Be Boring When You Need To, Innovate When It Makes Sense, GSA CTO Says


“We have an incredible allergy toward failure,” said General Services Administration's top technologist.

It’s a well-known mantra in Silicon Valley: fail fast, fail often. But in government, that's harder to embrace, mostly because of the inherently risk-averse nature. But rather than shying away from that concept, agencies should accept cultural risks and failure, and learn from mistakes along the way, advises one official focused on innovation.

“We have an incredible allergy toward failure,” said General Services Administration Chief Technology Officer Navin Vembar, speaking this morning at FCW’s Achievable Innovation event in Washington. As an example, Vembar, who’s been in his role since February 2016, mentioned a program he worked on a while back that he had to "turn red," indicating it was bleeding cash. He was told any project in the red—meaning, losing money—is perceived as a failure and "an inherent betrayal to taxpayers when maybe that’s not how we should be looking at it.”

Instead of dismissing failure as, well, a failure, the approach should include assessing projects and “honestly make decisions whether they’re failing or not” because that will help to determine how to make course corrections, Vembar said.

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In Vembar’s program, “I wasn’t allergic to the color red; I turned ourselves red because I knew that an honest assessment and I knew we weren’t going to be able to be successful,” as the project needed more resources. In this case, it meant getting buy-in from the executive leadership

“Saying, ‘I want you to be innovative, but I also want you to always be successful’ doesn’t make any sense,” Vembar said. “Fundamentally, failure is built into innovation and I think we can’t avoid the word ‘failure.’ … We have to figure out how to fail in a government environment where we have stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”

Being cognizant of not wasting money and “understanding how to fail small, and more importantly, how to learn from that, is going to be very key,” Vembar said. Start with a concept, asking, whether a project is a good idea, rather than “hundreds of pages of detailed built-out requirements documents.” In the prototype phase, ask: What is the actual cost of doing this? And even in approaching production, think agile. Start thinking of continuous improvement and introspection of “what are we doing wrong?”

“If our goal [for example] is to cheaply, more quickly deliver school lunches to children, if that’s not happening, then why are we invested in that project?” Vembar said.

So being innovative for the sake of being innovative isn’t going to cut it, he warned. Understanding the reasons behind innovation—Is this a good idea? Will news ways of thinking and doing things ultimately help the mission?—will help determine if there is value in going down that path.

“We should be boring where it makes sense to be boring,” Vembar said. “Don’t apply new technologies just to apply new technologies. Don’t pretend you’re special when you’re not. … Let commodity be commodity. … But then, extend that energy that you’ve now saved by actually being boring, by doing exciting and emphatic and forward-leaning visionary things out with those mission-focused ideas.”