A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Take Chances, Make Mistakes

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on April 30, 2014

You have an amazing idea for an innovative program. You have gone through all the roadblocks and setbacks of trying something new, and you convince your boss to let you try it. Now what? Is it a success? Is it ho-hum? Is it a spectacular failure? Regardless, you have had a learning experience, and you are a brave librarian for breaking the mold and trying something new.

The Dangers of Success
You would think that if your innovative program is a success, you are problem free. However, our advice is watch your co-workers and supervisors. They may not be happy. We are not saying end your successful program. Just be mindful of your colleagues who either are not as “out of the box” as you are or are just treading water until retirement. Listen to their concerns. For your supervisors, make sure you are not causing your co-workers to run to your supervisor about the new thing you just did that has “ruined” their work environment. Our bottom line advice is do your awesome new program, but be sensitive to what is going on around you.

When New is Nothing Special
You are carrying through on your innovative idea. Some patrons are participating. Your program or service is not a failure, but it is not a run-away success either. What do you do? Can you advertise it better to get more patron buy-in? Do you need to convince your co-workers to talk it up? What is your threshold number of participants to consider the program a success? How do you get to that number?

The Positives of Failure
Your amazing idea bombed. No one came to your program, or no one used your new service. It was not a complete failure. You learned things. Did you learn that a particular time of day or day of the week isn’t a good choice in your community? Did you gain a new friend or collaborative partner because of your experiment? In addition, here is the secret some people will not tell you…sometimes it is good for your colleagues to see you fail. It may make them feel better to know that you are not the perfect person they think you are.

Everything Has a Lifespan
Your program is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The world is beating a path to your door. Even awesome programs need to have an end. Maybe your program goes on hiatus. Maybe it just needs to stop. Our experience has been that by giving programs lifespans, it gives other programs a chance to grow as well as giving us time and space to try something new.

Regardless of what happens with your innovative idea, we hope you learn things. Right now, we try to give each new idea (program or service) at least a school year (8 months) to a year and a half. We also try to get our innovative programs and services funded as often as possible through grants so we are not spending tax dollars on experiments. However, most importantly, we are not hung up on ideas that fail. Every failed idea has had some interesting kernels of success that we take forward to the next experiment. In the words of the wise television cartoon hero, Ms. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

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