Go Ahead and Fail

April 01, 2019 by Meredith Trimble

Go Ahead and Fail

Photo credit: Flickr/Caston Corporate Financial Risk Management

One of the best things a local government leader can do is fail. Go ahead, try it! No, this is not an April Fool’s joke – failure is a key step in driving the organizational changes necessary to achieve success and sustainability in the digital era.

Leaders can drive change in a number of ways, but perhaps one of the best things a leader can do is give employees cover for risk. As Walt Disney said, “failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” To facilitate a cultural transition that readies an organization to fully participate in and benefit from the ever-expanding Internet of Things, failure should be an accepted part of growth. In fact, failure and risk can be important drivers of innovation.

Shane Marshall, former deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation, speaks often on this subject, and noted in front of a Socrata audience last April, “Change in culture is necessary in order to move to innovation.” “You have to change the cultural idea that failure is a bad thing,” he said, “and move to where it’s just another form of feedback; another attempt at doing something and learning something.”

Shane Marshall, former deputy director, UDOT

As Marshall noted, government organizations are inherently conservative when it comes to risk. “In order to innovate, we tend to mitigate every single risk out before we take a chance,” he said. To do that takes a lot of time. The fear of failure in this case is a liability. That said, governments cannot run amok with high-risk experimentation. Public sector’s core service areas demand consistency across departments and jurisdictions, which does create a more measured pace than government’s private counterparts. The sweet spot, then, is to facilitate a failure-as-feedback culture, in which employees share setbacks as well as successes, and failures improve the decision-making process.

Giving cover for your team to try new things, to learn from failure, and to improve iteratively are also critical components in moving toward digital maturity. With digital maturity come:

  • Internal efficiencies
  • Mitigated challenges
  • Empowered staff
  • Data-driven decisions
  • Improved outcomes

Playing it too safe is arguably a risk not worth taking. These desirable outcomes depend on organizational change and trying new things. Not stepping on the path to digital maturity can cost governments time and resources in an environment in which both are increasingly scarce. Are you willing, for example, to be stuck with a manual system that doesn’t automate tasks? Are you willing to keep useful data from potential partners? What valuable insights are going unnoticed?

Realizing the full benefits of a modern, digital infrastructure requires more than just software procurement. Changes in organizational norms and behavior, including a cultural acceptance of failure and encouragement of resulting feedback, are also necessary. So, go ahead! Start to fail and learn towards a data-enabled culture today.

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