Category Archives: Complex Adaptive Systems

Failure Is an Option: The Way To High-Performance Innovation

The three keys to innovation are to seek new ideas, test these ideas on a scale where failure is survivable, and continuously monitor these trials for feedback. The three keys come from Tim Hartford’s book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Hartford argues that the world is too complex for top-down “big project” innovation-based purely on expert judgment. The best path to innovation is to try a lot of ideas simultaneously (even if they contradict each other), build in robust feedback loops, and use the winning ideas to start a new round of trials.

Hartford’s three keys are not a new method of innovation; it is the oldest method of innovation around – evolution. Nature is continually creating variations of species and then selecting the species that best survive current conditions. Hartford applies that concept to organizations to see if a similar process works in determining what companies succeed and which close. The organizations that best survive a continually changing business environment combine incremental improvement along with the occasional long-shot idea to propel them into a better part of the business landscape ahead of their competitors

So, what does this have to do with government agencies? Hartford flatly states this innovation method will not work in government agencies because of several barriers. First, there is not enough time for political appointees to fully see these experiments before a new administration comes in office. Second, the process depends on many failures for innovation, but failure carries a high stigma in government. Third, it is difficult to demonstrate that a policy innovation had an effect due to the lack of robust feedback loops in government.

Think outside of the box sign.

Hartford’s opinion about government innovation is way overstated. There have been numerous government projects that have been extremely innovative: the Hoover Dam, rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, the Moon landings, the Space Shuttle, the Internet, and so on. When you examine how these agencies developed these projects, you do see these agencies tried many ideas and learned from these trials. NASA has a fantastic knowledge management culture, and DARPA’s successful record of innovation is built on the concept of trying many long-shot ideas at once.

What holds the government back from being even more innovative is the stigma of failure. Many agency cultures are too cautious because of the constant external scrutiny and the internal cultural practices of not sticking your neck out and just waiting out the latest change effort. Often, this caution is well-warranted. Many people depend on government agencies, and thus agencies cannot fail in their primary mission of delivering Social Security checks, defending the nation, or enforcing laws and regulations

But failure to innovate will also lead to mission failure for agencies. In the sixth chapter, Hartford describes how the 2008 economic meltdown was inevitable, given the tight coupling of economic institutions and the failure of the government to prevent financial organizations from becoming too entangled. He argues that in any complex system, accidents will typically occur and that often our failure-prevention efforts will only increase the probability of failure. What is needed are the twin strategies of placing buffers between parts of the system and setting up feedback loops to warn us of emerging failure events.

The government must continually innovate so it can continuously deliver on its mission. This means that the culture must change so the agencies accept the small failures that teach to avoid the massive failures that cripple the agency and harm the people it serves. Whether we call it “experimentation,” “pilot tests,” or some other euphemism, the better the government is at innovation, the better it can serve its citizens.

Multiteam Systems and Public Administration Leadership: Promising New Area for Research

I love going to conferences and learning about a new field of research that sheds some light on issues I am pondering. Recently, I attended the International Public Management Association’s Human Resources’ (IPMA-HR) Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter’s Day of Learning. The day included discussion topics on how to improve government HR operations and personal development. So, when I read about Dr. Stephen J. Zaccarro’s talk on multiteam systems, I was attracted to the phrase, “Team of teams.”

I first encountered the concept of a team of teams in General McChrystal’s 2015 book, Teams of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. McChrystal describes how he created a fluid organization that coordinated the actions of highly-specialized military teams. Other organizations have adopted the team-of-teams model such as the social entrepreneurship nonprofit, Ashoka. Bill Drayton, who founded Ashoka, describes his approach in this way:

Instead of maintaining a traditional structure in which people work in hierarchies based on a function or a formal business unit, an organization operates as a constellation of teams that come together around specific goals. At the center of this constellation is a coordinating executive team, but the composition of each project team shifts as needed over time. Teams and team members work together in fluid, constantly changing ways. The model emphasizes decentralized autonomy, meritocracy, and a sense of partnership.

An especially interesting point in Dr. Zaccarro’s studies on teams of teams (what the literature calls multiteam systems) is his focus on how the teams coordinate their actions. As he explains, the more high-performing the individual teams are, the less effective the multiteam system is. This is because the individual high-performing teams try to enforce the team’s ways of working on the other teams in the multiteam systems.

team meeting

Dr. Zaccarro states that communication is a significant factor in helping multiteam systems. The liaisons between the teams create the channels of communication that the leadership of the multiteam system uses to coordinate the teams’ actions to the goal or goals of the multiteam systems. Equally important is the leadership of the multiteam system. When General McChrystal describes his briefing structure for his team of teams, you can see how the team liaisons created effective channels of communication to build a shared reality around which the multiteam system’s leadership effectively coordinated action.

Multiteam systems research is still evolving, and much work needs to be done. I see two areas where multiteam systems theory can aid public policy and administration.

Can Multiteam Theory Help Explain the Garbage Can Model of Organizations?

Cohen, March, and Olsen’s 1972 article described some organizations as organized anarchies:

 “Such organizations can be viewed for some purposes as collections of choices looking for problems, issues, and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be an answer, and decision makers looking for work.” 

Organized anarchies, or garbage cans, have three properties that force the organization into anarchy:

As I listened to Dr. Zaccarro’s talk, I thought about the three properties and how some aspects of the multiteam systems theory could address the challenges of the garbage can model. For example, establishing a clear goal to align the teams can mitigate the problem of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. Another thought is addressing the issues of fluid participation by strengthening the relationships between team liaisons.

Monge and Contractor’s Multi-theoretical and Multilevel Model of Organizational Communication Networks Applied to Multiteam Systems

Monge and Contractor’s 2003 publication, Theories of Communication Networks, lays out a new way of incorporating various social science theories such as exchange theory and self-cognition theory to all aspects of a network. The purpose is to describe how agents in a network communicate, collaborate, and compete. Establishing communication pathways and protocols are essential to multiteam systems. Monge and Contractor’s 2003 multi-theoretical and multilevel (MTML) methodology can be a useful tool for investigating and envisioning the multiteam system’s communication flows and processes.

Multiteam System Theory of Public Administration Leadership

 As Dr. Zaccarro finished his talk, he described how there needs to be more research in the leadership competencies for multiteam systems. There is much research on leading teams and organizations. What is missing is how to lead in-between the teams and the organizations—the multiteam systems. Multiteam systems are becoming increasingly common in public agencies as these agencies confront today’s wicked problems.

Goaling Too Far – When Following a Goal Destroys Innovation

In my latest column for PA Times Online, I wrote about why innovation in the public sector is challenging. Public sector innovation (and innovation in general) is an emergent process in that new ideas build on previous innovations. However, as research has found, there is not a direct path to change. The indirect and surprising ways invention occurs was the basis for James Burke’s Connections series. I highly recommend watching the episodes available on YouTube.

The typical way that innovation occurs is that a vision of the new product, service, or method is created. Then, a program is launched to achieve an innovative goal. It’s a proven formula that works. Think of the major U.S. government projects like creating the atomic bomb, building the interstate highway system, and landing people on the Moon. There is a mix of moving directly toward the goal while taking advantage of unexpected side routes.

So, how to harness the power of emergence with its sudden leaps in the service of steady progress toward a goal?

One way is to recognize the symptoms of destructive goal pursuit. Dr. Kayes examined Mt. Everest expedition disasters to explore the destruction caused by a single-minded pursuit of goals. He called the intense focus on an objective, goalodicy. There are four limitations to the goal-setting process:

  • Goals are difficult to abandon.
  • Goals limit learning.
  • Goals increase risk-taking.
  • Pursuing goals may lead to unethical behavior (p. 50).

The warning signs of goalodicy are the acceptance of a narrowly-defined goal, high public visibility, pressure for face-saving behavior, an idealized future with few or no problems, pursuing the goal is the goal itself, and that achieving the goal is destiny (p. 76). The best way to overcome goalodicy is for leadership to encourage learning and questioning. Leadership also needs to encourage taking advantage of the unexpected to find new ways to achieve the goal or even modify the goal.

Stanley and Lehman (authors of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned) wrote that “[b]eing open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than knowing what you’re trying to do.” The goal is essential but allow for feedback and recalibrating the goal when necessary.

It is easy to fall into the goalodicy trap because people, teams, and organizations fear uncertainty. As Patrick Hollingworth wrote: “Kayes suggests that uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future, insisting that we tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as we can reach this projection of the future (italics in original).” In my next posting, I will explore how to manage the effects of uncertainty on innovation.