I attended a Harvey Nash CIO leadership forum a few days ago, subtitled The Strategic Insight Survey. Combining words like “strategic” and “insight” as a standalone sentence usually sets off my spider sense, however I must say it was a most worthwhile evening. Other heavily overused and frequently misunderstood words that were thrown about with reckless abandon were innovation, transformation, and ROI etc – all against the backdrop of this current economic climate.
All this talk of innovation, and how you measure its ROI, was starting to tickle my aforementioned spider sense, but since a couple of the panel were from the public sector, I couldn’t help but want to explore the effect that the general public’s reaction to failure has on the culture within those organisations. This is why I’m either never invited back to these things or I’m on the panel next time.
Firstly, let’s just agree that the cost of innovation is not in salaries paid to folk you can point to and say, “he’s doing some innovating” or in capital expense on new widgets and bleeding edge technology. The price of innovation is failure. In fact, I would even suggest that the price of learning anything material is failure.
So then I look at the slating that any public service gets when things go wrong. We bay for blood in the most public of forums, newspapers, radio, and even (opportunistically) on the opposition benches. A major mistake was made, so someone has to go, right? There are countless examples of this; ranging from embarrassing (eg HMRC data loss), to genuinely horrific (eg Baby P tragedy), to that thin line between the rules and the spirit of the rules (eg MP’s expenses scandal).
It’s difficult to come to an agreement on what should have happened in any one incident, as we will all feel differently about each incident and will be affected differently by it, but that’s OK, because it is the pattern that matters. The pattern is what sets the culture.
If, every time things go wrong, we excise every last individual involved, how then do we ever hope for the lesson to be learnt? Who has felt the pain, and is carrying that forward as a driver for change? Where is, to quote a buddy of mine, the feedback loop?
Is it right for us to do this, to create such epic risk aversion, and then still expect these organisations to deliver even the most basic of improvements let alone giant innovative leaps forward? Are we just robbing them of the best ingredients needed to create the huge changes we’re demanding?
When I think more about it, I wonder if I really am a fail-a-holic at all. Perhaps I only embrace failure so much because I’m actually a success-a-holic…