Category Archives: Innovation

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. Failure is the path to success according to Tim Hartford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Hartford argues that the world is too complicated 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.

Learning from failure is 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 through 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.

Person holding a light bulb.

Hartford’s opinion about government innovation is 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 an amazing 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 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.

Government must continually innovate so it can continuously deliver on its mission. Continuous innovation means that the culture must change so the agencies accept the small failures that teach to avoid the significant 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.

“You’re so dumb!:” The Next Generation

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

The above complaint was from Socrates. St. Thomas Aquinas lamented that the world would be left to an ill-prepared and careless youth. A year after I was graduated from college, I read Steve Allen’s Dumbth which “humorously” recounted tales of how Generation X didn’t know how to think.

Thirty years later it’s the Millennial Generation’s turn with The Dumbest Generation label (and Generation Z not far behind). “According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know-how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot). They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount foundations of American history, or name any of their local political representatives. What do they happen to excel at is – each other. They spend unbelievable amounts of time electronically passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention and dwelling in a world of puerile banter and coarse images.”

The crux of the “dumb generation” argument is that their generation doesn’t have the knowledge that our generation has with the implication that our knowledge is inherently superior. It reminds me of summers that I spent at my grandparent’s farm where I was pitied because I didn’t know how to milk a cow, can vegetables, or could identify all the trees on the farm. “Didn’t I know anything?” they asked.

Then, I bought my grandparents a microwave oven, a VCR, and hooked their TV up to cable. Now I got to mutter under my breath, “didn’t my grandparents know anything?” As our workplaces become multi-generational, I am sure there is a lot of grumbling about the limitations of the different generations. And that is wrong.

Young girl walking with an old man.

The real issue is how to transform our organizations into learning organizations, so we capture the knowledge we already have and determine the knowledge we need. We produce new data and information at an astounding rate, and it is growing faster every year. The challenge is to determine what knowledge we need to keep, what knowledge we need to discard, and how to find the new knowledge we need. Like the way I cling to 1980s rock, knowledge we already have feels comforting and empowering, but we need to have the courage to let some of that go and embrace the new knowledge being produced. We also need to recognize that not all old knowledge is useless and should be discarded.

Others have written that the best learning is in our workplaces and with conversations with our colleagues. We can learn a lot from each other, and our organizations desperately need our efforts to keep the organizational memory growing and thriving. That means younger workers should not just immediately dismiss current practices and processes because that is how they used to do things. And older workers should not be defensive and dismissive when younger workers suggest new ways of doing the organization’s business.

Back when I worked at a state agency, I had a colleague who insisted on using Lotus 123 for his spreadsheets, although we had Microsoft Excel. He would bitterly complain when they tried to install Excel on his machine, and we would have to support Lotus 123 even though it was getting harder to do so every year. I then hit upon a strategy of having him teach me his spreadsheets. I would go over to his cubicle and learn the macros he created. I would recreate the macros in Excel and then show him how much more powerful they were and how the reports looked better with charting available to Excel. He was reluctant at first, but what sold him on upgrading is that he would not lose the original knowledge he had in his spreadsheets and macros but that they would be faster and more effective in a newer environment. Two years later, he relished his role as the “Excel Guru” who was the go-to guy about the intricacies of Excel spreadsheets.

So, maybe what is needed are fewer books about how stupid the other generations are and more books on how much we can learn from each other.

Scenario Planning – An Essential Career Planning Skill

I am continuing to work on the career book which will be released on December 1st. Along with the book, I will be releasing an online course that teaches the job-seeking skills for the new job seeker.

A vital skill for future job seekers will include scenario planning. Scenario planning was developed by the Shell Corporation in the 1970s to help deal with economic uncertainties. One scenario, oil embargo by the OPEC nations, was considered too fanciful – until it happened. Thanks to scenario planning, Shell weathered the oil embargo successfully.

The job hunter will use scenario planning to help them plot the future of their career path. To create the scenarios, follow these steps:

Identify the driving forces – what are the significant shifts in technology, society, the customer base, and other factors in the industry.

Identify two of the most critical uncertainties – From the list of the driving forces, pick two that are most critical to your future career.

Create four scenarios – Using the two critical uncertainties as axis, develop four plausible scenarios. The best way to present the scenarios is as stories.

Person wearing VR goggles

For example, I created these scenarios when I first entered the federal government in 2009. This was when newly elected President Obama wanted to reinvent government technology. The critical factors were the new digital technologies and how effective the federal government would be in implementing the latest digital technologies.

First Scenario – SteamGov

This scenario borrows from the steampunk genre[iv] in describing a future where the government attempts to implement Gov 2.0, but the rest of the world has moved on to Web 3.0 or even Web 4.0.

Government IT is still a generation behind the current technology available to citizens, thus limiting the engagement offered by the agencies. Large, centralized IT architectures dominate the agencies and employees are continually frustrated by the underpowered workstations they have to deal with, especially when their own personal technology is much more powerful. There are small pockets of innovation and pilot projects, but organizational cultures prevent scaling up these innovations to the agency.

Second Scenario – Google.Gov

Following a Supreme Court ruling that narrows the definition of inherently governmental, most government functions are outsourced to the private and nonprofit sectors. A Google-like company consolidates most of the outsourcing contractors into one contracting firm that applies the latest technology and business practices to deliver a diverse range of government services. The Executive Branch now consists of the White House staff and a larger GAO. The new GAO administers the mega-contract that governs the quality and accountability of government services provided by the huge contracting firm.

Third Scenario – LabGov

Still suffering under crushing budget constraints and frustrated by the continuing number of programs forced onto the states by the Federal government, state governments see Gov 2.0 as the way out of their fiscal mess. Living up to Justice Brandeis’ metaphor as “laboratories of democracy,” the state governments experiment with the latest open-source technologies, agile project management, and any other IT or management innovations that promise greater efficiency at lower costs and higher citizen satisfaction.

Citizens respond with enthusiasm and petition to have more federal programs (and funds) transferred to the states because they can manage services better, faster, and cheaper than the federal government. States form into regional and programmatic associations that shift the federal-state balance-of-power from the national government to regional governmental organizations.

Fourth Scenario – InnoGov

In 2011 the civilian equivalent of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration was established. Its mandate is to be the project management office for Gov 2.0, and the office seeks innovative Gov 2.0 projects, funds the development of these projects, and helps other agencies to copy the innovations. New radical management techniques are introduced, and organizational cultures become more collaborative and innovative.

By 2014 the federal government is the leading innovator in IT and management practices and helps to revitalize the private and non-profit sectors with its technology/best practices transfer programs. Citizen engagement and trust in government rises while the cost-savings and greater efficiencies bring about an era of budget surpluses.

In the past ten years, I have used the scenarios to help me plan my federal career. In fact, the LabGov scenario drives my long-term plans to be a consultant to state and local governments.

My career book will help job seekers create guiding scenarios to map out their career futures.

Community Learning Coaches

A PROPOSAL TO HELP EDUCATION IN RURAL POPULATION AREAS BY SOLVING THE ADJUNCT FACULTY CRISIS

Several of the Democratic Presidential candidates are advocating some variation of free college. Either paying for the first year of college or tuition-free attendance at the local community college, the idea is to make college affordable for low-income families. Sounds like an effective solution to helping rural populations gain the skills to compete in the coming Fourth Industrial Age economy.

Free college is not the best answer. Opposing free college may sound strange from someone with a Ph.D., three master’s degrees, and who has taught college courses for nearly twenty years. But, it is my experiences as both a college student and professor that led me to think of another solution.

Several buildings in a rural field.

The Problems with the Free College Solution:

1. A traditional college education will take too much time – A fulltime student will need at least two years to obtain an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. There are part-time options, but that will only extend the length of time needed for the degree. Students – especially adult students – will need to sacrifice years of prime earning opportunities until they are skilled for the workplace.

2. Students must leave their communities to attend college – Community colleges are probably more available to low-income students than state universities and colleges. For many rural areas, there are “education deserts” in which students will need to commute to their classes.

There are online options, but this depends on the availability of broadband. In many rural areas, the broadband Internet may not be available. The lack of broadband Internet also exacerbates the education deserts problem.

3. Universities are not designed to train people for workplace skills they need now – Community colleges and trade schools are the best equipped to teach students technical skills. Universities and colleges specialize in liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is valuable for teaching critical thinking skills and preparing students for leading people and organizations. However, a liberal arts education takes longer to acquire than most technical skills.

Your typical college professor is rewarded by his or her research productivity. Tenured professors are rewarded for the number of research articles published, and research grants acquired. Teaching is not as valued and even discouraged if teaching interferes with the professor’s research output.

The adjunct faculty perform most of the undergraduate teaching for colleges and universities. The number of adjunct faculty hired over the last fifteen years has risen dramatically. Seventy-five percent of college professors are non-tenured. A recent article in The Atlantic describes the shocking reality of adjunct teaching.

“To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.”

It was after reading this article and reflecting on my own experiences as an adjunct faculty member I came up with the following proposal. I am still working out the details, so what follows are broad sketches of my idea.

The Community Learning Coaches (CLC) Proposal

1. Determine which rural communities need help in reskilling the population for new jobs. The new skills can be how to run an additive manufacturing business, a vertical farm, a renewable energy plant, or similar Industry 4.0 job.

2. Create a training center with state-of-the-art classrooms, satellite Internet broadband, and an Internet café. These centers will be in targeted rural communities for easy access by the population.

3. From among the adjunct faculty population, hire “community learning coaches” to live in the towns and run the training centers. The CLCs will determine the educational needs of the local people, create courses, deliver training, and coach students into self-learning experiences. The CLCs will be given room and board along with a decent wage as they work to help the local population increase their opportunities in the new economy.

4. The CLCs will be trained in the latest training techniques to help the local students rapidly improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The CLCs will be supported by a national network of educational experts linked through online communities.

My proposal solves several problems at once — first, CLCs help to prepare rural communities to thrive in the new Industry 4.0 economy. Second, CLCs help to alleviate the issues that adjuncts face in the current university teaching situations. Third, universities and colleges can continue to concentrate on their primary mission of research. Diverting the money that would have paid expensive college tuitions to build community training centers staffed by CLCs seems to be a better use of federal tax funds.

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.