By Andreas Orphanides
This is the fifth post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.
When was the last time you totally, completely, utterly loused up a project or a report or some other task in your professional life? When was the last time you dissected that failure, in meticulous detail, in front of a room full of colleagues? Let’s face it: we’ve all had the first experience, and I’d wager that most of us would pay good money to avoid the second.
It’s a given that we’ll all encounter failure professionally, but there’s a strong cultural disincentive to talk about it. Failure is bad. It is to be avoided at all costs. And should one fail, that failure should be buried away in a dark closet with one’s other skeletons. At the same time, it’s well acknowledged that failure is a critical step on the path to success. It’s only through failing and learning from that experience that we can make the necessary course corrections. In that sense, refusing to acknowledge or unpack failure is a disservice: failure is more valuable when well-understood than when ignored.
This philosophy — that we can gain value from failure by acknowledging and understanding it openly — is the underlying principle behind Fail4Lib, the perennial preconference workshop that takes place at the annual Code4Lib conference, and which completed its fifth iteration (Fail5Lib!) at Code4Lib 2017 in Los Angeles. Jason Casden (now of UNC Libraries) originally conceived of the Fail4Lib idea, and together he and I developed the concept into a workshop about understanding, analyzing, and coming to terms with professional failure in a safe, collegial environment.
Participants in a Fail4Lib workshop engage in a number of activities to foster a healthier relationship with failure: case study discussions to analyze high-profile failures such as the Challenger disaster and the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal; lightning talks where brave souls share their own professional failures and talk about the lessons they learned; and an open bull session about risk, failure, and organizational culture, to brainstorm on how we can identify and manage failure, and how to encourage our organizations to become more failure-tolerant.
Fail4Lib’s goal is to help its participants to get better at failing. By practicing talking about and thinking about failure, we position ourselves to learn more from the failures of others as well as our own future failures. By sharing and talking through our failures we maximize the value of our experiences, we normalize the practice of openly acknowledging and discussing failure, and we reinforce the message to participants that it happens to all of us. And by brainstorming approaches to allow our institutions to be more failure-tolerant, we can begin making meaningful organizational change towards accepting failure as part of the development process.
The principles I’ve outlined here not only form the framework for the Fail4Lib workshop, they also represent a philosophy for engaging with professional failure in a constructive and blameless way. It’s only by normalizing the experience of failure that we can gain the most from it; in so doing, we make failure more productive, we accelerate our successes, and we make ourselves more resilient.
Andreas Orphanides is Associate Head, User Experience at the NCSU Libraries, where he develops user-focused solutions to support teaching, learning, and information discovery. He has facilitated Fail4Lib workshops at the annual Code4Lib conference since 2013. He holds a BA from Oberlin College and an MSLS from UNC-Chapel Hill.