Lore of Failure

Written by , Innovation Specialist on 6 March 2018

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.

The 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.

Warning sign labelled "Danger of death"

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.

Series of overlapping signs labelled stop

“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?

Let us know on Twitter, in our LinkedIn group, or by email.

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(Special note: thanks goes to my colleague Piret for coining the turn of phrase “lore of failure”.)

  1. It is a good point and one of the great stumbling blocks in the public sector. Here in England I find that that Failure is a place that fills public sector leaders with dread. They will do anything to avoid even the possibility of it. As such, our public services are full of ‘what if’ preventative activities. These activities prevent a good service from being delivered.
    I have to deal with these in my work if I ever want to make progress. It is up to the managers I work with to ultimately see this as an issue. I have to help them understand fear, and make the cause of the fear something that they can identify and manage. Then they can take steps to eliminate the fear.

  2. I really like the term you are using to describe this! I usually hear it called “culture,” which seems to give it a sacredness that it doesn’t deserve. But, when I hear the word “lore,” it makes me think of myths or legends that we can test and debunk.

    In Canada, our Clerk has sent the message through a number of successive reports to the Prime Minister that the public service needs to “build a culture of intelligent risk-taking.” (Here is the link to this year’s report: https://www.canada.ca/en/privy-council/corporate/clerk/publications/twenty-fifth-annual-report-prime-minister-public-service.html). And we also now have “Experimentation direction for deputy heads” from central agencies to reinforce the message (https://www.canada.ca/en/innovation-hub/services/reports-resources/experimentation-direction-deputy-heads.html).

    So, it’s nice to have signals from the top about willingness to question the status quo. But like many things, making change is easier said than done!

    The model I picture is a 2×2 matrix with “level of risk” on one axis, and “potential gains” on the other. To be honest, some things are genuinely risky and offer very little potential gain. But there is also a quadrant where things are low risk with high potential gain. This is the sweet spot and it *should* be a no-brainer to proceed with these kinds of change. Shouldn’t it?

    It’s not that we should avoid doing risky things, but if you have honestly assessed both the risks and the rewards, I’ll bet you are more likely to overcome the “lore of failure” and increase your likelihood of results.

    PS – Alex, a little hack you might find useful is changing your autocorrect settings so that the unwanted typos are automatically replaced with the word “public.” That way you won’t have to worry about it;)

    • Thanks for the comments Chris. I like your matrix – how would you factor in the risks of not doing something though? Part of the issue with this lore of failure is that it acts as a bias against doing new things, rather than acknowledging the risk of not doing new things. In many governments it’s usually easy to blame someone for trying to do something different and failing; it’s generally not common though for blame to be as easily laid when it comes about because someone didn’t change something that was not working…
      (BTW, we have been following what’s been happening in Canada closely, as we’ve been working on the first public sector innovation system review of the Public Service of Canada – the full report should be coming out by August.)

      • Good point about the matrix not really helping for those so risk-averse that they try to keep things the “same” while the situation is actually getting worse.
        Maybe a better model to picture would be a compass. North would be moving forward with trying new things. South would be moving back to the “old ways.” East would be making things better. And going West would be things getting worse.
        With this model, you could picture trying to push East and making things better by either trying new things (going North East) or learning from experience and abandoning things that you tried but didn’t work (going South East).
        You could also see those who really don’t want to try anything North ending up going West, even if they are trying to keep things the same on the horizontal axis.

        Looking forward to seeing your final report about Canada!

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