photo of person with light bulb next to their headLast week as a part of the YALSAblog innovation series I posted about failure and how being ready and open to failing is a key ingredient in innovation. Once that post was published, in the comments, and via email and Twitter, I had lots of conversations with colleagues and friends about how one might be open to failure for themselves in the workplace, but if they didn’t feel supported in the possibility of failing in the profession or their work institution, then moving forward with failure as an option was pretty impossible. People I communicated with were particularly concerned about the tone of online discussions over the past couple of weeks. This tone makes those I talked with hesitant about presenting their innovative ideas. Who wants to open themselves up to failure when the profession (and colleagues) is going to call them out on it publicly, and sometimes in not the most supportive manner?

These conversations I had over the last week got me thinking more about how as a profession we need to breed a culture in which innovation can take place and where people feel safe in making mistakes and even in failing. I often talk with librarians about making teens feel safe in the library environment. And by safe I don’t mean safe from violence, I mean safe from bullies and from behaviors that center around putting one person down in order to make someone else feel better about themselves. In libraries in order for innovation to happen we need to make sure that staff feel safe from bullies, embarrassment, and plain old negativity. These are some ideas I have for making that happen:

  • If someone comes to you with a new idea or a revision of an old idea, don’t simply say, “That will never work” or “We’ve tried that before and it won’t work.” Talk about the idea, why the person coming to you with it wants to try it, and what the barriers and challenges to success might be. Have an open-mind and realize that something that you don’t think will work can be successful under the tutelage of someone else.
  • Don’t take things personally. If someone comes up with a new idea that changes something that you’ve been working on don’t feel like you have been hurt or that you’ve done something wrong. If the idea is a good one take yourself out of it and help to create something great for teens using what someone else came up with.
  • Don’t be jealous. In every profession I’ve seen that people with new ideas are often held back because of a fear that the new innovative idea will make someone else look bad. Instead of worrying about how you look (or that people won’t even notice you) focus on how the new idea might actually make the lives of teens in the community better.
  • Spend time each day or week or month talking with colleagues about innovative ideas. Perhaps at your library you can have a monthly crazy new ideas day in which whatever anyone says, no matter how out of the box, is taken as an opportunity to improve service. This can help people to get their creative juices going and regularly come up with innovative ideas-some of which might work and some which might not.
  • Be careful about your use of social media. Remember that what you post about an idea being discussed in your own library, or that has been implemented by someone else’s library, was at one point a new idea. Perhaps that idea will work in unexpected positive ways, perhaps it will prove to be a failure. Social media isn’t the place to discourage someone from their new idea. If you want to write about something innovative that you don’t agree with try to keep it from getting personal.
  • Celebrate both successes and failures. I know that it may seem slightly whacky to celebrate failures, but think about the time and effort someone put into trying out their idea. Sure, it didn’t work, but they were willing to try something and learn from it. That’s a great thing. Celebrate the willingness to make the attempt.
  • Be a mentor. Perhaps someone’s innovative new idea will be a failure. Maybe that failure will be a learning experience. Instead of simply going the negative that won’t work route, try working with the staff member to put the pieces in place so that a potential initial failure will be as successful as possible. Then you and the staff member can analyze what worked and didn’t work and develop next steps.

We all have to take responsibility for breeding a culture in which innovation is accepted. I won’t say that it’s easy for this to happen. But, I will say that the environment is essential as libraries move forward in order to provide the best service possible to teens.

What are your ideas for breeding a culture in which innovation is OK and failure and mistakes are accepted? Have you had a good experience in which you felt safe being innovative and making mistakes? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Flickr user

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

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