Some things are so small that they can seem completely insignificant. A misplaced letter perhaps. Take, for instance, the letter L. But in the English language a missing ‘l’ can transform a word. Such as the word “public”. Why do I mention this? Because once upon a time in my public sector career, there was a report from the area that I was working in that was published, and where the letter ‘l’ was indeed missing. And evermore, I have used word-search before publishing something, just to make sure that I never make that mistake again. I suggest this is an example of the public sector’s lore of failure.
What is this lore of failure?
Every organisation has things that go wrong, times where mistakes are made, things that are henceforth known as Failures. This lore, this traditional wisdom, develops to help people and organisations from repeating mistakes. But in the public sector, these things are often more than just humorous anecdotes, regrets, or even scandals. They can become moments that shape the public service, moments of trauma that quickly become part of the collective experience and are “known” at a very deep level.
These moments, whether small or big, involving “someone” (often unnamed, possibly forgotten, potentially even apocryphal), strike a chord for some reason. It might be because of negative media coverage. It might be because of someone being hung out to dry or punished in an organisation. It might even be because of something that was on top of the agenda suddenly disappearing, never to be talked about again. Whatever the cause, these moments resonate so much that they become integrated into the culture, into the lore about how things work.
Sometimes this lore is formal, being incorporated into explicit rules, guidance and frameworks about what NOT to do. More often it will stay informal, and yet be stronger than any overt instruction. It becomes part of the working assumptions, the expectations, the sense of how things work and what is allowed. It shapes the range of the possible, the things that can and will be considered.
Yet often the original incident may have been misinterpreted or the specifics of the context ignored, and the lesson, the moral of the story, generalised and interpreted too broadly. An IT project may have gone wrong, maybe because of poor project controls or a lack of understanding of the technology and what was needed, but because the project was branded as modernisation/reform/innovation, all IT project can suddenly be viewed with apprehension. An attempt may be made at something new or quirky, but poorly carried out, and suddenly any attempt to do something off-the-wall or original will be judged as taboo. And sometimes this lore will not be questioned, even though the original incident may have occurred 10, 20, or 30 or more years ago. Even when none of those who were involved still remain in the public sector, the lore derived from the experience can remain, stronger than ever.
The lore can over-generalise. Is the caution really relevant to this context?
This lore of failure is, at one level, sort of amusing, fodder for poking fun at public sector bureaucracies. At another level though, it contributes to a lack of faith in the public sector, and replaces it with a belief that the public sector is ruled by risk aversion and an associated tendency to sometimes tie itself in knots.
The lore can also make it hard for those in the public sector who want to try something new. It contributes to general sense of having to work through all these process hurdles as well as dealing with “lessons” from the past that just don’t seem relevant anymore.
“You shouldn’t do that. No, I mean really. Like really, really. Something bad will happen. This one time, in 1982, there was this inquiry … and now we can never use post-it notes on painted walls.”
That’s not to say this lore of failure is always wrong. There are times that the public sector will have internalised some very important lessons and there are just things that should not be done. The public sector has good reason to be wary of failure, as people’s lives and their livelihoods can depend on mistakes being avoided.
But more often that not, in a public sector innovation context, the lore of failure prohibits more than it guides. So what might be done about it?
We’re interested in hearing from others about this issue, to inform some thinking about how to navigate, negotiate, or negate the lore of failure.
What have you found that works? What techniques have you seen that help overcome the risk aversion that results from the lore of failure?
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(Special note: thanks goes to my colleague Piret for coining the turn of phrase “lore of failure”.)