Fail Safe

Not failure, but low aim, is crime” – James Russell Lowell (1819-91)

Innovation, and creating innovative environments, was a common theme of my reading this summer. It wasn’t planned – it just seemed to be a topic that many of my favourite professional development sources. I thought I’d take this column to pass along some of the key messages from that reading.

Fail early, fail often, fail small

It’s true that we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. But failing early in the process of developing a product or service allows us to recover, learn and apply those lessons.

It is also important to make the “right” mistakes – errors shouldn’t be calamitous, and should contribute to learning. Managers need to identify the tasks which absolutely must be right, communicate this effectively to staff, and support experimentation on the non-critical activities. In other words, loosen up.

Good managers free their employees to innovate 

Charlene Li, in her Conference Board Review article The Failure Imperative, urges leaders to learn to manage failure as well as they manage success. Organizations can tap into the creativity of employees by making it safe to err. By allowing projects to fail early, often and small, employees gain confidence in the safety nets that have been created for them. Toby Fyfe and Paul Crookall’s study for IPAC, Social Media and Public Sector Policy Dilemmas, suggests strategies which government can use to mitigate risk in allowing employees to use social media. I can see how these ideas may be adapted to many innovation projects. Cross functional teams, with clear goals, an understanding of organizational risks and ways to measure success are the tools which can create a safe environment for innovation in any area of endeavour. Trust is the key. 

I was particularly interested in Fyfe and Crookall’s suggestion that “good failures” be rewarded, that stories about mistakes should be framed positively and shared – rather than belittling the team that bit off more than it could chew, find out what they would do differently on the next project and build that into your strategies for your next project. (Doesn’t that sound remarkably like KM?)

Life is beta

This is probably the attitude that is hardest for librarians to adopt. We like “perfect”, and are not inclined to send out anything before it is the very best we can make it. If it ever was attainable, “perfect” is becoming less and less possible. The pace of change and the amount of information produced on a daily basis makes it nearly impossible to get everything completely right before rolling it out. The cultural shift to collaboration means that your users, interacting with your work, will push it in ways you may not have anticipated. If the product is going to change anyway, why not get it out where you can take advantage of your users’ imaginations?

At least one paper made the assertion that the “culture of expertise” is dying as the “culture of collaboration” ascends. I’m not entirely sure I agree with this. I think that there is still plenty of room for experts to use their experience and training, and to provide important services. I’m not sure crowdsourcing works in all circumstances. 

The summer issue of the Conference Board Review featured an article from James Krohe, If You Love Your People, Set Them Free. He opines that attitude of “perpetual beta” might not enhance employee engagement. “ What does motivate workers is work: interesting work, useful work, work that challenges them, work whose completion satisfies both ego and the social self.” (emphasis mine)

I didn’t promise you answers – I just want to show you what’s out there. I’m sure that the answer lies somewhere between. I hope that you use the comments area to share your thoughts on this. How do you determine when you need to be the craftsman, and devote a high level of care to your work? 


  1. Great post as usual Wendy. You always give us something to chew on. I would add just one thing to the mantra “Fail early, fail often, fail small” and that is Reflect.

    In my (humble?) opinion there is nothing quite as useful as a project debriefing to document what went wrong, as well as right. Even if the people change by the time a similar project comes around, the learning from those mistakes, or errors in timing, or failures in perceiving the impact of a project thread will be retained for the organization.

  2. You’re right, Shaunna! And it’s so easy to miss that step – new work floods in, it seems self-indulgent or a waste of time to take that pause and record what you learned.

    Jones and Dysart’s blog featured several posts from Susan Lipsey. In the fourth of her guest posts, she talks about how to scale the search for perfect

  3. Just stumbled across a wonderful video that every manager and employee should see. Patrick McLean on ideas, failure and creative work.

  4. Librarian By Day’s Bobbi Newman posted a list of sources she quoted in her Internet Librarian presentation on learning from failure. I thought I’d pass it along

    Lots of good stuff here.