Failure is definitely an option (not to mention inevitable)

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Pamela Martin, Utah Library Association Past-President and Idaho Resident

Are you allowed to fail at work?

While it’s probably not great to continually fail at work, failure is an unavoidable part of work, and it should be welcome. Failure teaches us what we are doing wrong and challenges us to be better. As a reference and instruction librarian, I expect my students to be aware of this. I try to teach my students that failure is just part of research – that you actually learn to search better as you fail at searches. In the databases, seemingly perfect keywords will fail you, and titles that seem pertinent will disguise useless, irrelevant information.  Researching is a process of trial and error that can all too often be a little heavy on the errors. However, even if students believe me, they don’t like coming to terms with this truth.

And why should they? None of us enjoy failing. While this is particularly true in the workplace, fear of failure is also heightened online, where we post our successes and hide our flaws. Social media can be a powerful sharing tool; however, all we can really share is a small part of our true experience. And if the partial reality reflected in social media is often deceptively rosy, so, too, is the reality portrayed at most professional conferences. At library conferences, our best and brightest discuss their shiniest successes. While this kind of event can be inspiring, it can also be demoralizing. Often we listen to stories of success that seem too far out of reach or aren’t replicable at our institutions. Presenters often don’t mention the many failures along the way, or if they do these failures are seen as trivial obstacles, barely worth mentioning.

That’s why I’m excited to attend Strikethrough, ULA’s failure workshop. If we expect our students to embrace failure, we must do the same. We need to allow (encourage?) failure in the workplace. Failure can teach us as much as – if not more than – tales of success. I believe by demystifying failure within librarianship we can encourage innovation and enjoy more success.

Never Waste a Good Failure

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Peter Bromberg, Associate Director for Public Services, Salt Lake County Library.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” -Louisa May Alcott

Over the past decade I have observed a continual shift in how many in the business world approach the idea of failure. It has been a shift from viewing failure as something to avoid, to viewing failure as a necessary and valuable step in the process of innovation, organizational learning, and continual improvement.  Government and non-profit sectors seem to be increasingly open to this understanding of the value of failure — an understanding that scientists and design-thinkers have long appreciated.

It is not that failures or mistakes are, in and of themselves, good things.  It is useful to distinguish between good failures and bad failures.  A “bad” failure is generally one that could have been avoided or mitigated with a bit of thought or planning.  Hallmarks of bad failures might include:

  • taking on too much — unrealistic workload for yourself or others
  • having too short a timeline
  • having the wrong people involved, or having a lack of input from key stakeholders or others with needed information, skills, resources
  • not connecting action to a deeper set of values or goals

The most significant hallmark of a bad failure is that the failure is not openly discussed or analyzed.  Any failure can become valuable if there is a debrief around 1) the goal, 2) the actions taken, 3) the rationale for the actions,4)  the results, and 5) the lessons learned.  In the end, it is the unexamined mistake — the mistake we refuse to learn from — that truly warrants the label FAILURE.

mia hamm quote
Image Courtesy of Flickr User: Inspiyr.com — CC BY-ND 2.0

“Good” failures, on the other hand, are those that result from intentional actions, aligned towards clear goals, based on our best thinking and knowledge, and undertaken in a spirit of openness and learning.  Indeed, it is impossible for us to learn, grow, or innovate if we never take risks. Fear of failure, aversion to risk, or an organizational culture that punishes failure implicitly or explicitly, may, in the end, result in the ultimate failure — the failure to adapt to our rapidly changing world.

If you’re interested in further exploring the ideas of “good” failure, and the increasing need for successful 21st century organizations to “fail forward”, register now for, Strikethrough,  the Utah Library Association “Failure” Workshop.

The Schedule:

  • Thursday, February 18, 2016, OPTIONAL reception for keynote speakers from 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. at the City Library.
  • Friday, February 19, 2016, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. FAILURE WORKSHOPS at the City Library.
  • Saturday, February 20, 2016, OPTIONAL Unconference at the City Library. (We will be workshopping and discussing ideas and situations involving failure), 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

ULA 2016 Conference Program Now Available

The program schedule for ULA 2016 is live! Start planning your conference now athttps://ula2016.sched.org/.

This year, the conference program is posted online, and an abbreviated printed schedule will be available at the conference.

Be sure to check the color key on the right side of the page. This year, programs were assigned to “tracks,” each of which is represented by a color.

Questions? Comments? Contact Erin Wimmer (erin.wimmer@utah.edu) or Tommy Hamby (thamby@slcpl.org).