Insights Article

The High Cost of Playing it Safe

Jesse White
May 14, 2024
May 14, 2024

Federal IT buyers are held back by a deep fear: the fear of failure. That may seem sensible at first glance—a careful approach to managing public funds and projects. But this hyper-cautious mindset has unintended consequences, especially in a time when government needs to adapt nimbly to changing technologies and evolving customer or constituent expectations.

Think about the dilemma faced by a typical Program Element Officer (PEO), the linchpin in federal acquisition projects. Whether it’s a state-of-the-art software system or a new fleet of aircraft, the success or failure of these acquisitions weighs heavily on their shoulders. A single perceived failure can spell disaster for their career, one that sees their influence dwindle and relevance fade away. The message is clear: failure is not an option, and the price to pay for it is professional ruin. This fear-driven environment breeds a culture of caution. Taking the path of least resistance becomes the norm, where doing an ‘okay’ job ensures survival—but nothing more. 

Why is it a rarity for federal executives to achieve excellence? The answer lies not in a lack of capability. Indeed, some of the most astute and capable minds are at work within the government. The hurdle is the inherent risk associated with greatness. True excellence often demands stepping out of the comfort zone, challenging established norms, and taking calculated risks—actions that are inherently discouraged in a risk-averse environment.

In such a setting, where every move is under intense scrutiny, risk-taking is often viewed with skepticism, if not outright disapproval. The inherent structure of government organizations, with their elaborate checks and balances, inadvertently ends up suppressing innovative impulses. The drive to excel and innovate is consistently overshadowed by the looming threat of failure, leading to a culture where maintaining the status quo becomes the primary objective, often at the expense of potential groundbreaking advancements.

Snuffing Out Innovation

I’m reminded of the wisdom of Bran Ferren, a leader in technology and design, who recently shed light on this predicament. Known for his groundbreaking work with Disney Imagineering and his contributions to technology (rumored to include the patent for pinch-and-zoom on the iPhone), Ferren’s outside perspective can teach us a lot. During a visit to our office, he told us what he tells leaders who are risk-averse to an extreme degree: “You will never foster innovation in your organization because you are simply structured in a way to snuff it out at the lowest level.”

Ferren’s experiences echo a broader truth: The moment an unconventional idea emerges, it faces the gauntlet of hierarchical scrutiny, often getting thrown out before it can mature into a viable project.

We see this play out in government acquisition all the time. Despite promising to deliver outcomes, a project can be derailed by any number of factors: security concerns, compliance hurdles, or simply the inertia of bureaucracy. Even solutions that meet all regulatory requirements, like being “FedRAMPed,” are not immune from getting tossed or stuck in a web of documentation and requirements, rendering them ineffectual.

Rethinking Risk

The first step towards innovation is changing the narrative around failure. Government entities can start by establishing ‘safe-fail’ projects or pilots where the focus is on experimentation and learning, rather than immediate success. Leaders should publicly recognize and reward teams that take calculated risks, even if the outcomes aren’t as expected. This recognition can come in various forms, such as internal awards for innovative attempts or highlighting these efforts in communications to reinforce the value placed on experimentation.

Another key strategy lies in borrowing successful practices from the private sector. The creation of small, agile teams that operate with a degree of autonomy can prove transformative. These teams, somewhat insulated from the usual bureaucratic constraints, should be empowered to experiment, iterate, and develop proof of concepts. This ‘incubator’ model allows for the nurturing of innovative ideas in a controlled environment, mitigating the risks associated with large-scale implementations, and providing valuable insights before broader rollouts.

The path to unlocking the full potential of federal procurement and project management is not through avoiding risks but by embracing them judiciously. A cultural shift is needed—one that values innovation and understands that true excellence is often born out of bold, calculated risks. By fostering an environment where risk is not a deterrent but a catalyst for growth, the government can not only improve its procurement processes but also set a precedent for other sectors to follow.

In the words of Bran Ferren, innovation can’t happen without the organizational courage to pursue them in the face of uncertainty. It’s time for government entities to develop this courage and venture beyond the safe harbor of mediocrity.