Finding 10,000 ways that don’t work: what government can learn from business

Failure is not something to be embarrassed about. As Thomas Edison said about his many attempts at creating a lightbulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”. Then, of course, he found a way that did work and that is all anyone remembers.

Our government today is too often paralysed by fear. Taking risks is viewed as reckless because civil servants are afraid of getting criticised should a project stumble. Nobody wants to face the fury of the Public Accounts Committee.

But among entrepreneurs, failure is more like a badge of honour. It is proof that you were not afraid to push your limits. In fact, some tech companies will not hire people if they are unable to point to at least one great failure. Steve Jobs is the most remarkable example of this phenomena. He co-founds Apple Computer when he is 21, and by the time he is 23 he’s a millionaire. He becomes legendary. And then, at 30, it all comes crashing down.

We need more of this entrepreneurial mind-set in government. And we need public sector leaders to create the conditions for it to flourish. If somebody starts a company and fails then they start another company. If that person is smart and humble they learn the lessons. Jobs wanted to prove his early success at Apple was not a fluke. He launched a new computer company, NeXT, and also Pixar Animation Studios. I love Pixar movies!

In 1996, a struggling Apple acquired NeXT, returning Jobs to the company he helped to create. And the following year Jobs became Apple’s CEO, driving the company to its greatest successes, from the iPod to the iMac to the iPhone to the iPad.

It is too commonplace to blame the blunders of government on civil servants and other public servants. Yet the way our public services are currently structured means success is rarely defined as achieving results. Instead it is about keeping your head down, putting in the hours, and not breaking the rules. Process dominates and outcome is secondary.

In business, of course, the outcomes always has to be first. Because if you do not make enough money then your business dies. Anyone who has run a small business knows the feeling of having to innovate to survive. In those moments people come up with some of their best ideas.

I am not suggesting that government should be run like a business. Or that all politicians should act like entrepreneurs. However, we do need to take some of the elements of the best of business – being agile, networked, innovative and willing to take calculated risks. And making mistakes. And incorporate them into government. Given how fast the world is changing it is the only way government can keep up.

Nobody put this better than Steve Jobs in his speech to Stanford graduates in 2005 (two years before he launched the iPhone).

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.”

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Published by

Philip Craig

I am the Government Sector Strategy Director at Sopra Steria. My background is in the public (central and local government) and private (consultancy) sectors. I have an interest in public policy, technology and public service reform.

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