Recently, Mukherjee completed Leadership APTA, a year-long professional development program sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association. One of her assignments was a research project where she was part of a team that studied driving innovation. While interviewing executives from several transportation agencies and private sector partners at the forefront of innovation, she discovered that they shared some traits.
“CEOs from cutting edge-focused agencies are often the champions of embracing a culture of innovation in the workplace, where employees are empowered to explore new ideas and take risks,” she said. “It can be difficult for them to create a non-traditional environment that is able to fund and explore innovation.”
One recurring theme identified throughout their research was “Fail Fast, Fix Fast,” where employees are encouraged to seek unconventional solutions to problems and implement design changes quickly to find the best results within the constraints of a public agency, where there is often little room for mistakes.
“This was a theme we heard a few times during our research, which speaks to an increased level of trust and atmosphere of tolerance in many of transit agencies we interviewed,” Mukherjee said. “That is definitely new.”
She noted that transit innovations often start small in these agencies, building momentum and confidence to eventually take off and generate new ridership or solve a facility constraint. It’s an approach in sharp contrast to “leaps” in technological change that are more likely to grab headlines, though not necessarily solve current problems.
“They are not trying to become Elon Musk,” Mukherjee said. “It’s about improving their processes, finding an algorithm that is working, customizing it to their situation, and then accepting a certain level of failure. The key is to fix it fast and improvise, allowing employees feel that it’s OK to fail, as long as there is a solution ahead and they can recover quickly.
“Fail fast, fix fast is a thoughtful approach to small-scale, prudent innovation,” she added.