations on the Art of Ass-Kicking.

“Government innovation: Some people say the phrase is an oxymoron. Innovation has been such a real driver for the economy in recent years… Innovation is changing the world around us, and very quickly and fundamentally… but this innovation is also creating remarkable disruption…” – Chris Dorobek

It is perhaps this final point that is part of the reason why innovation within the sphere of government is light years behind what is being seen in the private sector each and every day. Government is a system that rewards results rather than ideas. All too often, it is a fundamentally reactive institution, responding to issues as they arrive rather than looking forward to create new frameworks and solutions to problems that haven’t even occured yet. A truly innovative idea is almost certain to cause other ways of doing things to be obsolete, and this is as a best possible case scenario. While not fundamentally a bad thing, in government, there’s little that is more disruptive than a major shift to the status quo like that.

So then, if a culture of innovation is to take hold despite this, how can it be crafted? As Dorobek begs the question, “What is needed from senior leaders in order to spur innovation? What can senior leaders do in order to help other people in the organization do things differently?

Risk vs. Reward

A recurring theme in the discussion is the concept of risk vs. reward, especially as it differs from the public sector and the private sector. Lena Trudeau shares a story of a moment in a Silicon Valley lab where a senior leader is present as a worker drops and breaks what is likely a remarkably expensive piece of machinery. The lab grows utterly silent and looks to the leader for his response. After a moment, he simply shrugs it off and says, “I love that sound, because that is the sound of people doing things.”

In a culture like this, people are so encouraged to try creative and innovative new things that the concept of costly failure is completely allowed and accepted as the part of the cost of succeeding. With this one tiny sentence, the leader has reinforced the idea that he is not out to punish every little mistake made in the pursuit of trying to create something.

Compare this to a more traditional government office. As Burton points out, “If a manager says they care about innovation, but then at review time ask how many widgets you have created, they clearly don’t understand innovation.” Time spent exploring new ways to do things is time spent not meeting hard metrics and goals.

This is, according to Shen, “the fundamental challenge.” As he explains, the reward in government feels very insignificant, but the risk associated with failure is high. At stake, an employee that makes an effort to promote something innovate and fails could potentially his job, benefits, his chance at retirement, and more. And if he succeeds, he’s likely to get “a pat on the back and an award” as a best case. Though it’s nice, the stakes are just too high for too little pay-off.

Baby Steps to Innovation

The truth is that the government will never be another Google. The goals of each organization are just too different, and there is simply too much work to be done at the governmental level to allow all employees the flexibility to spend hours each day pursuing innovative new projects. Still, there are steps that can be done to move the government in the right direction, albeit it baby steps.

In particular, Trudeau suggests promoting a policy of incrementalism. Specifically, allowing employees the freedom to explore new ideas, but to check early and often for concrete and tangible results. Insodoing, leadership can be more aware of mistakes in the making before they end up costing an agency a fortune in time and resources that it may not have, as well as encourage and promote good ideas that are performing better than expected.

What do you think? Does your agency have a culture of innovation? What things have leaders in your organization done to encourage employees to explore new ideas? Let me know in the comments below!


For the Full Hour Long Panel, Check Out: DorobekINSIDER Live

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