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I Failed and Here's How You Can Fail Too: 5 Ways to Maximize Innovation
By Kymber Waltmunson

I have failed. It has been acutely uncomfortable to realize that my intuition—how I recruit, how I build strategy, how I scope audits, how I decide what is important—is often wrong. I’ve been auditing a long time now. I have conducted, led, and managed many successful audits. I have navigated very difficult political environments. I have managed people with sensitivity and strength. Yet I continue to feel like a newbie and I’m trying hard to love it.
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Here is what has resulted from my failures:

  • cutting edge audit work
  • new highs of positive impact
  • peering into fascinating, unexamined corners of government
  • applying wildly different and effective methodologies

In short … innovation.

Innovation can be big or small and can result in big payoffs or failures. In general, it can be defined as the application of knowledge in new and exciting ways. So why have the last couple of years been so painful? Because I added these innovation tools to my repertoire.


HIRE BOLDLY

As I was making a hiring decision, I got called out: that person is too much like you. Ouch. If you want innovation, throw out your usual hiring checklist. Hire entry-level auditors for potential, diversity, fearlessness, coachability, intelligence, and critical thinking. Hire management for ego strength, flexibility, empathy, experience, and commitment. Hire people who will challenge you, poke holes in your long-used systems, and ask a hundred hard questions. Hire people whose life experiences are completely different from yours. Hire people who aren’t auditors, but who can think. I hire super-smart people who question me constantly. And see what I get for it? They question my next hires; I breathe deeply and listen. I don’t always do what they suggest, but in the listening, I learn.

How To: Design testing and interview questions to get at the characteristics you are looking for. Ask applicants to tell stories about what they have done instead of asking them what they would do (this is a poor predictor of actual behavior).


DON’T PLAY IT SAFE


I recently went into a meeting thinking that I wanted to completely scrap an Involuntary Treatment Court audit we had been scoping because I felt that we wouldn’t be able to make recommendations that would be implementable. Through discussion, the team identified methodologies that would add information and perspectives that no one had ever developed before. They described how this new information, in itself, might allow the system to improve. We are now moving forward with the audit even though we might not have recommendations. Our approach might fail based on our usual definition of impact, but we’ll see if we can get something new out of it.

If your instinct is to say, “That won’t work,” take a deep breath (yes, breathing is a huge part of innovation) and just listen for more minutes than is comfortable. If the stakes are reasonable, try it. If it doesn’t work, you can just change course. Assume for a minute that everything you’ve learned is wrong. I know. It is painful to go back to that place, but the beginner’s mind sees things differently.

How To: When your teams suggest a new approach, ask, “What is the worst that could happen? What is the contingency plan?” Ask questions instead of concluding right away. Accept more risk but prepare to succeed or fail quickly and move on.


THINK IN GROUPS

Recently we became aware of a gap in our jurisdiction’s handling of an emergency—we knew what the criteria indicated that they should do, and they hadn’t done it. A group of people with knowledge about all the pieces of the issue huddled and strategized about how to do a quick turnaround audit. Then someone said, “Why don’t you just call them and share the criteria with them.” I did, and the entity applied best practice within the week. This could have failed, but the stakes were low. It would have been easy to switch tactics.

I always say that I am smarter in a group. The small decrease in efficiency when you bring people in to dig into an issue is more than made up for by the depth of thinking that comes from smart people building on ideas. Teams inspire and teach each other. They allow each other to take more risks since they have the support of the group. You can also blend complementary strengths as you choose your teams.

How To: Instead of having a single auditor on one project at a time, try two auditors on two projects at a time.


FOSTER INTELLECTUAL ANTAGONISM


We had an intern this summer who frequently started off by saying, “I am just going to disagree with you here.” We hired him. When people are worried about making mistakes, are trying too hard to impress each other, or when agreeableness is over-valued, you have a problem. We have an articulated value in our office called “respectful intellectual antagonism” that encourages divergence from the conventional wisdom. It can create lively (read: hard) conversations, but we always end up in a better place than we started.

How To: Invite people to disagree with you or one another. Give positive reinforcement when people bring up issues or propose different approaches. Argue the side that you don’t really believe in to test it out. Ask questions about everything, even the things you already think you know.


TAKE COMPLAINTS SERIOUSLY


Recently a council member complained that they didn’t feel prepared for a public hearing on one of our audits. We release our reports when we present them in hearings because that is what we’ve always done. After a thoughtful process, we decided to pilot early report release to council members. This might fail; all the negative outcomes we imagined for years might come to pass. We can just stop doing it.

Complaints are a starting point for innovation. Does a policy-maker not like something you are doing? Does a department head complain that they weren’t well informed? Does a staff person feel like something they did was a waste of time? Almost every innovation we’ve made has come from a pain point of some kind. Our first reaction when someone brings up a problem is often to go on the defensive. Take a deep breath and listen. Sound familiar? You shouldn’t reflexively change whenever you get a complaint, but it is certainly worth analyzing and possibly trying something new.

How To: Intentionally seek out feedback from auditees, those in your authorizing environment, and from internal staff. Hold post-project review meetings internally. Use Agile project management and incorporate “retrospective” thinking processes. Document lessons learned. Report pain points to office decision-makers. Come with suggestions.


CONCLUSION


These are my five ways to get innovation: hire boldly, don’t play it safe, think in groups, foster intellectual antagonism, and take complaints seriously. How do we NOT get innovation? By doing things the way we’ve always done them. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And what is the purpose of saying “fail, fail, fail” repeatedly in this article? Desensitization. Failure isn’t a big deal. Failing to innovate is.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kymber Waltmunson is the King County Auditor in Seattle. She is a Certified Internal Auditor, Certified Government Audit Professional with a Masters of Public Administration and a Masters in Clinical Psychology. Kymber and her teams drive innovation and value creativity in everything they do.