Failing Fast to Succeed : The public sector needs to learn how to fail-fast, in order to succeed

Picture of Abz Abi

Abz Abi

Managing Consultant

The strain on public sector organisations to deliver essential services has never been greater. These organisations are frequently asked to perform more, with less funding, whilst providing services that are constantly available, assisting individuals in their everyday lives, and maintaining that everything is always secure.

However, public sector organisations are reluctant to change the way they run their services. Over time, these organisations have gotten used to thinking their processes are correct because they have always done them in a particular way. Even when incremental changes are implemented, they frequently strive to reproduce the old procedure. For example, the digitalisation of a paper-based process with a view to imitate the exact same process, but on a system. This would happen far less frequently in private sector organisations, as they are more willing to innovate and take risks.

Higher productivity is directly linked to innovation and an organisation’s ability to take risks. We are seeing a growing productivity gap between the public and private sectors. According to a Policy Exchange analysis based on national statistics, the overall output per employee in the private sector increased by 24% between 2002 and 2018. Over the same time-period, output per employee in government services climbed by only 9%. This suggests that there is room for improvement in public sector productivity.

So, how does an industry that’s all about delivery and hasn’t historically left much room for ideation, accommodate growing demands? Adopting a fail-fast approach can be the answer. The fail-fast methodology gives businesses the opportunity to quickly test and learn. It entails ensuring that services are constantly available, rather than having rigid annual or quarterly development windows, that could leave citizens without services if something goes wrong.

What is fail-fast?

Agile organisations employ the fail-fast approach to execute several smaller experiments to evaluate what works and what doesn’t – fast! Instead, of focusing on large, monolithic projects that can take months (or years) to complete, failing fast focuses on smaller, faster-paced projects that can be finished and then reviewed for efficacy in much less time.

The private sector has reaped the benefits of fail-fast, quickly. Large retail companies like Amazon, ASOS and Ocado have been able to respond quickly to shifting consumer expectations thanks to their use of the fail-fast method, which involves road testing changes with smaller groups to perfect them before rolling them out across their platforms.

James Dyson (founder of Dyson Ltd.) famously said “it took me 5,126 failures before I created the ultimate vacuum cleaner”. Inspired by their founder, Dyson as an organisation are well known adopters of the fail-fast method. They perform this by trialling new product lines, recently ranging from electric cars to furniture. When Dyson made an unexpected foray into the hair tools industry, they found instant success with the premium-priced Supersonic hairdryer. The Airwrap, a one-of-a-kind hair style tool, was introduced in 2019 as a product line extension experiment that yielded comparable results. The Airwrap quickly sold out after its initial release and is widely recognised as a success. This idea initially came after multiple ‘failed’ ideas, starting with an air conditioning unit!

Benefits of fail-fast

By carrying out the fail-fast approach, organisations can enjoy success by:

  • Getting invaluable experience. Failing quickly is an effective method to get a wider range of experience in a shorter amount of time, arming organisations with knowledge that will be critical to the company’s future technological journey.
  • Continuous service improvement. Failing quickly allows organisations to collect, analyse, and use data much more readily and swiftly.
  • Maintaining a public-centred approach. Failing quickly allows organisations to design and test applications that are appropriate for users, rather than those that organisations hope are appropriate.
  • Reducing downtime and preserve service consistency for all users by limiting the extent and impact of any project failure.
  • Increasing the chance of successful business transformation. According to a McKinsey report, business transformation has a low success rate, with fewer than 30% succeeding on average. When an organisation works on numerous smaller projects, these odds become a lot less frightening, and failing quickly gives them the data and experience they need to turn past failures into fuel for future wins.

Public sector mentality shift

In order to gain some of these benefits, the industry must facilitate changes in culture and practices that have been ingrained in the public sector for more than 150 years. Growing budget constraints and the government’s recent emphasis on embracing automation, provides an industry-wide opportunity for public sector organisations to embrace the fail-fast methodology.

The government has emphasised the necessity of automation in the public sector as a means of reducing costs and enhancing productivity. The government’s Automation Marketplace DPS (Dynamic Purchasing System), which launched in March 2020, was created to assist public sector organisations in locating resources to help them design, build, or buy automation solutions and effectively implement them. It’s expected that automation will become increasingly entrenched across various government organisations.

For this to happen successfully, organisations must embrace and adopt the fail-fast methodology. Organisations must give their staff permission, courage, and trust to learn from their mistakes and failures to enjoy the successes of creativity and innovation. Failure must be reframed as “feedback” and a “learning process” by leaders. To empower people and organisations to iterate, pivot, and improve continually through deliberate behaviour, system, and artefact changes — in ways that deliver improved value that people love and cherish. The public sector can learn and adopt this methodology, taking lessons from successful and dynamic, private sector organisations, without losing their core values.