Take the Shot, Get the Goal and Win the Game

Fear of failure can inhibit cities from innovating. It shouldn't.
June 10, 2014 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, the leading scorer in National Hockey League history and arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, has said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” It’s a famous quote that conveys a common-sense concept: If you don’t try, you will not succeed. However simple of an idea, it’s a realization we in government sometimes forget.

Innovation is the buzzword of the day, and to some it might seem cliché -- another fad in terminology destined for the dustbin of trumped-up terms and phrases like “doing more with less,” “thinking outside the box,” “game-changer” and ideas like “synergy,” “optimization” and “sustainability.”
But innovation is more than a term, phrase or even an idea. Innovation is a necessity and it’s about taking the shot you might not want to take for fear of failure. However, whether we like it or not, failure is often an important part of innovation. Drawing on more quotes, it’s interesting to note that many about innovation purposely point out the challenges of achieving success and the risks of not taking a leap:
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it” -- Michaelangelo
“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything innovative.” -- Woody Allen
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” -- Albert Einstein
Cities of any size are immensely complex -- composed of multiple moving parts that are somewhat loosely coordinated, like numerous separate timepieces ticking along within a larger clock. To complicate things further, the services, policies and programs of a city are played out through the unique personalities of people -- a formula that is at best somewhat unpredictable and to a great extent uncontrollable.  
As I write this column, I am in Scranton, Pa. -- a city with an impressive industrial history and an enduring heritage dating back to the early days of capitalism in the United States, but more recently made famous by “The Office.” The topic of my visit to Scranton is innovation and how the community might carve out a new future for itself. Scranton, like other cities, wakes up every day at a crossroads. Leaders must make limited choices among unlimited options to find a new path toward progress. 
They are ripe for innovation, but have the normal fears, innate feelings of insecurity and can be overwhelmed by the circumstances. In talking with the 100 participants in the audience, I hear the same questions and concerns that are often voiced at such gatherings: We have limited funds; we have leadership challenges; we are dealing with naysayers. But the people of Scranton desperately want to transform their city. 
The challenges in Scranton likely resonate with many cities that are trying to learn the intricate moves of this dance. Adding to the difficult nature of the process is that it is all public. While a private enterprise might be able to incubate, accelerate, experiment and execute new ideas -- ivoting whenever necessary out of the public eye -- in government, experimentation is done in full public view and missteps are not well tolerated. Every step is scrutinized, analyzed and criticized by a very interested group of investors -- the taxpaying citizens of the community. 
But cities seeking positive change have no other option. Innovation is born out of necessity and you won’t make the goal and score the win if you don’t take the shot.
The first round of cities in the City Accelerator are lining up to take their best shot at changing things for the better for low-income workers.  In July, their ideas will be on full display for your review and ranking to help the best of them move forward.  
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.