Learning From Government Failures

Todd C. Williams, Founder & President, eCameron, Inc.

Learning From Government Failures

We have all seen the headlines. Day after day, government projects seem to fail, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Transparency in the public sector makes these failures good press fodder. However, the failure rate is not much less in the private sector. And, you would be crazy to think a good investigative reporter would not salivate over finding a similar story in your company. The often-overlooked benefit of government project failures is that we can learn from them and use these lessons to mitigate failures in our own organizations. Recently, I interviewed a number of public sector employees who have run or are running projects to get their opinions, determine the common threads, and learn from their experiences how to better run our companies.


Politics is a way of life in government work—and it has both positive and negative effects. Our government comes with one (hopefully) unchanging reality—democracy. With this glorious institution comes many challenges. The first is elections. Every two to four years, at least some of our leaders and representatives change; this can result in a significant change of direction. As opposed to a company with a stabilizing board of directors, the country's philosophy and goals can change dramatically with each election cycle. Although we do not have election cycles and political parties in our businesses, politics can be equally harmful. Consider the effect on your company if it embraced a culture of anticipating a new direction every few months. In such environments, people feel directionless. Employees appreciate knowing the purpose and goal of the organization and feeling they are contributing to a grander scheme. It motivates them and builds their passion. The result is higher quality, faster delivery, and lower cost.

Decision Making

In a democracy, there is always a vocal opposition to the party in power. Forty-nine percent (or more) of the people may not have supported the winners and can actively fight against the new direction for months or years after the election. In the oligarchic corporate world, leaders have the luxury of setting the direction and proceeding down the road to goals relatively unquestioned. We make decisions, people follow our directions, and those who actively get in our way need to have their negative affect mitigated. In the rashest of cases, we terminate them. Waffling on decisions, revisiting reasons, and leaving questions unanswered undermine employee enthusiasm. We want to foster a consensus-like agreement around what we do in our businesses by getting our employees to buy-in. We need everyone to agree to work for the goal, whether or not they agree with the decision.

Worker's Incentives

"What is measured gets done." If the only incentive your employees receive for their work is continued employment (as with many tenure government positions), they will do what it takes to keep their jobs and avoid taking any risks. Everyone knows that risk comes with grand rewards; it can also put your longevity in jeopardy. Business leaders should build a culture that takes sensible risks to help their companies grow and succeed. This may be challenging in a collective bargaining situation, but it is well worth the effort to hammer out an agreement that includes incentives other than guarantees of long-term employment. The key is building a package that rewards employee behavior by sharing successes. The challenge is properly defining success. Putting ten people on a six-month project and cancelling it after four weeks because the team encountered too many technical issues outside of the its control, should be considered a success. The team and management should celebrate it as such. The team members should not be laid off for underperforming. For, had they waited five-and-a-half months and spent millions of dollars before figuring out the project was impossible to perform, then everyone would have been faced with a true failure.

Fear of Publicity

Most businesses do not have to worry that the local or national news media showing up when budgets are blown or a project fails. First, it is our money and not the public's. Second, most of us are not newsworthy. The slightest scandal in the smallest of city councils, however, is a tabloid treasure that can tarnish reputations. Albeit on a lesser scale, private company employees can experience the same fear. They do not want to be the subject of the latest water cooler episode. An internal culture that accepts the occasional faux pas for the sake of taking a chance to correct an issue or one that praises a gallant effort rather that rebuking the risk taker allows your company to grow and develop a culture comfortable with change.

Learning From Others' Misfortune

Government project failures tell us a lot about running our companies. Their requirement for public transparency affords us a view into each project as a case study on how (or how not) to run our projects. Although many of the political peculiarities do not directly related to our capitalistic oligarchies, there are lessons to be learned. These lessons are all rooted in leadership and valuing our people.