We need to encourage organisations to seek risk – and forgive failure

“I’ve focused on the idea of failure being the engine for innovation. Not being afraid of failure but seeing it as a learning opportunity, and the value of getting out into the world and testing things earlier rather than later.” – Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots, Google X

Risk management flow chart on a blackboard

Risk is still a toxic word across much of the public sector.

It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do – sweep through organisations and make sure everyone knew the dangers.

Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.

But we don’t live in those times anymore. We live in momentous times.  Across the public and social sectors problems aren’t slowing down – they’re picking up.

Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.

Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

When I initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

To make our organisations more forgiving we need cultures that promote well managed risk and bravery. So what are the things that are preventing more forgiving cultures?

Risk as an inhibitor of innovation

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation. Most policies don’t prevent your company’s downfall – they just stop colleagues from doing the right thing for the customer. This graphic from a recent HBR study shows auditors are simply looking in the wrong places.

Risk

Policies don’t bring organisations down. Toxic cultures do.

But cultures are rarely audited. It’s easier to tick boxes.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Making things ‘work’ that just don’t

Hardly anything ‘fails’ in the social sector.  We are largely taxpayer funded – to admit wasting resources would be foolish, surely?

Plus people genuinely care and want to help the less fortunate. That’s a great thing. But these can also be the undoing of many projects and pilots. We want things to work so badly our emotions get in the way. We often fail to scrutinise well intentioned initiatives and don’t equip colleagues with the nuclear option when it looks like things are going wrong.

At Bromford , we are trying to instill a culture of honesty and openness. If you think our latest initiative is crap and you wouldn’t spend your own money on it – it’s pretty likely the customer will think the same.

Not all ideas are created equal – some things are just not meant to be. Let’s stop doing them and use our resources to make greater impact elsewhere.

Lack of transparency killing trust

In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We still get locked into broadcasting rather than meaningful conversations in public. That means starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail to learn from them. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit because we fear the consequences. 

So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness from the customer. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. Social media has brought us many wonderful things but it has also introduced public shaming by the mob, trolling , and a serious lack of empathy. Think before you publicly criticise someone’s failed initiative. When you do it you create a little more fear in organisations. And somewhere a bit of innovation dies.

Despite this, organisations must push themselves ever further towards transparency. What have you funded that hasn’t worked? In the new transparency you may as well wash your dirty linen in public – it’ll save a freedom of information request in the future.

  • We need to establish a new relationship with the public where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness. 
  • We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it.
  • We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal. 

To successfully tackle the huge problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations.

And we’ll need to be more forgiving of each other too. 

  1. I love reading your posts, Paul. They make me want to go and take action right away. I don’t even work in the public sector anymore but I think what you’ve said here is true for most organisations and in fact, most people in the home and work lives. Who likes to admit to failure?! Well, now’s the time I’m going to start. What is wrong with saying “I tried it that way, it didn’t work. So this is what I’m going to try differently”? Nothing, of course. Makes perfect sense. Thanks Paul!

    Reply

    1. And thank you for commenting! You’re right in that this isn’t just a public sector – in fact I’m doing the PS a disservice by suggesting that.

      Thanks again!

      Reply

  2. Hi Paul – spot on! Couldn’t agree more. In fact I wrote a something very similar on the same topic a few months ago : https://goo.gl/lnMOxL

    I think this is especially relevant to the Housing sector at the moment. The world is shifting around us and we need to start experimenting with different ways of working to ensure we remain sustainable and valuable as a service. Tinkering around the fringes and largely doing what we’ve always done is unlikely to be enough going forward.

    Really like the point about arming staff with a nuclear option. Projects are often not tested and scaled properly early on and then go on to become giant resource sucking behemoths that are deemed ‘too big to fail’.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for comment and agree completely. Somehow I missed your post – great stuff. Love the line: Innovation is no magic wand -It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure.

      With the cheerleading for innovation (something I support of course!) has to come a higher tolerance for risk and learning from failure.

      Reply

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