How to succeed at failure

The government need not fear failure, as long as it knows what to do when it happens.

Two opposing views exist about how the organizational culture of the federal government reacts to failure.

Among the general public, the common view is that government organizations don't care about failure, and there are never any consequences for people who fail. In common parlance, "there is no accountability" — a nice way of saying nobody got fired or sent to jail.

Inside government organizations and among many academics who study public management, the common view is the opposite. Government organizations are scared to death of bad headlines in the news and, hence, are too cautious. In this view of the culture of government, it is better to stay off the radar screen than to aim high and miss the mark.

People in a recent executive education class of mine at the Kennedy School — mostly federal GS-15s and colonels — brought that up. The conversation took place in the context of a discussion about situations in which people had voluntarily agreed to take on a performance goal they were not certain they could achieve. Whenever I ask students whether they have done that, the majority — usually 80 percent to 90 percent — say they have done so at least once.

In the context of this particular discussion, one student said her boss would accept failure on an ambitious goal under two conditions: She as a manager must be able to provide an explanation for why she hadn't reached the goal, and she had a plan to succeed on a later try. That observation was remarkably similar to what former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton used to say — that a commander would never get in trouble for not meeting a target, only for not knowing why and not having a plan to improve.

Another student said his boss believed that if he reported being green on all his metrics and yellow or red on none, the boss would conclude that the targets were not ambitious enough. That reminded me of the statement one frequently hears in the business world that if every new product initiative succeeds, the company is being too cautious about developing new products. In a government contractor context, I recently heard somebody say that if a company won 75 percent of the contracts it bid on, it was not bidding on enough contracts.

A third student said the government needed to be better at two things in this regard: failing fast and learning lessons from failures. By failing fast, the participant meant trying a lot of new things but moving quickly to stop ones that aren't working. The other participant noted that if you fail, the organization needs to distill lessons from the failure. Again, both those observations could have come from business management practice.

At the end of the discussion, I took a vote among the class. How many felt their organizations were like Bratton's New York police, tolerating failure if a person had an explanation and a plan? How many felt their organizations were more like the common image inside government, for which a failure was a career-stopper? Interestingly, about 80 percent put their organizations in category one and 20 percent in category two.