March 21, 2017

Succeed Fast by Failing Faster

group of lightbulbs with only one lit

I fail much faster than I succeed. And by most people’s measures, I fail. A lot. But I succeed even more.

As a serial civic innovator, I have learned from my own experiences and my peers that the key ingredients of being a great innovator are the willingness to fail, to fail smart, to fail often, to fail fast, and to fail forward. Learning how to be a better failure will unlock your success with innovation. Who knew being such a colossal failure could pay off so much?

Thomas Edison knew. Da Vinci knew. They created and piloted and tinkered and revised and kept going. Undaunted and unyielding in their pursuits, they both recognized that admitting it didn’t work as planned was a great way to create a better plan. And a better one. In fact, we must acknowledge that our ability to succeed is intrinsically linked to our willingness to fail. André Gide said it best: “We do not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” So lose the fear of getting fired. Lose the fear of failure. Failure will happen. It’s part of life. Trust in your talent and abilities to make you successful in the right environment, and if your organization is so deeply averse to risk that they would fire you for trying something new or different, is that really the type of organization you want to work for? Yes, this fear of failure and getting fired is the hardest part for many, but the truth is your fear of being fired is a big part of what is holding you back from succeeding like crazy.

As critical as this is, it can be hard to do, so the rest of the techniques minimize the risk that you would be fired. They are about learning how to be more successful in navigating greater risk.

Fail Smart

First, fail smart. Become a learner. Get smarter. Use your knowledge to gain more knowledge. Identify the “gray areas” in your organization and learn about them. What processes or products or services are muddled or being ignored because there is no clear owner? Can you be the one to own this space or partner with someone who can? The silos in organizations create gaps between departments where opportunity lurks like some glorious golden goose. Find ways to learn about and innovate in those gray areas. Use your knowledge of one area to learn about another area. What do you know about the departments you work with? Do you know their language (acronyms, common language, slang, issues, etc.)? If not, learn it. Exchange knowledge with a peer in another department. Talk about the gaps and opportunities that are being missed. For me, buying fuel turned into knowledge about how a fleet works, giving me a chance to learn about public works and utilities, and then administrative services, etc., etc., and eventually led me to become a chief innovation officer. And, regardless of what else you learn, definitely learn about how your organization’s budgeting works. How the money moves. What requires approvals and what doesn’t. How accounts, expenditure authority, revenues and transfers work. Know how much that golden goose egg is worth and how to cash it in. If you know how the money moves, you know where you can create opportunities to fund your ideas when the time comes.  

Fail Often

To fail often you need to generate a pipeline of innovations and use pilots to launch your ideas. Don’t just start one pilot, start three or five or ten pilots around a topic. This way if one of them fails, you have the next ideation, iteration, or innovation just around the corner. This allows you to separate yourself from the risk of any one idea not working, and create a series of small wins leading to bigger wins. In Adams County, Colorado, for example, in an attempt to stretch roadway dollars further, we started experimenting with alternative roadway materials, including crushed toilets, tire rubber blended with asphalt, and a slag-asphalt mix from a local steel mill. The slag mix created drivability issues during one hot day and did damage to people’s cars, for which we had to pay some claims. The material had worked fine on other applications, and was saving us tens of thousands of dollars — we were just testing during different conditions. That might have been the end of the “alternative roadway materials” effort, but the tire rubber and the crushed toilets proved to be great projects and were so successful it was possible to overlook the initial failure and make corrections to how the mix was applied in the future. In fact, it gave us a microphone to talk about the other successful projects, and ultimately Pikes Peak Highway was paved with 1,094 recycled tires.

By developing a pipeline of innovation, you can fail and recover quickly. In addition, this will help protect you from haters and bureaucracide stopping your project. Because there will always be haters and government is just plain slow sometimes. Plan for it. It means that whether a project may take three days, weeks, months or years, start today. Just keep them moving forward by hard-won inches as time and opportunity allows. By creating a pipeline of projects, you can turn 1-for-2 into 5-for-6 and keep the wins coming.

Fail Fast

Pilot your ideas. This lets you fail faster. An effective pilot is short in duration and has a smaller scope or scale then a full-scale, permanent deployment. Instead of going after systemwide implementations or “permanent” changes, try to pursue smaller pilot efforts that impact only one group for a short period of time and allow you to try the idea, measure the impact, improve it (when appropriate), and move forward or move on. Instead of launching an organization-wide “Fitbit” program, we limited a pilot effort to 120 applicants. It sold out so quickly that 180 people ended up signing up to be a part of the pilot and each month the people enrolled in the program walked around the earth. Every month. We learned about how employees used the Fitbits and how it motivated them. The program was ultimately modified and adopted countywide. A small-scale pilot minimizes resistance because it is all about trying something new and despite resistance from some people during the start-up phase, how could you argue against trying something new that could bolster employee health? A full-scale implementation out of the gate would have been a failure whereas the pilot was a smashing success.

Fail Forward

When the pilot is done, hold a meeting to conduct what I refer to as a “blame-free autopsy.” The pilot has reached the end of its life. What happened? Deconstruct the pilot and be honest about what worked and what didn’t. Be sure everyone knows that the goal is to dissect the project, not the people, and focus the conversation on how the idea could be improved or iterated upon for a larger or longer-term pilot. This can be a contentious step at times because it is difficult to maintain objectivity when it comes to an idea we are passionate about. And if the innovation did not work at all or is generally “unsalvageable,” thank everyone for being part of the pilot program and move on. Do not get personally attached to the project, but learn that it is okay to say “that didn’t work” because it gives you greater credibility and flexibility in the future. People will learn they can trust that you will try things but aren’t unreasonable. This will help you build teams in the future for other innovations.

We had a pilot program called “TryLingual” which was about multilingualism. We offered 100 licenses to use Rosetta Stone software and put a pilot program into place. Despite an overwhelming indication that there was interest from employees, and despite “selling out” in less than three minutes, there was very little successful “graduation” from the program with only 10 percent of total users completing the program as intended. The Rosetta Stone learning model was simply not right for the majority of our employees. So, we deconstructed what worked and what didn’t from surveys and user interviews. In discussions with senior leadership about the lessons learned, we admitted that the pilot was not as successful as we had hoped and that we learned that the interest was actually in being able to take classes to further language skills. Because of this discovery, we suggested modifying our reimbursement policies and pay policies to support multilingualism. The “TryLingual” idea didn’t work as planned, but we learned about the real need and the right way to address it.

Succeed Fast

So by losing the fear of failure, learning about the gray areas in your organization, creating a pipeline of ideas, piloting everything and getting honest about the results, you create credibility in the innovation space. In fact, all this failing “the right way” will help you succeed faster the next time. And believe me, you will succeed far more than you will fail. You’ll develop a reputation as someone who is trying to move the organization forward. You’ll learn about how you operate best, and about your organization’s paradigm — making you even more successful.

So trust in yourself and prepare to fail a lot more… and get ready to be more successful than ever.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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