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3 Leadership Lessons from the “Failed” Census

3 Leadership Lessons from the “Failed” Census


The evening of Tuesday, the 9th of August 2016 was Australian Census night. For the first time, we took the census online and, as things turned out, it was an unmitigated disaster (if you believe the press, the politicians and social media).

So, what lessons are there in that for you and me, about conspicuous failure?

Every 5 years, the Australian government conducts a census of its population. There’s nothing new in that. Hey, King David conducted a census of Israel about 3,000 years ago and if you know the story that one didn’t end so well either.

In our case, there was a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on the census site. Some moron or morons unnamed (I say that in a loving, Christian kind of a way) launched a malicious attack to bring the site down on the evening in question, stopping millions of Australians from completing their mandatory census.

Well, didn’t the knives come out.

  1. The “experts” said that the Bureau of Statistics should have anticipated this and built the system to withstand such an attack.
  2. The Federal Opposition called for the resignation of the Minister in charge.
  3. The Prime Minister promised that “heads would roll”.
  4. Social media was replete with condemnation and jokes about the fiasco (this meme is my personal favourite).


Yep, the knives were out.

Could they have done better? Should they have done better? Maybe …

But at the same time, by all accounts, the project was seriously under-funded and under-resources as IT projects often are.

As I watched the blame game unfold, and having spent 20 years of my life on the inside of large-scale technology based change projects like this one, I couldn’t help but wonder how the members of the census project team felt. The people who had slaved away behind the scenes (making personal, family and professional sacrifices that you and I will never know of) to try something new.

Something innovative. Something that will, no doubt, go down in history as a vital stepping stone towards automated voting in our country. Something that should have earned them great praise, but, thanks to said morons, brought only condemnation.

It’s so easy to to be an armchair critic with the benefit 20/20 hindsight and no skin in the game.

So, here are the 3 leadership lessons that I take away from the “failed” census:


1.  When You Try Something New, Failure Happens

It’d make a good bumper sticker wouldn’t it?  FAILURE HAPPENS

Every body’s an expert when we fail.

You should have done this.
You should have done that.
It was a crazy idea in the first place.
It was never going to work.

But where would the human race be without the adventurers? Where would the human race be without those people who dared to try something new, to risk failure on some crazy idea that “was never going to work”?

We’re not all cut out to be great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. We’re not all cut out to be great leaders like Nelson Mandela. But here’s the undeniable thing.

Each one of us has something that’s been written into our DNA; something we were designed for; something we were made to do. Some call it God-given gifting. Others perhaps refer to it as destiny. But we all have that sense, don’t we.

As we embark on that road, the journey is going to be littered with false starts and failures. Yet as we look back, what we see, albeit imperfect, is a rich journey that’s impacted other lives for good and brought us a deep satisfaction as we’ve lived out who we were made to be.

Today, we remember the Apostle Paul as the guy who wrote almost half of the New Testament. We build cathedrals in his name. But back then he writes this of his failures and afflictions …

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:7-10)

Failure happens. Get used to it. Get over it. Move on. The naysayers will always be sitting in their lounge chairs, ready to criticise you.  And you will know them by this – they’re the ones who pretty much never achieve anything with their lives. 


2.  Confront the Hard Facts + Never Lose Faith

If you haven’t read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins … get off your backside and read it. Seriously.

In Chapter 4 he talks about the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam war. When asked about survival in that dreadful place – who survived and who didn’t and why – he came up with a bit of wisdom forged in that horror that has, through Collins, become known as the Stockdale Paradox.

Here it is in a nutshell:

Retain faith that, in the end, you will prevail no matter how hard things get  – AND, AT THE SAME TIME – confront the most brutal facts of your current reality no matter how bad they are.

In other words, never let go of that thing in your heart that drove you to try something new, something crazy, something innovative … something that’s so far out there that it should never have worked anyway. Never, ever, ever stop believing that this is what you were made to do and that eventually, it will happen.

BUT, at the same time, don’t run a fool’s errand. Don’t live in a delusion. Seek out the mistakes, the obstacles, the problems, the failures. Understand them. Learn from them. Do what you have to do to fix them. Be brutal about that, because unless you are, you will never succeed.

Our politicians are calling for “heads to roll”.

But a real leader would go and talk to the project team members. Congratulate them on their efforts. Encourage them to root out the problems and achieve I even greater things.

That’s real leadership. That’s how teams of ordinary, every day people like you and me end up achieving extraordinary teams. I’m hoping that there’s some of that sort of leadership within the ranks of our government, our public service and our business leaders involved in the project.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in a lot of large IT projects – the biggest one was valued at around $NZ 150 million and I t succeeded precisely because of that kind of leadership, despite all the “crap” that happened along the way.

The Apostle Paul again:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (1 Cor 4:16-18)

Confront the hard facts. Deal with them unflinchingly. But never, ever lose hope that you will prevail in the end.


3.  Remember, It’s Not About You

I was quite taken by a Richard Branson (of Virgin fame) quote, on the front of this magazine that I saw in a rack in an airline lounge the other day:


How genuine the quote is, I don’t know but the point is well made. Real success isn’t about me winning, or you winning. That winning bit is simply a by-product of doing things that are going to make people’s lives better, however we choose to do that.

Two thousand years ago Jesus said, It is better to give than to receive.

I used to think He was nuts … but after a life of dissatisfaction that came through winning all the time (and I won rather a lot in my business career) it came as a huge revelation and complete shock to me, that the contentment and the satisfaction that I’d been looking for, really only comes when I use who I am and what I have, to make other people’s lives better.

You may already have known that. For me, it was a hard lesson that I had to learn.

My hope and prayer for the amazing team (both government employees and private contractors) who slaved away at making this country better through this stab at running an online census, only to have the rug of “success” pulled from under them by said DDOS morons, is that they will gain great satisfaction from knowing that they’ve taken our country a huge step forward to something better.

The bottom line is that it’s never about you or me. It’s always about what we can do for other people to make their lives better. That’s where the quiet satisfaction comes from. 


  1. Two main points:

    a) I think very little was done to make it plain to people that the on-line Census did not have to be completed on the night of 9 August 2016. On-line submissions have until the 23 September 2016 to be completed. This would have alleviated some of the high volume of traffic on the ABS website by allowing the on-line completions to be spread out over time. The 9th August date is simply the reference night that the Census uses for its ‘snap-shot’ in time.

    b) Nowhere in any media that I investigated, or even in the legislative Acts that covers the Census is there any assurance of separation of Census content and the on-line user’s metadata.
    I checked the ABS’s Census Privacy Statement and Privacy Policy as well as the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 (ABS Act) and the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Census and Statistics Act).

    The confidentiality requirements mentioned in the Acts, Policy and Statement only refer to access, usage and storage of Census content and user contact information such as name, email address, address or telephone number . Nothing about if, when, where, what or how my metadata will be used if I complete the Census on-line.

    Metadata refers to such things the IP address I’m on, time and date of my visit(s), what device I use, my geolocation, my O/S, my browser, my screen size, what pages I visited, how long I stayed, how long to answer each question, my scrolling actions, what other apps are installed, history, etc, etc. All this may be used to build information profiles of individuals’ location, interests, health, habits and so on without using their actual Census answers data.

    Hence, I’ve opted for the paper version of the Census and I have until 18 September 2016 to submit it.

    • Gazz – I hear you. But you’ve missed the main point of the blog. What I’m saying is that the world isn’t perfect, and other people aren’t perfect. It’s easy to point out the mistakes with hindsight. And yes, we should learn from them. But what a powerful thing it is to show grace, tolerance and forgiveness in the face of someone else’s failure.

  2. Thanks Bernie for taking the time to write about this.
    After all the bickering that has gone on during and after the DDOS incidents it seems that we, as a collective people, might be in the process of losing our ability to show grace and respond with respect and in love. That is a very scary and saddening thought. How quick we are to criticise and demand heads to roll when we are on the ‘other’ side of the fence? I wonder if we would be just as harsh on ourselves and freely offer up our own heads if something we contributed to goes wrong. Somehow I doubt it. We cry for grace and respect but seem unable to offer it. That is not loving our neighbours as ourselves, or treating the next person in the same way we expect them to treat us. And it certainly is not seeking to understand before seeking to be heard and understood. It sounds very much like self centered hypocrisy.
    What a sad state to be in?!
    LORD, forgive us all, for we have all sinned and we all fall short of your glory, and change our hearts that we will share with others the grace that you have given us.

  3. Wise advice – I’ve found it helpful to focus the cause of some frustration to find the root of the issue that needs dealing with, and then deal with it through a positive, eternal lense. I’ll see how I go…

  4. We all have failures, we are human. Support & encourage others to have another attempt to succeed.

  5. I thought the devil was only alive and meddling in my affairs in England but now I find he’s in Australia when I’m asleep! So we need worldwide resistance to keep him fleeing! Good timely presentation – no such thing as failure.

  6. I needed to read this, especially the encouragement to persevere as I help to lead in our church; it is so easy to criticise when you’re not involved in decision-making and trying new things.

  7. Absolutely right, Bernie.

    When I heard of the knee-jerk reactions of Malcolm Turnbull and the media, just like the knee-jerk reaction of our NSW Premiére when there was a ferry collision a few years ago, my heart sank. What kind of leadership is that? This incident will cost several people their career aspirations, just because the PM does not know how to handle problems , failures and challenges. It has also caused me to lose my faith in our politicians, sadly to say.

    Having worked on software-intensive engineering porjects for much of my working life, I know that you cannot put a project into service without some weakness or error appearing. I also know that every engineering and software development mnager or leader that I have ever had, has complimented the teams and encouraged them for their efforts, regardless of the changes that were required later and of the inevitable bugs – even in the first production release.

  8. Dear Berni, Thank you for your deep insight of the Census problems. Last night I watched the way Hitler died, along with his faithful, and then the trial of the man that was responsible for the command to exterminate the Jews during the war. I was crying looking at these pictures of the Jewish victims and their the bodies flung into disgusting and inhuman heaps!!! And then we are to listen all day and night about a botched census in our privileged county of Australia. I said to my husband….”We just think we are so precious, so judgemental so full of pride!” There is nothing to private that it can’t be given to our Government. I am just thinking that we are making a huge fuss over this. But then I posted my hardcopy in the mail and thought it was so much easier that the email. May we all learn to show some restraint, and maybe a little more humility, instead of firing the gun so quickly. Thank you Berni for helping us to think these issues through.

  9. Thanks for this article and the reminder that there will always be naysayers… we need to have the courage to try something new and to remember that failure can and will happen from time to time, and to not be paralysed from this. I’m also going to get the book “Good to Great” and start reading it. Hope that will be beneficial even though I am not a business person. Great article with a lot to reflect on… cheers.

  10. Despite all of the news reports & the negativity hype surrounding the Census “Fall” as I call it; I sat down & wrote on a piece of paper my daily list of errands for the next day. At the top was ‘Complete Census online’. At every available opportunity on Wednesday & today I clicked on the complete my census button waiting expectantly to be able to complete it just so I could cross it off my list of things to do.
    God showed me that we are all in a time of waiting. And that while the majority of the population are looking at what they don’t have & complaining about it, the minority are patiently waiting out the storm with expectant hearts for the healing of a new application which was perhaps born out of the need to keep ahead with the times of technology & fast communication.
    Waiting is good, it brings breakthrough with patience & perseverance; and a better outcome for all those who accept it.

  11. Having been on the receiving end of a concerted DDOS attack by a foreign attack team, there is no amount of stress testing or front end intercepting that you can do because these attacks just migrate and grow to consume your all available bandwidth.

    Sadly, the reactions to this by politicians and the media just shows how far our culture has declined from the community spirit that this country was known for. I guess we’ll have to sit through months of recriminations and fault finding while the bad guys just walk free.

    I really feel sorry for the team.

  12. Failure only occurs when we fall down and fail to get up again! Australians fall down all the time ~~~ but we are a nations which gets up off our butts, fixes the problem and then got on with whatever we were supposed to do in the first place.
    Don’t worry! all of the makes census in the end!

    • I just felt so encouraged. To simply look at failure, look at a Holy God. Ask forgiveness. See what He wants today.

  13. Interesting Berni – especially because I plan to preach tomorrow on the apostle Peter and his failures. And, similarly to your comments, novelist Edward Simmons has said that the difference between failure and success is doing a thing nearly right and doing a thing exactly right. How many of us are always exactly right?

  14. One of the things that probably contributed to the failure (apart from the hackers) could be that they (the people who did the programming) probably settled for a load/stress/soak/spike performance testing fail rate of 70:30 instead of a 90:10 fail rate. I’m not sure of the proper terminology, but as a “former” IT person, you know what I mean.

  15. Excellent reporting Mr Dymet, your commentary from my point of view is correct, and one, with all the histrionics, that has been over-looked.

  16. This was really benefitial and gave another spin on something we as leaders dont always do well. The day we recognize, with a sense of gratitude, the sacrifices others have made for the common good, is the day we will forge further than “the small step” made on the moon. He giveth more grace…….

  17. Hi i don’t think it’s up to me to make a comment things go wrong all the time it’s part of the adventure that we put our self in when we try something new gina

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