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Understanding the Culture of No

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The following is a transcript of a Keynote address by DOBT Founder Clay Johnson to local, state, and federal officials of Mexico on February 20th, 2015.

I think there’s a bit of a false promise in the way we think about innovation in government. The current thinking is: “if we bring in private sector innovators, then they’ll fix the government with their whiz-bang ideas.”

There’s not a single idea I came into government with as a “private sector innovator” that someone inside of government hadn’t thought of before. And if the person that’s been there for 20 years, who knows all the policies and regulations and other barriers hasn’t gotten it done, then it’s likely I won’t either.

Bringing private sector innovators inside of government without building the right kind of culture around them is sort of like inviting an olympic swimmer to swim laps in an inflatable pool.

One big problem is that private sector innovators come from a culture of “yes”. Risk is encouraged, failure is tolerated and often even rewarded. Even at large companies, executives try to find new ways to enable risk inside of their organizations.

Working in government means sitting in a lot of meetings. Working as a government innovator means sitting in a lot of meetings where people tell you “no”.

“Can we try this new technology?” No, and here’s why.

“Can we be more agile?” No.

“Can we have a focus group?” No.

“I have this idea.” Here’s why you should never speak of it again.

“Can I use the restroom?” Only if you promise not to innovate on the way there.

The Culture of No is innovation’s worst enemy. At its best it provides friction for the sake of friction, and at its worst, it grinds our ability to get things done to a halt. I think that the answer to innovating inside of government is taking a look at this Culture of No, figuring out where it comes from, and why it exists in the first place.

When we think of the Culture of No, we often think that it’s because of old, tired career government workers who just don’t want change. And while that’s sometimes the case, I think the Culture of No is built upon a pillar of risk mitigation. From the very beginning of every single government project, the central theme of it is not “how can we make things successful” but rather “how do we make things not fail.”

The Driver isn’t laziness or people being set in their ways. It is risk mitigation. That question, “how do we not fail?”, is antithetical to innovation, and is the thing that empowers the Culture of No.

So what’s the problem with spending some extra money to make sure things don’t fail?

We begin by reducing the number of people and companies qualified to work on the project deemed as low-risk. We then often do risk assessments on our projects, and then we often build a governance structure into building out those projects that inflates the total project cost and timeline in order to again mitigate risk.

First, because this risk aversion costs money, there’s an implied correlation between price, incumbency, and risk mitigation. People on the inside feel “covered,” if an IT project is expensive, and if it’s being built by someone who has years of experience as a government contractor, no matter what their success rate is.

But it turns out, this isn’t true. In fact, throwing more money, and more people at the problem in technology only makes the problem worse. According to the standish group, if you’ve spent more than 10 million dollars on an IT project, you’ve all but doomed it. They have a 94% failure rate.

Second, Starting up a project has such a huge barrier to entry that nobody wants to go through those risk assessments. So contracting officers and program managers are encouraged to bundle their projects into larger and larger contracts with fewer and fewer outside players. Not because it’s the right thing to do for the project, but because it’s the best way to keep your contracting office efficient.

This means that any new idea activates the Culture of No, simply by the sheer amount of work that a new idea requires inside of government.

So what do we need in order to fix this? How do we get past the Culture of No?

You have to understand that all of this is perfectly reasonable. The decisions that people make, given the tools and policies that they have to work with, are entirely reasonable decisions within the culture they’re in — a culture where not failing is rewarded, and risk taking is often penalized, ultimately by the public.

So let’s talk about the people that are not in this room. The people who do not sign up to hear people like me speak. When I was at the White House, someone said to me “Clay, you guys are the A team, we’re the B team.”

I said “oh, no no. You guys are the real rock stars.” and the person laughed at me and said “no no, you don’t understand. We’re the Be team. We were here Before you, and we’ll Be here when you’re gone”

Innovators constantly misunderstand this crew of people. I think their fatal assumption is that the non-innovator can be convinced into becoming an innovator. That with the right set of words, and the right kind of motivation, everybody wants to be an innovator, we innovators just need to be inspiring enough.

I believe that there are live to work people and people who work to live. Innovators are typically people who live to work — people who have professional ambition and want to be truly great in their work environment. What they need in order to succeed at work is external validation, buy-in, progress, the chance of being part of a great team, and a good challenge. That’s us. 99% of the people in this room are that.

But those motivators don’t work on the work to live people. And it’s time we started recognizing that trying to talk work to live people into becoming innovators is like trying to convert a protestant into a catholic.

Instead, we need to look at the motivators of work to live people: you can go home earlier. You can retire sooner. You’ll get a pay raise earlier. Supporting this means less work, or it means I bother you at work less. These are the things that will help pierce through the Culture of No.

The Culture of No is defeated inclusively from the ground up, and that means understanding that most people — most people in the world — are not like you. They are not excited to get to work and innovate. They have a different set of motivators and you are required to create a different set of motivators in order to get them on board with your project.

The second way we get past the Culture of No is jujitsu. Getting past the culture of “no” isn’t really about stopping “no” from ever happening, it’s about learning to say no to the right things.

In government, we say yes to incumbency and no to new players. We need to change that. We need a smarter “no” here — a no that prefers a new player to a past performer with a poor track record, even if they’ve got a brand that’s been heard of. We need to make our business registration systems easier so that new players can more quickly enter the market and become resources for our projects.

In government we say yes to big projects and don’t take small ones seriously. We need to change that. We need to start saying no to big, because as I pointed out earlier, it fails more often than it succeeds. Consider what Adobe is doing with their Kickbox – giving a purchase card, pre-loaded with $1000 on it, asking them to experiment with a new idea for the firm, and providing them with training on how to get good at that.

Even if 50% of people just use that $1,000 to buy a new television, this project will likely have a better return on investment than many federal IT projects. Even innovation fellowships. You send a message to your staff that their input is valuable, and that the company takes it seriously, and you free the frustrated people with ideas from bureaucratic red tape.

Finally, in government we say yes to new projects and no to fixing old ones.

Stop designing software for citizens and start designing it for bureaucrats. Retail bureaucrats probably don’t like new software because the software that they’re using is terrible – so why would they want to inflict that software on anyone else? If you focus that great design thinking on the back-office tools that you need, the citizen will benefit.

In other words, when you, the manager, give software to your employees that they hate using, they internalize that and pass that on to your customers. Moreover, the message you send is “we don’t value you, your time, and your happiness more than we value the lowest bid.” And that empowers the Culture of No more than anything else.

So to wrap up, I encourage you to take a step back. Our instinct: let’s bring talent into government! is a good one. But unless we start understanding how that talent can succeed in the realities of government, they’re all going to be Luchadors with weights on their legs, never capable of winning the fights we need them to.

Thank you.

Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.

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