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Reports September 15th, 2022
Cities • Innovation

Failing forward in local government: how-to guide

Devon Genua
Devon Genua Senior Associate, North America View biography
Josh Sorin
Josh Sorin Global Director, Climate Action View biography
Andrea Mirviss
Andrea Mirviss Program Manager, North America View biography
Majo Acosta Robayo
Majo Acosta Robayo Senior Associate, North America View biography

Foreword by Steve Mokhrisky

Failing forward is synonymous with innovation - with identifying problems and figuring out the right solutions to address them. As the County Administrator for Lane County, Oregon (OR) and the President of the National Association of County Administrators, I am familiar with the public sector’s many barriers to innovation. For many years, and for many good reasons, we have been laser-focused on managing risk, oftentimes to the detriment of experimenting with new ideas. But this approach is no longer tenable: the residents we serve call for a more responsive, resilient, and creative government. They are asking us to fail forward in the name of progress. 

As leaders of large institutions, making this change can be more difficult than we care to admit. We can’t just tell people to be more innovative, to take more risks, and then simply to expect results to materialize. We need to shift our thinking from the traditional, top-down approach where we try to tell people what to do, and instead think about how we want our organizations to be. We need to create the conditions that enable all staff - from senior leadership through the frontline - to be innovators themselves.

"For public servants out there considering adapting this work to your own communities, I recommend the Fail Forward process wholeheartedly. The process empowers people to embrace continuous learning and to take the initiative to get stuff done."

Steve Mokrohisky, President of the National Association of County Administrators (NACA) and Lane County Administrator

For public servants out there considering adapting this work to your own communities, I recommend the Fail Forward process wholeheartedly. The process empowers people to embrace continuous learning and to take the initiative to get stuff done. Despite what the name might connote at first glance, Failing Forward is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. The process is rooted in a firm belief in the ability of governments to reflect on what hasn't worked and the courage to imagine what could work better in their communities. It has been effective in Lane County, and I know it can be effective for you, too.

Sincerely,

Steve Mokrohisky

President of the National Association of County Administrators (NACA)

Lane County Administrator

Introduction

In the summer of 2021, the Centre for Public Impact and the National Association of County Administrators asked public servants from county governments across the country a rather sensitive question: why is it so hard for you to acknowledge and learn from failures? What do you want to do about it?

Through a year-long pilot program titled Fail Forward in Local Government, 100+ public servants from four different counties embarked on a journey to answer those questions. They interviewed people inside and outside of government to better understand the barriers they experience to learning from failure, and then tested out new ideas to break down those barriers. By the end of the year, departments developed a set of beliefs, relationships, and practices that enabled a culture of innovation rooted in teams’ ability to learn from failures, or 'fail forward.'

The Fail Forward toolkit is for any public servant interested in fostering a more innovative organizational culture that is rooted in failing forward.

This document is a how-to guide that distills the best practices of this program for public servants interested in building a similar culture in their workplaces. Given that the program was a pilot, the document reflects our own fail forward moments and a revised program structure highlighting opportunities for improvement.

This guide is structured in two main parts and an appendix: 

  1. This introduction, which explains the practice, theory, and impact of the original pilot program.

  2. The toolkit, which provides clear instructions and examples for doing this work should you be interested in pursuing it yourself. This is a "how-to" for implementing the Fail Forward program on your own time!

  3. An appendix, which includes examples from our pilot program, case studies, more information about the theoretical underpinnings of the program, and participating departments’ specific problems and solutions.

Pilot program

Fail Forward in local government program purpose & origins 

The Fail Forward in Local Government program aimed to build cultures of innovation in which employees - from department directors to frontline workers - are incentivized and motivated to embrace experimentation and continuous learning in their day-to-day. Rather than focusing on one particular policy area or program to innovate on, the program is designed to create the enabling conditions for innovation to occur. To that end, its core objectives included: stronger appetites for risk-taking, increased organizational agility and resilience, improved psychological safety, and greater capacities to identify and solve problems for residents. 

The Fail Forward program creates the enabling conditions for innovation to occur. This includes stronger appetites for risk-taking, increased organizational agility and resilience, improved psychological safety, and stronger capacities to identify and solve problems for residents. 

The program focused on the idea of failing forward (e.g., learning from failures) because we believe that, regardless of the degree of an innovation’s complexity, the innovation process begins when an individual or team notices things are not going according to plan and tests out different ideas to address the problem. Learning from failures along the way is key to finding the best solutions.

The program design was informed by three main sources: human learning systems, human-centered design, and CPI & the Aspen Institute for Urban Innovation’s original research on failing forward. For more information about these sources, see our Appendix.

Pilot program structure

The pilot program had three phases: understanding barriers to learning from failure, experimenting with ideas to address those barriers, and planning to embed those ideas (and new ways of working) over time within broader department structures and policies. Before launching the program, they conducted a pre-program setup phase where they established core Fail Forward teams comprised of ten to twelve team members from a diversity of experiences and roles.

  • Phase one: understanding barriers & assets to learning from failure. Participants embarked on a two-month process to explore why it is so difficult to learn from failure in their departments. They did stakeholder mapping, conducted interviews with people both inside and outside of government, and analyzed what they learned. Participants completed Phase one with clear, well-rounded articulations of cultural and systemic barriers to innovation.

  • Phase two: experimenting with ideas to break down barriers. Participants then spent eight months experimenting with new ideas to break down these barriers. They tested ideas out with different groups, modifying them based on the results of their tests, and scaling accordingly. 

  • Phase three: embedding & scaling the influence of successful ideas for sustainable culture change. Participants developed and implemented plans to ensure that their ideas would be sustainable (e.g., determining ownership) and that their influence could be scaled more broadly (e.g., sharing their ideas with other departments or localities). Further, the teams developed plans to ensure that the skills and behaviors they developed through the process would continue after the program was completed.

Masterclasses

This program is predicated on the belief that culture change must start from the top of an organization. To that end, we paired the departmental workshops with four, two-hour virtual Executive-level masterclasses on leadership topics related to innovation, risk-taking, and learning from failure. The first session, led by Toby Lowe, explored how government leaders can build learning systems by focusing on the theory and practice of Human Learning Systems. The second session, led by Hilary Cottam, focused on the importance of relationships, connection, and radical experimentation for creating healthier public systems. The third masterclass, led by Harvard Kennedy School professor Dr. Jorrit de Jong and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter focused on how leaders can build and sustain cultures of curiosity over time. The final masterclass, led by Shamichael Hallman and Susan Dalton focused on building an external ecosystem of residents, community members, and cross-sectoral stakeholders that enable learning from failure. 

Program participants

In total, departments from four U.S. county governments completed the program (with two-three departments participating per county). Departments reflected a wide range of service areas (e.g., Human Services, Public Works, Parks and Recreation). Each department team consisted of roughly ten public servants with staff at all levels, spanning from the frontline employees to department directors. Departments operated independently, each supported by a CPI coach. The masterclass program operated in parallel to the workshops, and attendees included department directors, county administrators, and other senior executives.

Pilot program impact

This program was designed to address interpersonal and structural challenges to innovation. While only a pilot - and therefore with ample space to fail forward on the design and structure itself - it was highly effective at creating cultural dynamics where all staff see themselves as innovators.

In fact, 92% of participants observed positive cultural changes in their department as a result of the ideas they developed. One department director summed up her department’s progress: "People now understand that everybody has the ability to initiate a change, that everyone can bring something that can be changed whether small or big. Seeing immediate results caused this: someone saying 'it should be this way' and you see that turnaround and inspiration that something will happen now motivates that person to speak up more and affect changes on their own."

One challenge that teams faced was low psychological safety, or the inability to discuss hard topics without fear of personal or professional repercussions. Indeed, at the beginning of the program, only 61% of frontline staff felt that their team would support them in the event of a failure. To address this, teams focused on new ways to build stronger relationships across hierarchies and teams. By the end of the program, the number of frontline staff who felt “comfortable trying new things because they knew their team had their back” had increased to 94%.

"People now understand that everybody has the ability to initiate a change, that everyone can bring something that can be changed whether small or big."

Department Director, Fail Forward Pilot Program County

Teams also faced structural challenges in learning from failures. In some cases, staff simply did not have the time for reflective conversations. In others, staff with fresh ideas had no clear avenue to share them, which made them less inspired to do so. As one department described this challenge: “We do not have a defined process for staff to learn what is and is not working… This leads to low morale, makes staff feel devalued, and turnover. It also means information about successes and failures is never shared.” To address this, many teams focused on creating new structures to identify failures and discuss solutions. By the end of the program, 85% felt that staff at all levels felt more empowered to contribute to continuous improvement efforts.

Teams also developed a wide range of skills that will enable them to identify, analyze, and take action to address future failures and promote innovation. In particular, they learned how to challenge their assumptions through conducting user interviews, prototype testing, and survey development. Participants learned how to experiment with new ideas in a low-stakes way before rolling them out more broadly. By the close of the program, 96% of participants said they already use or plan to use what they learned in the program in their other work.

The Fail Forward toolkit

What follows is a toolkit for those that would like to conduct this work on their own, without the support of external facilitators (like CPI). The tasks, resources, and examples in this toolkit will be helpful in creating cultures of innovation in any government agency.

What’s included in the toolkit? 

  • Overarching milestones to help you develop an overarching plan for conducting the Fail Forward program

  • Step-by-step instructions for implementing the work

  • A glossary of terminology to help familiarize with key innovation concepts

  • Real-life examples from pilot program participants

  • Tips, best practices, and things to avoid

  • Resources from our pilot program

Who is this toolkit for?

The toolkit is for any public servant interested in fostering a more innovative organizational culture that is rooted in failing forward. While it is crucial to have the buy-in of senior leadership (e.g., department director or county administrator) for the program to be successful, anyone with the time to lead the work should be able to. This program works for departments across a wide range of topical areas (e.g., public works, housing, animal services).

What will this toolkit help you accomplish?

Through this toolkit, you will participate in a series of activities that ultimately lead to the development of ideas that promote innovation and failing forward.  The benefit extends beyond these ideas, however: the process of understanding challenges and testing out solutions creates organizational dynamics and builds skills that enable greater innovation down the line.

A few of the skills & cultural changes you can expect:

  • A more holistic understanding of your departments’  barriers to innovation

  • Incorporating human-centered design methods, including stakeholder interviews, data synthesis, and idea testing

  • More open and honest communication with staff across organizational hierarchies

  • A plan to sustain your momentum over time

We hope you enjoy the toolkit!

Phase zero: pre-program setup

Once an organization decides to host the Fail Forward program, it must establish a core Fail Forward team (ten to twelve people) and designate roles for a diverse range of team members. From a practical perspective, it is much easier to coordinate activities among a smaller group rather than the entire department. The core team will become “experts” in failing forward as the program progresses, which is important for building broader fail forward capacity in the department. The team should reflect a diversity of experiences and roles; perspectives from leadership, middle level, and frontline are crucial to ensuring the team has a wide-ranging understanding of cultural barriers and the organizational power to address those barriers. Team members should expect to contribute roughly one to two hours/week for ten months, though some weeks will require more work than others.

Key resources and examples

Step one: build a team (2-4 weeks)

A Fail Forward team should include staff at various levels of seniority and tenure. A strong Fail Forward team includes: 

  • Staff with diverse personal backgrounds, expertise, and interests

  • A senior leader, ideally the department/agency director, who can ensure Fail Forward activities are prioritized and supported by all leaders in the department

  • Middle-management staff who can implement new procedures

  • Frontline staff who have ground-level insight on the issues the team wants to address

Step two: determine team roles (1 week)

To keep the team organized and productive, establish roles and responsibilities as soon as possible. Important roles to assign include: 

  • Executive champion: a senior leader who can communicate with county leadership about Fail Forward. The Executive Champion is also a role model for top-down culture change (a.k.a. walking the walk) within the department. This is typically the department director.

  • Project manager: the day-to-day leader of the team. This person will facilitate Fail Forward team meetings and keep track of tasks and timelines. The Project Manager does not need to be in a management role outside of the Fail Forward program. It is critical for the project manager to have consistent availability and adequate time to dedicate to Fail Forward work. 

Step three: establish working norms (1 week)

At the beginning of the project, set clear expectations for how the team will work together. Be sure to cover: 

  • Meeting cadence and duration. The team may prefer to meet for 30 minutes every week or for 60 minutes every other week. Either way, ensure that there is a regular calendar hold that works for everyone.

  • Data organization. Set up a shared file system to keep track of Fail Forward tasks and data.

  • Communications methods. Create a set Google Group, Teams channel, or a similar platform to facilitate ease of communication. Ensure that there is a roster available for ease of access.

Phase one: understand

In government, there can be a strong instinct to jump to solutions when something isn’t working. The Understand Phase challenges that instinct by dedicating time to learning about current barriers to failing forward before developing new ideas. To that end, the first two months of the program are exploratory: participants conduct interviews to investigate their own assumptions about what enables and inhibits failing forward. Participants then translate what they learned from interviews into problem statements that reflect a more holistic understanding of the issue they seek to address. These statements serve as the team’s baseline definitions of the barriers they will address throughout the program. 

Key resources and examples

Terms to know

  • Assumption: Guesses about another perspective or experience based on one’s own perspective or experience

  • User interview: An interview with someone who experiences a challenge or problem and might benefit from a solution to that problem

  • Data synthesis: A process for organizing qualitative information about a problem inspired by human-centered design. Data synthesis starts by breaking up qualitative information from user interviews into individual data points and then identifying common themes among those data points to come to a new understanding of the problem 

  • Theme: A meaningful connection between data points that represents a pattern of experience

  • Problem statement: A statement that explains the deeper significance and implications of a problem

Step one: determine assumptions about Fail Forward barriers (1 week)

  1. Map out stakeholders’ impact on failing forward. Make a list of all of the people or groups in and outside of your department who have an impact on the department’s ability to fail forward. 

  2. Write down your initial thoughts about what that impact is and why you think it’s that way. These are your assumptions that you will test later. When assumptions go untested, they operate in the background as justifications for “why things are the way they are.” By writing assumptions down, you are creating hypotheses you can test with people who may have a perspective that differs from your own.

Step two: conduct interviews to test assumptions (4-6 weeks)

  1. Pick four-six people to interview about the assumptions you developed. Be sure to choose people who would add nuance to your existing perspectives about the challenges to learning from failure. 

  2. Create an interview guide. Develop a short list of open-ended questions that allow interviewees to talk freely about their experiences. The questions should test the assumptions you are investigating.

  3. Conduct interviews. Make sure to take verbatim notes during each interview, rather than summarizing responses or attempting to analyze in the moment. You’ll do that next!

Step three: synthesize interview data and develop new problem statements (1 week)

  1. Turn interview notes into data points for review. After the interviews are completed, pick two people from the team to conduct "pre-work" for the data-synthesis process. They should start by closely reading through each interview. When they see a specific quote that provides insight into the barriers that interviewees face to failing forward, write it down verbatim on a sticky note (physical or virtual). Each quote should be on a separate note. 

  2. Hold a data synthesis session. Create a specific focus time for all team members to be present. Set aside at least two hours for a group data synthesis session. These activities work best when everyone is energized, focused, and fully present (e.g., not multi-tasking or stepping in and out).

  3. Create themes. 

    • Have all team members read through all of the data points extracted from interviews.

    • While reading through, group together data points with similar meanings or takeaways together (not just a similar topic). 

    • When you reach three-five data points grouped together, write a theme (a short statement that summarizes the common thread between them). 

    • Take time to discuss the themes you created as a group. This exercise can sometimes reveal unpleasant realities, so it’s important that staff feel safe and supported in contributing to the conversation.

  4. Use themes to create problem statements that describe the impact of barriers to failing forward. Problem statements can be inspired by one theme or many themes, but you do not need to create a statement from each theme. 

    • Take time to discuss the themes you created as a group. This exercise can sometimes reveal unpleasant realities, so it’s important that staff feel safe and supported in contributing to the conversation.

    • Each problem statement should have three components: 1) Summarize the barrier; 2) State how that barrier makes people feel; 3) Make a bold (informed) ‘so what’ claim about the barrier’s impact on the organization’s ability to fail forward.

    • Compare the initial assumptions you formed to the problem statements you just created. You’ll see that by seeking input from a variety of people, you now have a much stronger, more nuanced understanding of the challenges your department faces. This is important, as these statements will become the basis for the rest of the program. 

  1. Pick a challenge to focus on for the duration of the program. While you likely came up with several unique problem areas to address, you cannot solve them all in just a few months. Pick one to two problem statements that pose the largest barrier to failing forward in your organization. These will be the primary problems to address through the program.

Phase two: experiment

Understanding barriers to innovation is helpful - but understanding alone will not solve the problem. Therefore, the next phase of the program is a series of sprints to develop, test, and improve ideas to address each teams’ most pressing barriers. This is an exciting phase of the program in which participants live out fail forward principles by taking measured risks with new ideas and learning how to pivot if things don’t go as planned. Teams first develop new ideas and then test the ideas out in low-stakes ways with people who might use them. Teams then evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what should be changed. After testing multiple iterations, teams determine if the idea is worth sustaining in the long term or if they should pivot to a new one. Ultimately, teams finish this program with concrete, tested ideas that already help them to fail forward.

Key resources and examples

Terms to know

  • Fail Forward sprint: The iterative process of developing, testing, and improving an idea based on user feedback. Ideas progress from simple, small-scale versions to something close to the “real thing” over the course of the Sprint. This is inspired by a Design Sprint (typically associated with Human Centered Design).

  • User: any person who would interact with an idea if it were to be implemented.

  • Test: an opportunity for potential users to engage with an idea before it is implemented. For example, a test of a new team-meeting structure could be to ask for feedback on a sample meeting agenda before holding the meeting itself. 

Step one: brainstorm new ideas to break down barriers to learning from failure (1 week)

  1. Brainstorm new ideas. Use blue-sky thinking to come up with creative, wide-ranging ideas without concern for feasibility. Then, inspired by some of the more outlandish ideas, choose one idea that you feel will have a significant impact on the department’s ability to fail forward.

    • Create time for a brainstorming session. Similar to the data synthesis session, set aside two hours for a group working session where all team members can be present and engaged. 

    • Review the problem statement. As a group, read the problem statement out loud and make sure that everyone is on the same page about what it means.

    • Use blue sky thinking to brainstorm ideas. Each team member should take five to ten minutes to write down as many ideas as possible to address the problem statement. Team members should embrace their creativity and think big. Don’t worry about feasibility, cost, etc. just yet! After the initial brainstorm, ask participants to share their wildest and favorite ideas. Use some of these examples to inspire another round of brainstorming and give participants another ten minutes to brainstorm. 

    • Review brainstorming results. Group similar ideas together, and work with the team to build on promising ideas. You may even combine features of multiple ideas into one. 

  2. Review all the ideas and select one idea to focus on for the first design sprint. We recommend choosing an idea that is both likely to make a strong impact on the problem you are focusing on and one that your team is appropriately resourced to develop. 

  3. Build out your idea’s features. To ensure your idea is specific and actionable, outline the format your idea will take (e.g., a one-hour meeting to be held in person), the roles involved in executing your idea (e.g., frontline staff need to be in attendance, but management will be the administrators), and the incentives you will use to drive participation (we will bring food and host it over lunch). You may also need to determine the frequency of the idea (e.g., once a month). Finally, give your idea a name!

Step two: make a plan to test the idea (1 week)

  1. Determine what is most important to learn about how the idea works in real life. Write three-four questions that will help the team learn how well the new idea works to address the chosen barrier to failing forward. Coming up with these questions first is important–it will help you determine the best method for testing your ideas.

  2. Create a small-scale version of the idea. Dedicating a lot of time and resources to bringing a new idea to life is pretty risky when you know nothing about how it may (or may not) function. To reduce this risk while still allowing your team to learn about the idea, create a version that incorporates core elements of the “real thing” but requires less investment. For inspiration on ways to do this, click here. 

  3. Make a testing plan.

    • Determine with whom you want to test your idea. It’s important to test your idea with people who would use and/or be directly affected by the idea if it were implemented. For the very first test, work with a small group of people with whom you feel safe collaborating on a brand new idea. In some circumstances, it may make sense for the Fail Forward team to be the first testers! 

    • In a team meeting, make a specific plan for how and when you will gather user feedback. The user feedback you gather should provide answers to the questions you wrote in Step three. If appropriate, we recommend incorporating time for participants to give live feedback within a test.

Step three: test the idea - at least twice! (1-6 weeks)

  1. Put the testing plan into action. Hold your first tests with users to learn more about how the idea may work in real life. The test is an opportunity to gather information and learn. Because you invested limited resources and are testing with a small and safe group, even a spectacular failure is unlikely to have serious repercussions–and may give you more valuable information than a “successful” first test.

  2. Review user feedback by conducting a “Rose, Thorn, Bud” exercise to determine what you will keep and what you will change about your idea. Rose, consider what worked about the idea; thorn, consider what did not work about the idea; bud, come to a consensus on 'buds' or ways to improve the next version of the idea.

  1. Determine if you need to pivot to a new idea.

    • Have an honest conversation about the potential impact these improvements could make. You may review data from your first test and realize the idea is not likely to have the impact you’d hoped. In other words, it failed. This is not the end of the road. You gathered a lot of useful information in your first test, and that information can help you fail forward in practice by pivoting to a new idea. 

    • If you need to pivot, go back to the drawing board. If you are pivoting to a new idea, follow steps three-seven again before proceeding.

    • If you aren’t pivoting, reflect on your ideas and make improvements. Make improvements to the idea based on your takeaways from the “Rose, Thorn, Bud” activity. Because the improvements you’re making are backed by testing data, it is reasonable to dedicate a bit more time and resources to the idea, so the next version operates more like the real thing. 

Step four: Continue testing and make improvements (6-8 weeks)

  1. Determine what you need to test next. Revisit the evaluation questions your team developed before the first test. Consider what else you need to learn about your data now that you've made a few changes.

  2. Expand your testing group. As you scale up the idea, you should also scale up the group of people who test the idea. That way, the test is more representative of the people who will use the idea if it were fully implemented. While this does introduce a bit more risk, it is an informed risk supported by what you learned from the first test.

  3. Conduct your test. Pretty self-explanatory!

  4. Hold a meeting to discuss the future of the idea. Ask the team "if we continue to improve this idea, will it meaningfully and sufficiently address the problem?" If the answer is yes, continue to improve the idea until you have learned enough to implement it fully. If the answer is no, go back to the brainstorming phase and begin again with a new idea.

Phase three: embed

The ideas teams have thoughtfully tested and improved do not exist in a vacuum–they need defined leaders and infrastructure to carry them forward over time. Further, it is essential to diffuse the mindsets and beliefs underlying these new ideas so the entire department can benefit from new ways of working. To that end, the Fail Forward program rounds out by focusing on idea sustainability planning. Inspired by Human Learning Systems, participants determine how they can embed new practices so they become “business as usual” in their departments. They also determine how they can productively influence others–other teams, other divisions, and even other departments– to learn from these new practices and put them to use in their own way.

Key resources and examples

Step one: set a vision (1 week)

  1. Make a vision for where you want this idea to be in six months, one year, and two years. Conduct a visioning exercise with your team to map out what the idea should look like in the medium and long term. Consider using the five Ws method to parse out the vision (e.g., who would be involved, what would it look like, when would it occur, where will it take place, and why would people be motivated to participate).

Step two: develop an internal timeline (1 week)

  1. Set an internal timeline for transitioning the program. Set a clear deadline for the Fail Forward team to transition idea ownership. Though a quick handoff can be tempting, it will likely take time to introduce the idea and ensure staff is ready to take the reins. To that end, plan for this transition to take a few months.

Step three: go public with the idea, test out uptake and interest (4-6 weeks)

  1. Make a plan to bring in folks of all stripes to participate, whether that be frontline staff from a different team or senior leadership whose buy-in you were waiting on. Test out this plan: if you launch an initial email blast but don’t get much uptake, consider reaching out individually or popping into other team meetings to provide an update.

  2. Where applicable, hold an onboarding meeting with managers or other leaders who may need to provide more time for their staff or be required to lead the work in their own spheres of influence. In this meeting, explain not just the final product by the why behind its development. If leadership approval is necessary or the idea to be sustained, consider inviting leadership to experience the idea firsthand.

Conclusion: go forth and Fail Forward

You now have step-by-step guidance on how you can create an organizational culture that enables identifying, communicating about, and learning from failures. It’s up to you to put this guidance to action and fail forward yourselves. 

This can be nerve-wracking, as even the best guidance cannot prevent the bumps anyone encounters when trying something new. In fact, all nine departments that participated in the Fail Forward program experienced some amount of skepticism about the utility of failing forward, frustration about an idea that didn’t work, and concern about their ability to “get it all done” in the midst of competing priorities. 

Each of them navigated through those moments to arrive at worthwhile outcomes: understanding the value of challenging assumptions, forming stronger team relationships rooted in psychological safety, and gaining confidence with new tools to support organizational agility and healthy risk-taking. 

Early in the program, one Fail Forward participant remarked, “I am going to be completely honest, the concept of failing forward blew my mind. It’s almost like saying ‘Pa’Lante.’ Where I’m from, Pa’Lante means moving forward no matter what. The tools we’ve been given to learn about this concept have been, at times, challenging. In time, I’ll feel more comfortable using them…”

At the conclusion of the program, the same participant shared, “My mindset has changed. Pa’Lante! This new mindset will help me view all I do [through] this understanding. It’s okay to fail, it’s okay to learn, [to] come up with new ideas and brainstorm with others to grow as a team.”  

"I am going to be completely honest, the concept of failing forward blew my mind... It’s okay to fail, it’s okay to learn, to come up with new ideas and brainstorm with others to grow as a team.”

Fail Forward Pilot Program Participant

Appendix

Table of Contents

  1. Understand phase in action: Teton County, WY

  2. Experiment phase in action: Lane County, OR

  3. Embed phase in action: Loudoun County, VA

  4. Theoretical underpinnings

  5. Case study one

  6. Case study two

  7. Department ideas

Understand phase in action: Teton County, WY Department of Public Works

Step one: determine assumptions about Fail Forward barriers

Public Works laid out the different internal and external groups that impact their ability to experiment with new ideas. For example, they brainstormed with community groups, other county departments, different teams within their department, and elected county commissioners. They went through each of these groups and wrote down the ways they feel each contributes to or inhibits a culture of innovation in their department (e.g., public pressure for perfection, high workloads that leave no time for cross-departmental discussion). 

Step two: conduct interviews to test assumptions

After considering the roles of individual stakeholders, the team made an assumption that close relationships with residents created collective pressure to avoid failure at all costs. They assumed that this public scrutiny reduced motivation to experiment with new ideas across the board. To explore this assumption, they interviewed elected commissioners and other staff that regularly attended public meetings. 

In interviews, they asked commissioners questions like, “How do you feel about experimenting with new ideas,” “What keeps you from encouraging staff to try new approaches,” and “What motivates you to do so.” Notice how these questions are open-ended and generative - they do not lead the respondent in any direction, but rather ask them to reflect on that person’s own experiences. 

Step three: synthesize interview data and develop new problem statements

After organizing interview data points, one person on the Teton Public Works team pulled together several quotes highlighting how public pressure fuels a culture of fear of failure: 

The theme they built based on these quotes was: “Fear of failure can be driven by relationships with the public.”

The problem statement they generated from this theme was: 

  • Part one (barrier summary): decision-making can be based on the desire to please the most vocal interests rather than project purpose and meeting the community need. 

  • Part two (how the barrier makes people feel): this can feel disempowering to public servants that serve as technical experts in project development. 

  • Part three (a bold "so-what" claim about the barriers broader impact): project needs and determination of success or failure are judged based upon the ‘court of public opinion’ rather than facts and data. This can undermine faith in public servants' ability to try new things that may feel, in the short term, unpopular.

Experiment phase in action: Lane County, OR Central Services

Step one: brainstorm new ideas to break down Fail Forward barriers

The Central Services team from Lane County, OR  sought to address a persistent problem: staff was often left out of decisions regarding essential, but behind-the-scenes processes, leading to a feeling of operating in a “bubble.” As a result, staff developed their own workarounds to issues, which created extra work for others. This feeling of isolation also meant the staff was unlikely to share suggestions for improvements with each other. 

They brainstormed over 70 ideas to address this problem. Ideas ranged from very simple (e.g., a suggestion box) to imaginative and exciting, such as a comprehensive video tutorial library where staff could find on-demand tutorials and overviews on specific processes.)  While this idea would be difficult to execute immediately, it inspired ideas about how to make knowledge more accessible.

The Central Services team prioritized an idea to develop a new Central Services channel on Microsoft Teams, where staff could troubleshoot issues on demand and build relationships with colleagues. The Central Services team named their idea the “Ideas Channel.” 

Step two: make a plan to test the idea

The Central Services team wrote evaluation questions to investigate whether the Ideas Channel would be easy to use, would support more inclusive problem-solving, and would help improve staff’s knowledge of behind-the-scenes processes. Their questions were:

  1. How comfortable is our staff with the chat functionality on Microsoft Teams? 

  2. What kind of content would make them most likely to interact with this Teams channel? 

  3. How likely would staff be to use this channel to troubleshoot an issue? 

  4. Overall, how would the idea impact the team’s knowledge of behind-the-scenes processes? 

For the first test of their idea, the Central Services team invited select Central Services staff to the Ideas Channel to participate in a two-week test. Creating a new channel and inviting staff took very little time, and no new resources. The group decided they would get user feedback (using the evaluation questions they developed) via the Teams channel as well. 

Step three: test the idea (at least twice)

The team’s first test did not go as they’d hoped. Even after the Central Services team sent a few discussion prompts to start the conversation, very few people engaged with the Ideas Channel at all. 

After the test concluded and the team conducted a “Rose, Thorn, Bud” exercise, they identified several “Thorns” with the Ideas Channel. In response to the team’s question, “How likely would you be to use this channel?,” the team received feedback that staff saw the Ideas Channel as “one more notification” they needed to respond to during their already busy day. From that Thorn, the team generated a Bud: the idea may benefit from a more defined participation structure, rather than the “always on” approach of an open chat forum. 

The team ultimately learned that while there was an appetite among staff to troubleshoot and build relationships, the Ideas Channel was not the best way to do that. So, they decided to pivot to a new idea. They came up with an idea for live Tutorial Sessions where other staff in Lane County could learn about the “behind the scenes” of processes, ask questions, and share their ideas. 

In their second Fail Forward Sprint, Central Services held two tests of their “Tutorial Sessions” idea, one with another county department, and one with leadership. Based on feedback from these tests, the team incorporated several improvements to the original idea. First, the team incorporated screenshots into session materials so participants had an easier time visualizing instructions. Second, they created an on-demand recording so participants could access any time if they couldn’t attend a live session. 

Step four: continue testing and make improvements

Central Services began its first Fail Forward Sprint focusing on the opportunity to provide staff within and outside Central Services with better insight into Central Services processes. While the team’s first idea (Teams Channel) did not work, they ultimately saved face at the start by testing with a small "friendly" group. The idea they pivoted to, Tutorial Sessions, did work. User feedback showed that staff thought the sessions were helpful, enjoyable, and improved their understanding of what goes on “behind the scenes.” As a result, the team decided to move forward with implementing the idea on a larger scale. 

Embed phase in action: Loudoun County, Virginia (VA) Department of Housing and Community Development

Step one: set a vision

After developing and testing several ideas through the Fail Forward program, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) wanted to create a plan to ensure that the tools they learned through the program would continue. To achieve this, they created a “Fail Forward Charter” and “Fail Forward Committee” that would last for at least a year.

The Committee collaborates with department staff on select projects in an advisory capacity, providing guidance on how to explore problems and experiment with new solutions through a Fail Forward lens. Further, it documents and shares learnings from each project with the entire department, with the goal of applying what worked and what did not to future work. The Committee is composed of one representative from each department program area and one leadership team member. All members serve a one-year term. 

Step two: develop an internal timeline

To accommodate the Committee launch amidst major organizational changes happening concurrently, the DHCD team decided to announce the Committee in September, with the goal to have it fully operational by December. 

Step three: go public with the idea, test out interest and uptake

To promote buy-in for the Fail Forward Committee, DHCD team members who participated in the 2021-2022 Fail Forward cohort presented the Charter in a meeting with newly appointed department leadership. As one member of the DHCD cohort group reflected, “As much as [leadership] can keep talking about these ideas, that’s important. We need their investment to sustain momentum.” Following the meeting, department leadership affirmed their support for the idea and agreed to work with managers to help recruit committee members.

Theoretical underpinnings of the program

Human Learning Systems (HLS) 

Human Learning Systems is an emerging field exploring a radically different way of resourcing and organizing public service. It is based on three key principles: being human, enabling continuous learning, and supporting healthy systems. The Fail Forward in Local Government program is inspired by these principles: it centers the public servant’s experiences in governance, is designed with regular checkpoints for evaluation and learning, and takes a systemic approach to making improvements by requiring input from a wide range of people along the way. To learn more about HLS, see here.

Human-Centered Design (HCD)

HCD is a method for solving problems that is rooted in learning from people’s daily experiences. It involves a process called a "design sprint," in which participants conduct user research to understand a problem and then test out low-cost, low-stakes versions of a solution with users to make improvements. For the first two months of the Fail Forward program, or the first two months, participants conduct research with internal and external stakeholders to understand the barriers they face to failing forward. They then spend the next eight months testing out low-stakes solutions to these problems with these stakeholders. For more information about how HCD can be applied to solve public problems, see here.

CPI’s prior research on failing forward

 CPI’s 2019 research is based on a year-long project exploring the challenges of failing forward in local government: How to fail (forward): a framework for fostering innovation in the public sector. The research included an extensive literature review, 25+ interviews with subject matter experts, and workshops with six local governments, 20 departments, and over 150 public servants from across the United States. This research identified four core elements of a "fail forward culture" that informed our approach to this program.  These elements were woven into workshop designs, prompts during brainstorming, and comprehensive reviews of ideas: 

  • Mindsets & beliefs: staff at all levels accept that failure is inevitable when trying new things - but that it is important to try regardless

  • Interpersonal relationships: leadership empowers staff to experiment and learn, and staff have each others’ backs when something goes wrong

  • Systems & processes: learning from failure is integrated into day-to-day operations (e.g., meetings, program evaluations, incentives)

  • External ecosystem: the environment surrounding the organization (e.g. residents, media, etc.) understands and supports learning from failure as an innovation strategy 

Program-long case study one: Lane County Parole and Probation

Background

The Parole & Probation team from Lane County, OR composed of members of the “Parole Training Officers” (PTO) program, had a non-traditional entrance into the Fail Forward program. For one, they joined six weeks after it launched. For another, they were already familiar with the concept of "failing forward:" it is core to the new hire training program that they lead. For a team with an ethos dedicated to owning up to and making learning opportunities out of failures, what could they gain from a program like this one?

Understand phase

The team began by laying out their assumptions about PTO stakeholders’ experiences with failing forward. They took a wide-ranging approach, considering stakeholders as expansive as state government officials and as near as administrative support staff. Through this process, they uncovered a major gap: there was no obvious mechanism for anyone affected by the PTO program to provide feedback on how to improve it. 

To explore this barrier, the team conducted 30-minute interviews with those nearest to PTO, including leadership, past trainees, justice-involved individuals, and administrative staff that support parole officers in the field. They focused on questions like, "What keeps you from providing feedback on the PTO program?" and "What motivates you to do so?" Interviews yielded rich answers about organizational dynamics, which the team analyzed through the Data Synthesis* process.

Ultimately, they formed two problem statements:  

There was no shortage of feedback on the PTO program, but the perception of power imbalances made staff feel like feedback would be unwelcome. This not only disempowered trainees and support staff, but it also embedded a sense that their perspectives do not matter. 

Even when staff felt safe sharing their perspectives, there was no clear avenue to provide that feedback and no confidence in follow-up, leading to a lack of interest in engagement.

This opened the PTO team’s eyes to the reality that even if trainees develop personal fail forward skills through the PTO program; they still operate in a broader environment where identifying and learning from failures is not easy. The PTO team would have to look to the broader department to make a change.

Experiment phase

Brainstorming

The team took a blue sky approach to brainstorm new ideas. To help them think outside of the box, they used creative prompts such as “How would an astronaut solve this problem?” Over three brainstorming "rounds" lasting five-seven minutes, they jotted down as many ideas as they could think of without regard to feasibility or constraint.

They then discussed the ideas and narrowed them down to two which they thought would not require too much additional work and would have maximum impact.

  1. A shadowing program for all members and work units in the organization including support staff, officers, administrative staff, and the leadership team to spend time learning about one another’s daily tasks.

  2. A meeting for staff to discuss feedback on the PTO program, which could then be circulated to leadership.

Testing and experimentation

Before rolling out the shadowing program to the entire department, the team tested the idea in a low-stakes way: on themselves. When support staff shadowed a PTO, they rode on a morning’s worth of home visits. When PTOs shadowed support staff, they sat at their desks and watched support staff answer the phones, complete field requests, and conduct data entry.  Both of these shadowing experiences provided time for informal conversation and relationship-building. 

They evaluated the sessions by asking all four participants to reflect on their experiences in an email. The feedback was universally positive. Shadowings helped to build a “unit-wide, rather than ‘us and them’ mentality.” Further, they provided technical clarity: support staff was able to see “how the paper [we push] works in reality” while PTOs were able to develop a “basic understanding of how we need each other.” Even after only two shadow sessions, they built stronger relationships and a new mechanism for feedback: simply talking to one another. 

To determine how to improve the idea, the team brought in the two support staff who participated to share their thoughts. This was extremely helpful, as it ensured that those that would be using the idea were able to contribute to its design. One of the biggest takeaways was that the conversations during shadowing sessions were valuable for collecting feedback about the Parole & Probation Department as a whole. To make the most of this feedback, the team created a short follow-up form that anyone who went on a session would have to complete. The forms would be collated and discussed in bi-weekly PTO meetings and then elevated to leadership meetings. The team cracked the code on creating a structure to provide feedback.

An opportunity to Fail Forward

As a way to test their "meeting" idea, they first created "a prototype" - a hand-written form given to the whole department to gauge how they prefer to share feedback. The results were clear: open calls for feedback without a commitment to implementing ideas feel more like an opportunity for leadership to check an employee engagement box than a safe place to reflect on problems. They decided to pivot away from this idea and instead focus on building in implementation teeth into the shadowing program.

Bringing the learning together

With the early success of the shadowing sessions, the team increased the complexity of the idea. They conducted four additional tests, this time with other, non-PTO parole officers and senior leadership and evaluated the tests via a new survey. In addition to affirming the value of shadowing sessions, the tests yielded two vital edits. First, they needed more structure to guide conversations. To accommodate this, the team would create a one-page guideline sheet to send to any duo going on a ride-along. Second, they needed to ensure that the feedback discussed in shadowing sessions would be taken seriously. They thus decided to do a "share out" of key learnings and takeaways from sessions at all-staff meetings and to include the feedback as a standing agenda item in leadership meetings.

Embed phase

With the buy-in they developed by testing the idea themselves, the team was confident in asking others from Parole and Probation to participate. With this solid footing, they planned to embed the idea throughout the department in four main ways:

  1. Requesting financial support for the idea. To incentivize participation, the team Supervisor requested funding for gift cards to a coffee cart located nearby. 

  2. Building the idea into an ongoing process. Participating in the shadow program is now a requirement for all new hires. This builds empathy and relationships from the very start.

  3. Creating a transition plan. The PTO team will own the process for the next six months. In the meantime, they will look for a new team or individual to carry it forward. Ideally, other staff that appreciates the experience will sign on to be long-term owners.

  4. Put on external pressure to keep it going. The team announced the idea at an Oregon-wide network meeting. Another Fail Forward team was inspired as well by the idea and has asked for additional information about this project.  Knowing that other officers, administrators, and agencies will ask about the idea (and for advice about doing it themselves!) will nudge the team into continued action.

Conclusion

The PTO team is already reaping the benefits of this idea. While it may not have resulted in new experiments or innovations, the department is slowly growing the foundational trust necessary for experimentation to take place. The division manager highlighted the growth in the department: “[I now know that] the way we connect with one another determines how we make successes out of failures, how satisfied we are at work, and our mindset about collaboration. The fire has been lit under me now to make this stick."

“I now know that the way we connect with one another determines how we make successes out of failures, how satisfied we are at work, and our mindset about collaboration. The fire has been lit under me now to make this stick."

Division Manager, Lane County Parole and Probation

Program-long case study two: empathy building with the Cabarrus County, North Carolina (NC) Department of Human Services

Background

The Cabarrus County, North Carolina (NC) Department of Human Services (DHS) not only performs emotionally demanding client-facing tasks, but it also navigates state agencies, community partners, and state and federal policies. Staff works hard to meet these needs and fear making mistakes that could have serious repercussions for their clients.

The team’s main goals at the start of the program were to “become less risk averse” and to “be released of the status quo mindset.” They also wanted to build “a culture where staff have trusting relationships and collaborate on multifaceted cases that require a lot of coordination and communication.” To achieve these goals, the team realized they had to tackle a major obstacle: the fear of failure. 

Understand phase

Identifying barriers to failing forward

To identify the root cause of that fear, the team listed key stakeholders in their most relevant programs and formed assumptions about what kept each of them from failing forward. These assumptions included a lack of trust between staff, a fear of being judged for messing up, and communication silos that made it hard for staff across teams to coordinate services for the same client. To test their assumptions, the team held 13 interviews with frontline staff, DHS supervisors, residents, and community partners. Hearing this diversity of perspectives was crucial in gaining a better understanding of the problem. 

Testing assumptions through interviews

Although the team was initially nervous about conducting interviews, they returned excited by their experiences connecting with stakeholders and motivated to tackle barriers they understood more holistically.

On the whole, interview data corroborated the team’s assumption that there was a fear of admitting personal failings. However, interviews also revealed additional dimensions of that fear: staff revealed a fear of insulting others, which kept them from bringing up a collective failure.

Deciding on a problem and idea to address it

The interview data showed the team that one of their biggest barriers to failing forward was the existence of communication silos with shared clients that work on different teams.  These communication silos not only led to a lack of relationships between DHS staff, but also to residents getting lost in the client referral process. Based on the team’s limited time and resources, they decided to try a very practical idea: a new protocol that required staff to check in with each other after making a referral. This additional step would allow staff to confirm whether their client’s needs were met as well as promote communication between staff.

Experiment phase

For the first test of their idea, the team asked just one caseworker to try out the idea for one client case shared by multiple staff. By starting small, the team reduced the risk of overexposing themselves to negative feedback. Through this test, the team learned two key things: first, each team had different internal protocols for the referral process, making it difficult to coordinate referrals. Second, staff already had a follow-up referral form, but because most staff didn’t know each other well, they felt uncomfortable using it. 

Based on what they learned from this test, it was clear the DHS team needed to make a substantial pivot in order to address the root of the communication silos they identified in the interviews. The team failed forward and used the test feedback to brainstorm a new idea: Cross-Team Meetings. 

Cross-Team Meetings would provide a space for staff to get to know each other and discuss shared protocols as a united, client-facing team. The teams would first participate in an icebreaker where they could learn more about each other’s personalities and roles in the department. They would then review shared protocols and discuss common challenges and ways to improve team coordination.

The first Cross-Team Meeting was held virtually, and was an overall success! Staff shared that the meeting helped them “feel more comfortable reaching out to different staff members to ask questions and connect clients with different units.” The positive feedback affirmed that pivoting was the right decision, demonstrating how one idea falling flat can inspire one that works. 

The DHS team continued to make improvements to the Cross-Team Meetings idea through feedback provided from further tests. The final version of the idea began to have a real-life impact on staff. As one person noticed, “[We are] reaching across to ask each other questions and make full use of each other’s resources, rather than just sending a referral and it going dead.”

Embed phase

Now that the team had general alignment about the direction the idea should go, they next needed to figure out how to scale and sustain it. To do so, they focused on two main steps: bringing in supervisors (who would ultimately keep the idea afloat) and garnering stronger buy-in via an in-person meeting. 

They brought on the four supervisors whose teams would participate in the meeting to craft a mutually valuable agenda. This helped to garner more interest across the department and to share the workload, which will ultimately make the idea more sustainable over time. Further, the team aimed to meet in person, but a Covid exposure in the department led to the meeting being pushed back online.

Despite the last-minute changes, the meeting was again a success. During the meeting, staff shared that they had an improved understanding of how the different teams could work together to meet client needs building a stronger rapport. After the Fail Forward program ends, the team will continue to hold quarterly cross-team meetings in which supervisors will set the agenda. They will also try out a rotating hybrid online-and-in-person model.

Conclusion

The DHS Fail Forward team has sparked a cultural shift on their team to recognize failure as an opportunity to innovate and improve services for their clients. They have seen staff from across four different teams build relationships and break down communication silos that kept them from working closely on shared client cases. These relationships have lent themselves to a broader cultural shift: staff feels safer talking about problems and trying new things to tackle them. As one member of the DHS Fail Forward team put it, “[We once had a] lack of communication and silos,” now, “I know there are people I can go to and talk to because I don’t have to know it all myself.”

“We once had a lack of communication and silos, now, I know there are people I can go to and talk to because I don’t have to know it all myself.”

Fail Forward Program Team Member, Cabarrus County Department of Human Services

Department problems and ideas

Human Services, Cabarrus County, NC

Problem: We don't have a system in place for staff at all levels to recognize and share about failures, which means we don't have a good avenue for determining what must change. This can make us feel afraid of talking about hard issues or and it creates barriers to finding solutions when things are not working. This can result in disengagement from staff and repeating mistakes rather than making progress to address them.

  • Role swapping: monthly structured opportunities for staff to shadow managers and leadership, in which leaders can "lead by example"

Problem: We don't always have the resources to implement good ideas in a timely manner. This is frustrating and causes people to lose faith in our programs. Without stakeholder collaboration, it's a lot harder to see what we might be getting wrong.

  • Improve caseworker transitions: Create a structure for transitions between staff so the client knows how to contact the right people directly. Develop a process for “new” caseworkers to follow up with the “old” staff member to share how the clients’ issues were ultimately resolved.

  • “Cross Team Meeting:” for all members staffed on the Crisis team and Prevention Team to foster relationships between staff that work on the same cases and discuss key challenges about protocols, rules, and cases.

Planning and Development, Cabarrus County, NC

Problem: Failing to deliver usable technology has reduced trust and discouraged staff from adapting to new technology. Instead, staff creates “workarounds,” or individual ways of “solving” larger system problems on their own. These workarounds enable staff to complete their daily work, but cause inconsistencies and inefficiencies that can impact workloads for multiple staff positions and customers. Ultimately, this can cause employee frustration and disengagement, and larger system corrections to fall off the radar.

  • "Ride-a-longs:" shadowing sessions between supervisors and line inspectors to help the team identify workarounds in online platform use.

  • New training program: sessions for all staff to understand best practices based on what was learned from ride alongs

  • Online FAQ forum: a web-based platform to resolve issues, reduce redundancy, and build trust by reducing frustration.

Tax Admin, Cabarrus County, NC

Problem: Both frontline workers and managers are reluctant to initiate changes in systems, policies, or programs because they are not sure if they have the power to do so, or who they need to seek permission from to pursue the changes. This makes staff feel hesitant about identifying problems and unsure of what next steps they can take on their own. Ultimately, this means our processes never change, which can inhibit the talent and motivation of our staff, making them feel powerless and demotivated.

  • Awards program: An awards program to encourage staff to identify failures and propose solutions to decision-makers.

Central Services, Lane County, OR

Problem: There is a lack of training and overall understanding of the hiring process. This results in frustration, delays, and potential inadvertent errors in the hiring process, which exacerbates the underlying lack of knowledge in those needing to complete the work.

  • Process management trainings: agile, inclusive process training for hiring. The training would include regular opportunities for iterations and feedback from staff at all levels and all departmentss.

Problem: Some teams within the department were not identified as key stakeholders in the design of the process, so they were not consulted in its development. This makes them feel frustrated because they have information that will help the project be successful. The lack of engagement can create animosity and distrust for open communication and can lead to staff not sharing their knowledge.

  • Teams Channel: Central Services Teams Channel for real-time information-sharing, relationship-building, and troubleshooting

Parole & Probation, Lane County, OR

Problem: When failures occur, people don't provide feedback due to the perception of hierarchies within the organization (between work groups, and within work groups). People may feel disempowered, inferior, and unimportant if they perceive those to which they're providing feedback to be in a "higher" position. This not only results in keeping what could be helpful information from being shared, but also doesn't allow the opportunity for people to be acknowledged, appreciated, or participate as an equal.

  • Shadow program: "Sit-Alongs" with support staff, PTO trainers, and leadership to build stronger rapport, empathy, and opportunities for idea sharing throughout.

Problem: We do not currently have a system for inviting and incorporating feedback that we hear from staff and supervisors into our work. This may result in people feeling like their feedback is not important or unsure if the feedback is even wanted. It could also result in people feeling like they have no say in the training process. It also potentially means that supervisors don’t know the employees that will eventually be transitioning into their units. This could create a barrier to the agency’s growth and progression if there is no system in place for receiving, analyzing, and responding to feedback.

  • Affinity group meetings: meetings without supervisors to discuss challenges and ideas about how to improve. Teams will write notes to send to supervisors after the meeting is over.

Animal Services, Loudoun, VA

Problem: Our department does not have a defined internal process for staff to learn from what is and what is not working. Staff feels reluctant to offer input because there are no clear steps or guidelines on how to do so. This can lead to low morale, make staff feel devalued, and eventually lead to turnover. It also means that valuable information about successes and failures isn't shared.

  • Inter-departmental meetings: supervisors and representatives of front-line staff meet to talk about internal processes and what is/is not working as a team.

Problem: Local underserved communities do not have an accessible way to communicate their needs to us. This may make them feel as though we do not care about their feedback or understand their needs. This means we are only providing services to a "known" population, or those who proactively seek us -- but don't ever learn the barriers that other populations experience so that we can adapt to meet their needs.

  • Open houses in community centers: multiple times a month, hold clinics in diverse communities to offer free services and engagement surveys, and let them know they can rely on us to repeat this experience/engagement.

Housing, Loudoun, VA

Problem: Stakeholders trying to reach department staff get frustrated when it's hard to make a direct human connection. This can make it difficult to feel like an inquiry isn't important to Housing staff. Over time, this can lead stakeholders to develop a "why bother" attitude and make them less likely to make Housing staff aware of failures or inefficiencies.

  • Mismatch Show-n-Tell: in staff meetings, provide dedicated time for team members to describe a "mismatch" they've experienced (between expectations and reality). Then collectively brainstorm how to address the mismatch.

Parks, Recreation, and Community Services, Loudoun, VA

Problem: When failure occurs, there is an environment created where staff feels an inability to share their thoughts, opinions, or ideas. This has created a sense of fear amongst certain staff that sharing their thoughts, ideas, or opinions will lead to retribution or being held accountable where others are not. This shuts down communication but more so, shuts down the diversity of ideas.

  • Awards Program: Create a "Fail Fix Award:" honor people raising problems they see and propose solutions across the department

Problem: Relationships, face-to-face connection, and responsiveness to all our community members are essential to equitably providing services, but we currently aren't doing enough listening beyond the frequent users that we often hear from. When residents and participants from underserved parts of our community don't feel heard or represented, they become frustrated, distrustful, and less likely to use our services. This leads to disinterest among residents in using and improving our services, so we miss out on the opportunity to gather valuable feedback.

  • Story Mapping: Story Mapping of P&R program utilization with a diversity & equity lens 

Public Health, Teton County, WY

Problem: Staff feels there is no space to fail due to the health and safety-related nature of the work, resulting in burnout. This creates a status quo atmosphere which leads to a lack of innovation and encouragement to try new things.

  • Idea board: staff post ideas for tackling problems on a physical board in the office. At a monthly staff meeting, an idea and champion to execute the idea are selected during the staff meeting.

Problem: Staff is overwhelmed due to COVID and their ever-increasing workload. This has led to burnout and stress, resulting in feeling guilty for not being able to do it all. This is not an atmosphere in which staff can be innovative and take risks.

  • Walk-N-Talks: short, casual walks outside for staff to get to know each other and build stronger relationships.

  • Health re-set session: mark a transition about turning a corner from the pandemic by hosting a whole-day event to reflect on past experiences and make a cultural reset

Public Works, Teton County, WY

Problem: There is no defined time or space to reflect on problems or evaluate projects, which limits the capacity to learn from what is and is not working.

  • Walk-N-Talks: walk n talk conversations to create a new  environment to have hard conversations about places for improvement.

Problem: Decision-making can be based on perceptions of what the public wants, rather than technical expertise, which can feel disempowering to staff.

  • Commissioner Meetings: informal meetings with Commissioners to build rapport and a structure for more honest conversations.

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