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Invite Failure – What the Innovative Agencies Are Doing Right

In order for an agency to be innovative you have to empower your employees and leave room for failure. So which agencies are doing that effectively?

Dan Helfrich is a Principal at Deloitte Consulting. The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte’s new Best Places to Work in the Federal Government analysis found that the vast majority of federal workers want to be innovative and are looking for ways to perform their jobs better.

Helfrich told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that 91% of employees they themselves are innovative in their roles.

“Only 31% of employees believe that creativity and innovation are rewarded at their agency. So that gap is worthy of our attention,” said Helfrich.

Innovation Index

“We’ve come up with an innovation index. We’ve found in the last few years the percentage of innovation has gone down at the same rate as overall satisfaction in the Best Places to Work survey,” said Helfrich.

Risk Averse

“We don’t tolerate failures on a macro scale, that creates some parts of an organization or culture that are risk averse and risk averse cultures have a hard time innovating. Let’s stop talking about innovation in these grand-macro, enormous changes. The next iPad shouldn’t be the hallmark of innovation. The issue should be in the way innovation can take what the government does and do it in a slightly new way to alter the conventional way of doing things. If you do things at a micro level, tuning and testing you can invite failure,” said Helfrich.

How Can Leaders Promote Failure

  • Leaders can set a tone.
  • Invite a two-way conversation.
  • Put up technologies like IdeaHub to gather ideas.
  • Ask for feedback and have agency leaders respond to the feedback.

“Look at what the State Department did with Diplopedia. They took the concept of Wikipedia and and applied it to the world of diplomacy. These aren’t ideas that are coming from massive innovation processes. These are ideas that 1-2 people had and their agency’s allowed it to grow. It is not surprise that the State Department landed very high on the innovation index,” said Helfrich.

Corner Office is NOT the Idea Factory

“Very few of the best ideas come from the corner office, particularly when we are talking about ideas for process. If you are looking to streamline invoices you should talk to the people that are filing them everyday. The fronline employees are really the right people to handle it,” said Helfrich.

Link Between Empowerment and Innovation

“Employees that answered the question of whether their leaders gave them opportunities to grow and improve and to feel empowered were much more apt to say their agency was innovative. There is a high correlation to creating an environment for innovation and empowerment,” said Helfrich.

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*All graphs are from the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte.

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Ray MacNeil

Couple of things…

risk doesn’t have to be made ‘small’, as the author suggests. But we do have to understand that we need to scale risk. This is how we make it manageable and (more importantly perhaps) amenable to the organization. But that doesn’t always mean small. It may mean for example working in one area of the org rather than another because there is a champion that can help. There are lots of dimensions to this idea of scalability. But as you get better at that, doing things that promote innovation become easier.

Second thing. The ‘science’ (if you will) of innovation and failure is developing rapidly. There are many people out there working on this. The one that I have found has the most good to say on this subject is Dave Snowden (http://www.cognitive-edge.com). There are some brilliant people on GovLoop as well (John Bordeaux is one for example I am aware of… I’m sure there are others).

But Snowden has a reasonably well defined and systematic (ironic eh??) method for approaching (and talking about) innovation and failure. Google “safe-to-fail” and see what you get.

So let’s start talking about how we can be more clear on how we move forward… obliquely… 8:)



Peter Sperry

It may not fit the popular leadership consultant mantra of the day; but it seems that both government agencies and corporations have been very successful at inviting failure over the past decade. It would be kind of nice to see a few of them make more of an effort to avoid it. How many more auto bailout, bank failures, government agency debacles do we need before someone understands that temproary failures may be a necessary price to pay for long term success but making a habit out of screwing up is not a good idea.

Ray MacNeil

These are great responses. I’m LOL in a good way.

I am currently involved with a fairly large planning exercise with our CIO right now and all of their language around risk is about ‘mitigation’. This is, in the real world a complete misinterpretation of the context necessary for moving forward successful on the complex problems we face in gov. But its an ‘ordered’ perspective and in fairness, that’s generally what we should expect from people whose skills set includes logic and programming (I’m not being pejorative here, just stating what I believe is a fact).

I love Peter’s comment. I repeat his first comment all the time (as a joke) in the office when people want to talk about our work around complex systems, failure and innovation. yes we fail all the time!! But the result isn’t innovation (well ok, maybe sometimes by complete accident). But failure because you don’t listen or because you have some hidden agenda (Peter’s point I think) isn’t the same thing as inviting failure through exploration (some of Peter Allen’s work on exploration versus exploitation is pretty cool).

There’s an old saying (the latest one on my office door) that “the true nature of complex systems emerges only as they are being explored”. THIS is the true nature of failure’s role in complex systems. If you accept (in a compelx space) that you can’t possibly know what is the best foot forward, then the only approach is to treat it as a learning space. This requires (systematic) experimentation and with that, ultimately and purposefully sometimes, failure.

This is very different from Peter’s lovely statement about where we all are (or at least I am) with failure in our org.



Dannielle Blumenthal

The issue is not really innovation the issue is clarification.

Agencies suffer from so many rotating doors – leadership, priorities, strategies, even speeches on this topic and that.

Settle down and focus on one or two things, accomplish those, then move on.

Jon Mathis

Our research has shown that there are some relatively simple, practical steps that government organizations can take to overcome our government’s aversion to any activity that has a risk of failure. For example, the word “failure” needs to be redefined as it pertains to innovation. As suggested above, our government leadership tends to punish all failure. Instead, failure of a well-designed pilot project should be considered to be part of a valuable learning process. If a failed pilot project was conducted intelligently and followed good practices, then that attempt should be celebrated for the information gained. Another example is that all new initiatives should be inexpensively piloted. The results of pilots are always usefully educational. And if the cost of a pilot is kept very low (less than $10K) then even if it does fail it is unlikely to draw criticism.

Carol Davison

Jon, it seems to me that what you are describing is a pilot process and not a failure. A pilot process is implemented in a small, controllable environment exactly so you can study the process, evaulate it and reengineer as necessary to make it more effective and efficient before implementing it enterprise wide.

Ray MacNeil

Like your thoughts Jon. Largely you are describing how to work in complex systems except you’re not using the jargon… 8:) There’s more to it (for me) than what you describe, but it aligns nicely.

Carol, I don’t want to put words in your mouth but it sounds like you are using the term ‘failure’ in a negative sense. In our work we are trying to get people to see failure as opportunity. But the point here is the word safe-to-fail… that I mentioned earlier. There are theory and methods available today that allow one to set up pilots/experiments/etc so that they are scaled properly (along whatever dimensions) so that when/if they fail, no one dies, no one gets fired. You get the picture…

In a more extreme version of safe-to-fail, I am familiar with projects where safe-to-fail methods are used and experiments are set up knowing in advance that they will fail (in this context multiple experiments are running at the same time). The point here is that its not about finding the ‘right’ answer. There isn’t one. Its about how much you can learn about your environment so you can act effectively in it. See my earlier comment about complex systems and why you have to act in them to understand them.

Just so we’re clear… safe-to-fail isn’t piloting.

Governments are doing this by the way. Its not as scary as it sounds.


Jon Mathis

Carol – In my few comments I did focus on piloting, but that’s partly because I’ve found that many organizations avoid even conducting a pilot because they fear its possible failure. You are right in pointing out that fear of full implementation is another issue that must be considered. But a successful pilot can go a long way towards assuaging those fears.

Ray – Based on your post below (thanks), I just joined Cognitive Edge and see that Mr. Snowden has a very large number of articles there. Were there any of his articles which you would recommend as being particularly enlightening on innovation?