Agencies that can “fail forward” learn to identify, analyze and communicate about how projects fall flat and work toward innovative solutions to complex government problems.
A “failing forward” mindset helps agencies innovate, a new report states.
Failing forward means “viewing failure as a learning opportunity, but when you break that down, it’s talking about identifying, communicating, analyzing and doing something about failure,” said Josh Sorin, global director for climate action at the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) and a co-author of the report, “Failing forward in local government: how-to guide,” which CPI published in September.
In government, too often “doing something” means sweeping failure under the rug, Sorin said. That’s because system structures and government processes are not incentivized for learning. For example, siloed agencies aren’t set up to deal with cross-agency challenges such as climate change or a pandemic. As a result, people try to avoid failure, but that’s impossible.
“The core idea here is that when you’re dealing in complex systems, or with complex problems -- of which government is always dealing with -- failure is inevitable. It’s going to happen, whether you acknowledge it or not,” Sorin said.
To illustrate how technology can be both a help and a hindrance to innovation, Sorin pointed to data systems. They can help agencies gain insights into what’s working and what’s not by measuring how well they’re meeting goals, but without incentives for learning, data often is used negatively, he said.
“We set these arbitrary targets about the goals you should be achieving, and … say, ‘If you don’t meet those targets, you punish.’ What that actually ends up resulting in is … people gaming the system -- or finding ways to make those metrics work for them,” Sorin said.
The report includes a four-phase how-to for creating an environment that fosters failing forward, and communication cuts across all of them. That’s because, “in order for teams to be able to address failures, they need to be able to communicate about them,” he said.
Here, too, technology can help. Email, intranets, messaging platforms all facilitate communication and are great methods for accelerating failing forward in government, Sorin said, especially when trusting relationships have been established in the real world, not just cyberspace.
Automation is another tech-based tool that can facilitate failing forward, particularly when it’s applied to failures that are largely preventable. “Technology can help automate certain processes to lead to less failure in these preventable and predictable processes,” he said.
State and local agencies made progress with failing forward at the height of the pandemic, when they had to test options – and quickly – to adjust to lockdowns and social distancing. But as normalcy returns, so too does the “gravitational pull toward the status quo,” Sorin said. “I think there we are going to see kind of a blob of government just go back to the way like things used to be.”
There are positive signs, however. For instance, the report itself is based on a joint pilot program between CPI and the National Association of County Administrators called “Fail Forward in Local Government.” It started in summer 2021 and involved more than 100 employees in four counties: Loudoun County, Virginia; Teton County, Wyoming; Lane County, Oregon; and Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
Participants went through three steps: interviewing people inside and outside government about what makes it hard to learn from failure, experimenting with and testing ideas to break down the barriers, and embedding and scaling successful ideas. Afterward, 92% of them said they saw positive change in their departments because of the ideas they developed, 85% said staff felt more empowered to contribute to continuous improvement efforts, and 94% of frontline staff said they felt comfortable trying new things because the team “has their back.” Overall, almost 100% of participants said they use or will use “fail forward” in other aspects of their work.
The four phases in the how-to guide mirror those in the pilot program. The first is called “Phase Zero,” and it involves setting up a program and establishing a failing forward team. Phase One is about understanding failing forward barriers, Phase Two about experimenting with ways to remove those barriers, and Phase Three is about making successful approaches into “business as usual” practices at the agency.
During the pilot program, Loudoun County’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services department identified a problem with addressing the needs of underserved populations and came up with a plan to use story mapping with a diversity and equity lens.
Lane County’s Central Services found that some teams were not consulted in developing projects. To help, they established a Central Services channel on Microsoft Teams for real-time information-sharing and troubleshooting.
Ultimately, for any effort to succeed in the long term, it takes a culture change, Sorin said. “If you don’t have a culture that really embraces learning, embracing failing forward already, the technology is not going to solve that,” he said.