Hot Stove Government


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  • Mitchell Weiss
    June 16, 2021

    We have Hot Stove Government. We have a problem of over-learning from mistakes in government. We can change that.


    Many companies and organizations have this problem of over-adapting from failure. James March and Jerker Denrell called it the "Hot Stove Effect." They were borrowing from Mark Twain, who'd warned of "the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more."


    We have hot stove government. Public officials have been burned or seen people burned when they tried something new and failed. And it makes them afraid to try other new things.

    It doesn't have to be that way.


    Three steps for mitigating hot stove government:


    1. Discern among types of failures. As my colleague Amy Edmondson has written, "not all failures are equal"...some are "praiseworthy" and some are "blameworthy." The press, the public, oversight committees, public auditors, inspectors general...they all need to be able to sort between the two. As Adam Grant told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, "We need to stop punishing people who have good ideas with bad outcomes, and start rewarding people who have promising ideas with uncertain outcomes."


    2. Set expectations up front. Tell the public (and the press) what you are trying and that it won't all work the first time. When Mayor Melvin Carter of Saint Paul, MN announced new efforts at transforming public safety in his city he said, "We won't get everything right our first time around."


    3. Find ways to cordon off some of the failures. Nigel Jacob has called Boston's Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics the city's "failure aggregator." The team there absorbs risk for other city departments and teammates.





    Artwork and animation by Emma Tavolieri @theartofemma.