I just experienced an embarrassing failure.
Or did I?
This afternoon, I was scheduled to appear by Skype to speak on the topic of Gov 2.0 leadership. Two hours prior to the event, the onsite tech guy and I tested the connection and it worked perfectly. We could see and hear one another and the screen share was beautiful. In fact, I could see Noel Dickover in the audience, we waved to one another and I shared a Max Headroom video with him since he said I kinda looked like the guy.
At 15 minutes before going live, we tried to connect again and the video and screen sharing functions just wouldn’t work. I was frustrated as was my new (and probably former) tech friend from Georgetown’s Woodrow Wilson Center.
We decided to conduct the presentation by audio only – kinda like a live podcast…or good ol’ fashioned conference call. I delivered my prepared remarks in about 15 minutes, then we engaged in some great dialogue, with the most interesting thoughts surrounding the issue of failure. Here was the impetus:
…no one expects a Gov 2.0 Leader to be infallible. In fact, in his keynote at the Open Government and Innovations conference, noted Web 2.0 visionary Tim O’Reilly indicated that government should encourage “safe failures.” Our new Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra echoed this idea at the same event when he said that “capturing data lets you measure when to fail fast, quit and stop putting money in bad projects.” Robynn Sturm of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that agencies should “Iterate. Try even if you fail. Keep changing.” For each of these individuals, the assumption was that failure IS an option and that it WILL happen. They seem to think that failure is inevitable. In fact, it’s an essential element of a more transparent, innovative government.
The primary questions with which we grappled:
How do we get government to embrace a culture of innovation without the possibility of failure? And how do create a culture where a degree of failure is accepted as part of the stretch toward excellence?
Jack Holt brought up the new book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon” (featured here on GovLoop) as an example. What if we hadn’t made it to the moon? Would that have been a failure? Or would the innovation have inevitably sparked new technology that would benefit citizens regardless of whether we met that audacious goal?
What can we learn from companies like IDEO and 3M where failure is baked into the corporate ethos, where they create “skunk teams” that analyze failure (or the potential for failure) to see if they can tease out a morsel that becomes something magnificent?
My sense is that for all our talk about innovation and open government, none of it will really move forward until we come to terms with failure – how we feel about is agencies and how the taxpayer perceives failure by government.
So let’s do it. Let’s talk about it here:
1. When have you failed…and I mean a big ol’ mess going way beyond set targets of budget and time?
2. What happened? Who got canned or demoted? What changes were made (if any)?
3. Do you have examples of GOOD failure – where something awful occurred…then turned into what appeared to be a stroke of accidental brilliance?
4. What can we learn from the private sector?
5. How do we create a culture of innovation that accepts failure as part of a bold mission?
I didn’t have any good answers for the audience.
Is that a failure? I don’t think so.
I think that’s exactly the hallmark of a culture of innovation: asking questions, acting quickly on the best information available, examining options on the move and building the vessel while advancing the mission with ever-increasing velocity.
I think that’s exactly what happened in order to put a man on the moon – a clear target and a timeline and a team of smart, passionate people who knew failure was an option – who may have even expected it – yet forged ahead.
If we can put a man on the moon, maybe we can create a government culture that fosters such brave innovation.
SPECIAL NOTE: Brian Drake has a great post on this subject on his blog “The Green Dotted Line” and is organizing a Government 2.0 #Fail event to occur in the early part of 2010. So we’re moving toward a larger tribal discussion and maybe our conversation can be some of the initial fodder for that event.