Failing Right

Meredith Farkas over at Information Wants To Be Free gave a thoughtful take on risk-taking and how to balance it with healthy skepticism, which instantly aroused the flailing failure in me. She’s spot on, and provides some good anecdotal evidence from her career. Wild experimentation can earn you a very wild and unhappy ride if you’re not careful at how you screw things up.

And yet, failure is the lifeblood of success. Failure is highly instructive. Failure is the first step in innovating.

So how to balance the need to keep the library humming the tune of innovation without whistling past the graveyard? Meredith suggests that frank skepticism, in the right doses, keeps our fantasies in check, and can improve the creative process. She notes that at one time she had a colleague who was very critical of every idea she had. At first, she took it personally, but in retrospect, she now sees such criticism as crucial.

So yes, skepticism is critical to knowing when not to jump. But jump we must, or sink into the quagmire of irrelevance.

I previously wrote about the feverish level of innovation I experienced in Silicon Valley…and sometimes the woeful lack thereof. People like Bill Gross and firms like Google have embedded failure into their development cycles. And the results are infamous. But so too have been the failures: Google Wave would be one.

So what exactly is going on here? How do some manage to fail and win at the same time?

Many cynics might argue that failure is a luxury few can afford. Google doesn’t get to fail unless they have a lucrative, near-monopoly on search. Only then can they start to experiment (in public even) in an effort to take on other markets, such as their very noteworthy “experiment” to unseat Microsoft in the office through a once-unproven cloud-based computing model.

But, then again, someone like inventor Bill Gross doesn’t have the money-making machine behind him like Google when he asks investors to fail on a grand scale in order to make them rich(er). Indeed, Bill Gross is a man with more failures to his name than successes…successes built on the backs of magnitudes of billions of failures…literally. So how does he does he fail so often and not get ruined?

Again with the cynical POV: Bill Gross is really not failing as much as he is modeling via massive computer power and genetic algorithms to virtualize his failures.

Actually, that’s exactly what he’s doing. So really, the art of failure is to never really fail at all. ;)

This has import in the library world where innovative librarians are using virtual servers in build-and-kill fashion to create web services on the fly. The wonders of cloud services mean that you can, without much cost and effort, deploy a server, launch a web service and take it down in a matter of minutes. Nobody gets hurt.

It’s an entirely different thing, of course, to put your core services on the line. And this is where skepticism often, and rightly, should cut out the heart of any fool ready to jump off a precipice with the library under their arm.

But if you fail virtually, nobody gets hurt.

A long running trick is the solicitation of a good public flogging, known in web services as the parallel beta launch. The idea here is to keep your stable, tested site online while experimenting at a safe distance from the real McCoy. The model requires that you give full disclosure that you are experimenting on the beta version and that users can opt-in/out at will. Again, if it fails, the users don’t flood your reference desk with pitch forks and torches in hand. They simply use the escape hatch and return to the cozy, familiar world of your old web service.

That’s one trick to virtualizing failure. And here’s another that Bill Gross has to offer. You have to build up a track record. No investor or library patron will trust you as you jump off the cliff of innovation unless you have proved your competence in surviving such leaps of faith. And the best way to do that, is to start small: Jump off the curb, then a car, then a moving car, then a moving car on a bridge over water, then…well, you get the idea.

There are many more ways to fail right, as there always are with the black arts. I myself am planning a particular innovation on library innovating which will “virtualize” the failures, of which I expect many. Lots of skepticism will be present, yes, but also lots of cart wheels into the (virtual) abyss!

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