March 16, 2018

For Leaders, Creativity and Failure Go Hand in Hand | Leading from the Library

steven-bell-newswireLeaders are told they must create a culture that fosters risk, rewards achievement, and accepts failure. That’s all good, but to make it happen, leaders must learn to set the stage for creativity.

Some of the stories we like best are about failure. That’s true, if the failure is followed by redemption in some form that leads to success. That’s the essence of many books and movies with sports themes. For example, consider the series of Rocky movies. We have a failed, washed-up boxer so undesirable in the ring that no one will even use him as a sparring partner. In one of the films, when he gets his chance at the championship, two things are required to make a difference. First, he needs a leader who is willing to set the stage for his redemption—Mick, his coach. Second, he must believe in his leader’s offbeat but creative approach, which requires considerable risk. The plan calls for Rocky to hide his natural left-handed style until later in the fight. In the early rounds, he must take a beating and stay in the fight until he can launch the surprise southpaw attack and throw his opponent off guard. Whether he wins or loses, Rocky has gone from failure to hero—and we love it.

Failure is good

Similar stories are found in the world of business—companies that fail and then succeed. Instagram’s leaders, a good example since the company evolved from a failed venture called Burbn, are admired for taking risks that led to success. The admiration is even greater when the stories reveal some particularly creative yet risky strategy behind the turnaround. Why is it that we rarely hear good failure stories in our own profession? It would even be rare to hear bad failure stories, where there’s just failure and no redemption. Instead, we focus on the successes and best practices. On occasion we may be encouraged to share our failures.

While providing no specific failure stories, BeerBrarian claims to fail often as a leader and spoke about the importance of creating an organizational culture that accepts and even encourages failure when experiments are tried and risks taken. At the Code4Lib 2013 event, a group of librarians held a Fail4Lib preconference workshop. (The technology function within the library may be more open to rapid prototyping and failure than other units—and to sharing and learning from failure.) Rick Anderson shared a story about the failure of an Espresso Book Machine experiment, and his idea for a new type of library column that encouraged librarians to share their failure stories. Not surprisingly, that idea went nowhere, as no librarians came forward to document their failure. Perhaps one reason we hesitate to share our failure, beyond sheer embarrassment, is an inability to recognize it as an opportunity at least to celebrate our creativity.

Setting the Stage

Perhaps we focus too much on the failure and too little on the creativity. It’s creativity that leads to new programs and services, so it is incumbent upon leaders to design and implement a workplace culture that encourages and rewards creativity, no matter the end results of the project. Back in 2008, the Harvard Business Review featured an article titled “Creativity and the Role of the Leader.” The authors said that leaders should not manage creativity but manage for creativity. In other words, what actions can leaders take to set the stage for creativity to thrive in their organizations—the type of creativity that could lead to risk taking and possibly failure? Here are three suggestions they made for leaders:

  • Draw on the right minds: Engage the right people, at the right times, to the right degree in creative work. Distribute creative responsibilities across the organization. Avoid the myth of the “lone creative genius”; get staff collaborating. Creativity and innovation are more likely to ignite when people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise share their thinking.
  • Bring Process to BearCarefully: Organizational creativity depends on vibrant, ongoing collaboration and free idea flow; adding people and projects restricts the flow. The leader’s job is to map out the stages of innovation and recognize that each one requires different types of support. Idea generation and idea implementation are best handled by different people. Leaders must guide ideas through the bureaucracy. Leaders need to filter creative ideas, finding the ones that have little potential and weeding them out.
  • Fan the Flames of Motivation: Intellectual challenge is a better motivator for creativity than salary or benefits. Leaders must find ways to provide intellectual challenges and independence and allow people to pursue their passions. Leaders let others know they appreciate their work, decreasing the fear of failure to increase creativity.

Create and Fail Often

Perhaps the most important thing we can do as leaders if we want to increase the creativity in our organizations is identified in that last sentence: Decrease the fear of failure to increase creativity. That’s the essence of a culture that will lead to the innovation needed to advance the library mission. The motto of one of the most creative organizations on the planet, design firm IDEO, is “fail often to succeed sooner.” It should know. As part of its design process, it engages in rapid prototyping that can lead to dozens of failures before a single success. One of its most creative products, the mouse for the Apple computer, went through hundreds of iterations (some just minor tweaks), before the eventual design was deemed a success. You can imagine how many of those versions were completely unusable. Higher education can be a particularly challenging environment for the IDEO mentality.

Higher Ed’s Success Culture

Jeff Selingo brings that to our attention in his essay about how quick the critics were to condemn Sebastian Thrun and Udacity as a failed MOOC concept. About Udacity, Selingo writes, “In start-up parlance, they ‘failed fast’ then ‘iterated’ their models, and in some cases, such as Udacity, made a ‘pivot,’ meaning they tweaked their business model.” The fast failure and pivot, in the start-up world would not only be accepted but likely rewarded. Many start-ups get serious venture capital only after their leaders demonstrate the ability to fail multiple times and still demonstrate creative ideas for new business possibilities. Perhaps it is no surprise that academic libraries reflect the higher education culture, in which success is expected for each new outing and anything less is subject to scorn.

Failure is Okay But Success is Nice

Though librarians may lack the time and resources of IDEO, we need to accept failure as part of the creative process. Although it may be out of place within higher education, leaders need to adopt responsibility for establishing an internal library culture that is safe for failures. As Seth Godin so eloquently noted, if we fail to share our mistakes and failures, it’s impossible to learn from them. Hiding them, he said, is always the worst option. Then again, if there is too much failure and too little success, leaders may need to decide to end or postpone a project. Discovering that balance is all part of the process of becoming a leader who makes it possible for creativity to blossom. When it comes to creativity and risk taking, leading by example makes all the difference. The leader is then able to help others to accept failure when it happens and learn from those failures. Working together, the library staff are then able to reset the mechanism for their next attempt at creative genius and eventual success. If enough leaders can change the culture, then, who knows, we might just be ready not only to talk more about our failures but be enthusiastic about sharing them.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Steven,

    Here is a very specific example of failure:



    • Thanks Jake. I appreciate you sharing the link to your post. That’s a good failure story in that those who are thinking about embedded librarian services can learn from your experience.

  2. I’ve thought a lot lately about whether libraries are agile enough to fail. If it takes a year, a committee, and a working group to get a project off the ground, failure hits a lot harder than something that took a few months and launched at a smaller scale. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this intersection of creativity and a sometimes slow-paced culture.

    • You make a good point. Some sort of innovate-prototype-fail-improve cycle will itself fail if the culture doesn’t allow it to bloom. So you have to change that intersection – and that’s where a confident leader is going to make a difference – but that leader must be willing to create the safe environment for a new culture to develop. What strategies you use for change, it will have to start small and allow for some initial failure and potential success. Thanks for sharing your observation.