Risk, failure, Sir Gus and obsessive compulsive incrementalism

Lately I have been hearing much talk about government needing to take more risk and learn from failure (and so on); not least from Sir Gus O'Donnell in an article in the Telegraph yesterday. But this thinking is wrong: government should be taking less risk...

I infer a model of thinking that goes: The old ideas aren't working any more... so we need to be innovative and adopt radical new ones... because the ideas are new we don't know what will happen so this is risky... but we have no choice so that's OK... if things go wrong we must be mature and learn from the failure rather than throw stones... next time we will know better.

I don't see it this way.

The problems of government are complex (see my stuff about complexity) and it is not possible to predict how interventions will turn out. We should absolutely, absolutely not be gambling. We must not take big new ideas and build them into big new solutions.

We must be incremental. Obsessively compulsively so. We must take these big new ideas and develop them through experiment. We need to take small risks fast and be connected with the outcomes so that we can adapt instantly. And this won't at all feel like 'learning from failure'.

I remember some wisdom of (my esteemed colleague) Vince Grealy who is a talented orienteer. He said once that really good orienteers are not necessarily the fastest runners or the best map readers; they are those who spot when they have gone wrong soonest. Running 20m the wrong way and doubling back is a blip: not noticing for 200m is a failure.

The risk (if there is one) is in adopting this new incremental way of working. It's about having the courage - and the political skill - to take action without having all the answers. To do this senior folks will need to give up the illusions of certainty and control that come from traditional set-piece projects. This will feel very uncomfortable for many.

So, take small risks and don't fail... but do loads and loads of it very fast.

What do you think? Do please leave a comment.