A public example of risk and the fear of failure

Photo by r. nial bradshawThere was a fascinating piece in Monday’s Guardian that tells a good story about risk and the fear of failure. By way of introduction:

The employment minister Esther McVey was on the Today programme this morning defending the government’s new “Help to Work” scheme which starts today.

However, “the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ran a medical-style randomised controlled trial to see if such measures would have an impact. […] According to the government’s own study, the “treatment” led to no statistically significant increase in the numbers of people in employment at the end of the trial period.

There are a couple really interesting things going on here. First, the DWP recognised that “Help to Work” was not a guaranteed success and ran properly randomised trial, which included a control group. This shows that testing hypotheses is not limited to startups—if the UK government can organise itself to run an experiment and if small startups can, then so can anyone in between.

Testing a hypothesis like this is an excellent example of managing risk. You could save yourself a lot of time and money if you find out some basic truths at relatively low cost.

The second thing is that despite running the test, it seems there was no plan in place in case the result was negative—which it turned out it was. The minister still went on the radio declaring it a success. In other words, failure was not an option. I hear a lot about not being afraid to fail, but I think it’s safe to say that national politics creates a culture where being wrong is punished. Esther McVey might fear that her party would kick her for admitting that one of their ideas didn’t pan out; she would be certain that the opposition would have a field day ridiculing her and her party. This is not an environment that encourages truth and—consequently—the best outcome for the electorate.

Even with a culture that rejects failure the person responsible (call them Senior Responsible Owner, or Product Owner, or whatever) could put themselves in a better place by (a) setting appropriate expectations at the start, being clear that this is an idea that needs testing, and (b) providing some alternative paths that might be taken as a consequence.

Reducing risk by testing hypotheses is excellent. Providing options for either outcome is the next essential step. If success is finding the truth, then neither outcome is failure.

Photo by r. nial bradshaw