Friday, March 08, 2013

Failing in order to succeed. Part 2:

Failing is never really fun. Admitting it is even less fun. Although there is a move afoot to see failure as an opportunity to learn, it’s easier said than done. This 3-part article seeks to provide a provocative perspective on how to think about learning from unintentional failure through the use of evidence, information and knowledge (EI&K).

Failing in order to succeed. Part 2:

Lorri Zipperer
Zipperer Project Management
Albuquerque, NM
Copyright 2013

Learning and the failure librarian

It should be recognised that leadership is pivotal in ensuring a learning culture is in place. Despite the fact it seems trite to say so, everyone has a role in learning from failure. It isn’t just management’s role. Enabling effective and respectful learning from failure is not a solo gig. In looking at this phenomenon from the team perspective a new role could be envisioned that presents organisations with an opportunity to learn from missteps more successfully: the failure librarian. This role could be applied to support learning from either intentional or unintentional failure. The latter will require a new paradigm for the engagement of librarians in this work.

Librarians are well suited to contribute to learning from failure by:
  • Being appreciative of leaders and administrators and what makes them tick
  • Understanding of organisational boundaries and silos and how to navigate them for knowledge and information identification;
  • Identifying external evidence that could help recognize factors contributing to failure, minimize their impact and inform next steps, and;
  • Distributing external stories of failure organisation-wide to raise awareness of problems plaguing others to proactively flag risk in-house.
The failure librarian has to do more than identify, accumulate and disseminate stuff. They need to get into the muck of the failure experience to understand how EI&K could help transform the situation into a positive experience for their organisations based on trust, transparency and teamwork.

They have the additional qualification and position to understand how poor EI&K can contribute to failure. They are in an excellent position to raise awareness of gaps that others may not see due to the latency of the problems.

The failure librarian will have a heightened understanding of what makes EI&K work reliable. Knowing how to constructively discuss systemic EI&K weaknesses as a risk management tactic can be an invaluable asset. Once the individual sees failure through the prism of their own mistakes they are better able to share that story and avenues for improvement in a sensitive, impactful way. For example:

A staff member with whom a librarian has a good relationship emails her with a search query. At the librarian’s request, the colleague sends her the strategy they used for the work. The librarian looks it over. It’s not bad -- but has some problems that should be addressed for the search to be complete. The librarian does her own work, and shared her results but does not explain to her colleague how he could have done a better search. She assumes the colleague had talked to other peers to get in-house insights and gather knowledge on his project. He is busy and they are friends, so she decides against explaining her search strategy rather than making him look bad.

Two weeks later, while the librarian is out of town, the colleague does another search to support a rapid turnaround proposal for a new client. The requesting client dismissed the proposal upon review of its competitive analysis. The analysis on which it was based was incomplete—despite the fact that the staff involved worked hard on the information and evidence review for the project. Senior staff, who were not involved in the project -- were not interviewed and hence their knowledge was not applied. The company fires her colleague for the misstep.

The problems in this scenario beyond the obvious lack of a complete literature review could include the librarian’s:
  • Failure to provide feedback to her colleague to improve his work.
  • Failure to approach her peer to offer services and get directly involved in the project
  • Assumption that her colleague did not have the time to receive counsel to improve their search process, hence letting the opportunity for staff improvement fall to the wayside.
  • Assumption that her colleague had done knowledge gathering by discussing his project with in-house experts rather than recommending that as part of a standard process for project work.

Part 3 will describe next actions to the concept of the failure librarian to both organisational and individual commitments to learning from stumbles.

Part 1 is available here:

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