Failure, Risk & the Entrepreneurial Library

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This past spring Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg addressed the graduates from Harvard College and said that “the greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail”. Likewise, in a recent letter to shareholders Amazon’s Jeff Bezos made it a point to equate innovation with failure, calling them “inseparable twins”. Arguably leading two of the most innovative companies in the world, both CEOs have essentially the same message; that without a culture that accepts the inevitability of failure, and learns from it, innovation will remain elusive and/or non-existent. Clearly with risk comes a degree of failure, but by playing it safe you get exactly what you would expect: mediocrity.

That Association of Research Libraries’ Innovation Lab, of which I am the inaugural Chair, acknowledges the fact that many research libraries lack the wherewithal required to innovate, despite leadership that yearns to embrace change.  Several reasons may account for the entrenchment of library practice, most notably staff overly comfortable with playing it safe and preferring order over uncertainty. Unfortunately, entrepreneurial culture by its nature changes rapidly, tolerates risk and failure, and tends to have periods of disruption. It’s not the image most have of libraries, but libraries have been passive change agents for a long time. Even when we consider some of the best companies in the world, many of their services and innovations mirror long-time library practices. Facebook with personalization; Amazon with delivery; Google with search and discovery; Netflix with streaming content; and Apple with mobility. None of this is new to libraries, we just did not go out and form multi-national, multi-billion dollar for-profit companies for these services. The irony, however, lies in the fact that we are now playing catch-up with the same companies that learned from our successes and built on our work.

Give up the white paper, three-year plan motif

Instead of the standard approach based on reports and long-term plans, libraries should facilitate open-ended brainstorming discussions, where the absurd to the sublime are encouraged. Be intentional about bringing people from differing backgrounds and expertise into these discussions. Establish an expectation of participation. A diversity of ideas challenges the canon and innovation cannot happen within the canon.

At no point should budget considerations or other resource restrictions be allowed in brainstorming and idea-generating conversations. Nothing kills the innovative spirit like the comment “how are we going to pay for that?” when an idea is being conceived. This approach has its detractors however. Some feel that without parameters innovative ideas can lose context. For me, however, it’s not that resource parameters are not important, but that the sequencing can occur much later in the process, after compelling ideas emerge.

If documentation is required, try a one-pager outlining the idea and possible benefits rather than spending months writing a detailed planning documents that quickly become obsolete. Make it something like an elevator talk: intelligible, concise and compelling. As to the three-year plan and the white paper, they may work in some organizations, but by their very nature they scream safe, predictable and ordinary. However, as adaptations are needed from well-laid plans, the door opens for innovation, so there can be a silver lining as long as the plan undergoes continuous assessment and revision. Innovation does not follow a script.

Planning for perfection is the enemy of progress.

Instead try a project to test the plan. The project will involve risk. It will take people away from “essential” operational duties; it may (and should) challenge existing practices; make it fun and exciting. Some other guidelines for projects include instilling a sense of urgency without panic. They should be timely and show results pretty quickly. Moreover, the evaluative process should be concerned with value and scale: does the idea provide enough value to warrant the expenditure of the resources needed to become a program?

Some projects may require several attempts, along with some failures, while leadership begins to position the organization for the project-to-program evolution.  Libraries and universities tend to change slower than say, Amazon, for a variety of good reasons. Change should always be at the forefront of good leadership and strategic thinking. Recalling the adage “Good is the enemy of great”, the next step is to create a pervasive culture of collaboration, creativity that embraces change, and a strong tolerance for risk.

Recruiting the Best

Any organization can only be as good as its people. Recruiting for entrepreneurial librarians requires screening that assesses potential and fit. For the most part these qualities can be summed up in the five Cs, specifically as they relate to Boston College: collaboration, creativity, content, change and Catholic/Jesuit. We want people who see that what’s good for BC is good for them, not the other way around. Such people tend to be natural collaborators. Creativity seems obvious. Change remains pervasive, so it is important to embrace it. Libraries continue to be about content.

From my point of view, our current staff exudes all these qualities and is as fine a group of people as I’ve ever had the honor to work with. We are a dynamic mix of early, mid and late career staff and librarians, creating a special environment punctuated by excitement, stability and wisdom. Collectively we dream, deliver and do everything we can to support the vision of “Ever to Excel”. There’s no place I’d rather be professionally.

Tom B. Wall

University Librarian