Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fantastic failures

One thing I've learned since beginning my professional career as a librarian is that it is much, much worse to favor the status quo than to embrace risk (and the unavoidable "failures" that experimenting brings). To point out the obvious, the pace of change only gets faster. To keep up, we need to be creative and daring in how we tackle the future. That's why I'm pleased to see that creativity is getting its due in marketing/business and education circles.

Take two recent articles from BusinessWeek online: How Failure Breeds Success and Inside Google's New-Product Process. The former details how businesses are trying to reshape their workplaces into creativity labs that embrace the speed bumps (or potholes) on the road to breakthroughs. These companies are even highlighting failures in their presentations and workshops so to deconstruct the creative process and figure out why some things didn't work. The article's author states, " "Getting good" at failure, however, doesn't mean creating anarchy out of organization. It means leaders -- not just on a podium at the annual meeting, but in the trenches, every day -- who create an environment safe for taking risks and who share stories of their own mistakes. It means bringing in outsiders unattached to a project's past. It means carving out time to reflect on failure, not just success." The author also points out that there's a difference between pointless failures and intelligent ones. Intelligent failures allow employees to see their customers and their problems in a new light. These moments of insight could be the early stages of later successes.

Google seems to get this concept and welcomes the failures that come along with successes, as discussed in the other article. Google's vice-president of search products and user experience, Marissa Mayer, talked about the company's perspective and said, "The way you find really successful new innovation is to release five things and hope that one or two of them really take off." She also describes Google's product design philosophy where teams work together to "build a vision" around the product while leaving plenty of room for changes and flexibility so that creativity is not driven out of the process.

Related to the value of failures, Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge interviewed authors of a working paper entitled, "Accident, Innovation, and Expectation in Innovation Process," written by Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin. The authors identify numerous innovations that happened by accident including anesthesia, Ivory soap, nylon, penicillin and photography, and point out that many such discoveries happen when people are tuned in to noticing the value of accidents as a way to envision other possibilities. They also point out that fixating too much on a particular end result when one is trying to anticipate unknowns can backfire by shutting out creativity.

Business-types are not the only ones honing in on the practical importance of creativity. Steven Bell reported that Tufts University is rethinking its admissions strategy, giving weight to students' creative prowess in addition to their test scores and GPA's. Today, Bell also shared a presentation by author Sir Ken Robinson in which he argues that education stifles creativity.

Why do I continue to talk about creativity and risk-taking on a library marketing blog? I do so because marketing is all about anticipating the unknown. We conduct surveys, analyze trends and statistics, organize focus groups and all kinds of other things with the purpose of figuring out (guessing) what people need and imagining ways to fill those needs. Doing this takes a leap of faith. We have to believe our information is accurate, that we're interpreting it correctly and that the services we come up with are useful and needed. When we're talking about something as amorphous as needs and wants, it's impossible to be 100% right 100% of the time. The only thing we can do in marketing 100% of the time is innovate and learn. A lot of times, I hear people say that library work isn't life-or-death work. Why, then, should librarians behave as if their actions (or failures) carry that kind of weight? I don't want to demean the importance of what we do or the decisions we make. Librarians do some of the most culturally and socially important work there is, which is why I chose to become one. But, relatively speaking, the impact of possible failures from smart experimentation are relatively small as compared with the truly risky prospect of doing nothing at all.

Catgories: creativity_and_inspiration | must_reads | real_life

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