Fail faster!

Posted by jlubans on March 11, 2014

20140311-failure homer.jpg
Caption: Homer succeeding at failing.
I’ve been known to ask staff for more mistakes; more, not fewer. Originally, I did this while promoting innovation in an institution bogged down with minutiae - lovingly caressing its paperwork - and proudly risk-averse. The “process” had become more important than our “product”; in this case, providing books and services to university library users. My failure message – then and now: “try it; if it fails, learn from it.
Failing is a proven way to gain experience, an essential element in making decisions, something that endlessly debating the “what ifs?” never gets.
It is essential, of course, for the organization to have a supportive culture for mistake making. Quoting myself from Leading from the Middle:
“When (Southwest Airlines) Executive Chairman Herb Kelleher asserts his job is to liberate people, he means the people get to use all their skills and talents without fear of punishment for doing whatever it takes to get the job done. It’s known and practiced throughout the organization that if you make a mistake ‘leaning toward the customer’, you’ll be forgiven.”
That’s the supportive culture I was trying to install to replace the
mistake–intolerant culture. And, I was hoping to get a few early-on gains, ones that would inspire and make achieving the seemingly impossible something less Herculean. (N.B. I was particularly fortunate to have a leader who supported my efforts.)
SWA incorporates risk-taking in its statement of values: (btw, one of the briefest, easiest to understand, and most believable values statements from any organization!)
SWA’s values, aligned under Warrior Spirit, are to: “work hard, desire to be the best, be courageous, display a sense of urgency, persevere and innovate.” If you work at SWA you have permission to fail.
Now, let’s be clear. I am not advocating a directionless mistake making, a failing for the sake of failing. A BBC report suggests there are two kinds of failure, the honest and the dishonest: "If your venture doesn't work out, but you did everything you could to make it a success, that's what we call an honest failure, and that's seen as an honourable thing." Failing without a full effort is dishonest and something from which you learn very little.
Bear in mind, when we fail we have to reflect on the failure and draw out points of wisdom.
I’ve been influenced by failure. One of my epic snafus was at the University of Colorado where a large-scale (3000 students), painstakingly planned teaching project went awry. As my embarrassment diminished, we launched one of the first embedded librarian projects. We placed a librarian in the history department and another in economics. From the positive results of that experiment, I’ve come to eschew any kind of large-scale teaching effort, aka as “The Dump Truck Approach” in which the only worthwhile takeaway for the overwhelmed student may be the friendly faces of the librarians presenting the program. For me, the most successful information literacy programs come from small-scale efforts: bright “subject” librarians working with good teachers, each committed to students learning how to research and write well; it all harks back to my face-plant on the Boulder campus.
The BBC report quotes Heather Hanbury, headmistress of Wimbledon High School a private girls' school that held a "failure week" to teach its pupils how learn from their mistakes. "You're not born with fear of failure, it's not an instinct, it's something that grows and develops in you as you get older. Very young children have no fear of failure at all. They have great fun trying new things and learning very fast."

Leading from the Middle Library: Seton Hall University 
Walsh Library
South Orange, NJ, United States of America

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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