Fail Like a Winner

I’m afraid I have some bad news for the library community. Collectively we are suffering from a rampant case of atychiphobia: a persistent fear of failure. Its primary indicator is “a reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.”[i] Symptoms may also include anxiety, procrastination, feet dragging, low confidence, and/or debilitating perfectionism.[ii]

We are not alone in this diagnosis. Fear of failure afflicts such a large portion of the population that it could be considered “the human condition.” Individuals struggle to overcome it every day in their personal and professional lives. However, it becomes particularly insidious when it is institutionalized. Systemic atychiphobia paralyzes organizations by stifling motivation, suppressing ingenuity, and reinforcing the status quo. According to Alina Tugend, author of the book Better By Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, “such a mindset… creates workplaces where taking chances and being creative while risking failure is subsumed by an ethos of mistake-prevention at the cost of daring and innovation.”[iii] While this condition cannot be cured, we can take steps to counteract its immobilizing effects.

At the organizational level, library administrators can adjust policies, processes and procedures to nurture a safe environment for courageous enterprises. For example:

  • Openly discuss future directions at meetings and welcome staff to play concrete roles in achieving those visions.
  • Encourage employees to imagine, plan, and test low-risk/no-cost changes without approval and with minimal interference.
  • For risky/high-cost propositions, set aside office hours during which staff can pitch their ideas to their immediate supervisor(s) and – if necessary – their Assistant Director or Director.
  • Support employee efforts by providing training, offering constructive (as opposed to critical) guidance, and – whenever possible – supplying adequate funding.
  • Use performance reviews to reward initiative and neutrally evaluate results, rather than punish disappointments.
  • Incorporate realistic room for error and learning into strategic plans.

At the individual level, librarians and support staff can adjust attitudes and approaches to defuse their own and others’ fear of failure. For example:

  • Set challenging but reasonable goals and outline how they could be achieved.
  • Brainstorm possibilities with fellow employees to build excitement, fine-tune the intention, and recruit assistance.
  • If a promising idea becomes overwhelming, break it down into small increments that can be implemented gradually over time.
  • If change is imposed, not voluntary, consciously analyze any resistance that arises. Legitimate concerns should be clearly communicated to the party in charge. Recognize insubstantial opposition as unproductive and move on.

Remember that failure will not bring about the end of the world. It may breed discomfort and ill feelings for a while, but eventually that will fade. The suggestions above do not guarantee success by any means. In fact, they are likely to cause a rash of missteps, mistakes, and misadventures. The point is, that’s okay. The benefits of exposing ourselves to failure far outweigh the alternative: hunkering down in mediocrity. Research shows that organizations thrive on such enlightened vulnerability.[iv] That is how we grow our capacities, improve processes, pioneer new products and services, and revolutionize industries.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title Fail Like a Winner.


[i] Mind Tools, “Overcoming Fear of Failure,” accessed April 14, 2013,

[ii] Mind Tools, “Overcoming Fear of Failure,” accessed April 14, 2013,

[iii] Alina Tugend, Better By Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong (New York, NY: Riverhead Books: 2012), 2-3.

[iv] Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther, “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes,” accessed April 14, 2013,


Pivotal Change

Continuing my series on harnessing change (for a recap visit my previous posts), let’s turn our attention to pivots for change. I borrow this concept from renowned thinker and best-selling author Seth Godin. He suggests that major overhauls tend to be overambitious and overwhelming. As librarians and library staff, I think it’s safe to say that we’re just plain over it. Large-scale change is overrated. As an alternative, Godin recommends that organizations root change in existing assets and strategically tweak select elements. I like to think of it as the keep/change framework based upon the phrasing of his examples:[i]

Keep the machines in your factory, but change what they make.

Keep your technology, but use it to do something else.

Keep your reputation, but apply it to a different industry or problem.

The Unquiet Librarian applied this model to school libraries and came up with some examples of her own:[ii]

Keep books and print materials in your library, but add and promote the formats in which their content appear (i.e. audio books, databases,  e-books,  downloadable books…).

Keep teaching information literacy skills, but focus on… helping students devise personal learning networks that they can apply to any learning situation.

With that pattern in mind, I will venture to suggest a few keep/change principles that could be applied to public libraries:

Keep offering reference services, but deliver them in convenient modalities (via text message, using e-mail, through IM chats).

Keep collecting print materials, but promote them in appealing ways (announce “Exciting New Titles” on Facebook, tweet book reviews in 140 characters or less, apply merchandising formulas in the stacks).

Keep teaching technology, but think beyond software (creating WordPress websites, LinkedIn for job seeking, personal digital archiving).

Keep connecting people with information, but compile it in easily digestible formats (consider tailored “reports” as opposed to unwieldy piles of books or long lists of unintelligible URLs).

Keep planning programs, but engage local groups and interests (co-sponsor events in the community, partner with arts and culture organizations, invite clubs to host workshops at the library).

Keep your service desks, but staff them differently (cross-train employees, rove during slow shifts, combine Circulation and Reference into one-stop service point

The goal is to shrink change into manageable adjustments that dovetail familiar policies, procedures, and situations. In doing so, libraries may ease the pain associated with disruptive change while still moving toward our full potential in the modern world.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title Pivotal Change.


[i] Seth Godin, “Pivots for Change,” Seth Godin’s Blog, accessed March 10, 2013,

[ii] Buffy Hamilton, “Pivots for Change and Libraries,” The Unquiet Librarian, accessed March 10, 2013,

AI: Design & Destiny

In my last post (Appreciative Inquiry: Identifying Your Library’s Existing Strengths) I described the first two phases of Appreciative Inquiry’s 4-D process: Discovery and Dream. This piece will explain the final two stages – Design and Destiny.

A very brief synopsis of what we’ve covered so far: Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to organizational change that builds on existing strengths. It begins by identifying the positive core (Discovery phase) and imagining the organization’s future when its strengths have been optimized (Dream phase). Now that a collective vision is in place, the next step is to translate the dream into actionable measures.

Design: What should be?

According to Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros, “In the Design phase, attention turns to creating the ideal organization so that it might achieve its dream”[i]. This stage aspires to transform the organization’s social architecture by generating 3-5 provocative propositions that guide the change effort.

Let’s pause here for a second. I just dropped two terms that require explanation. Time to raid the glossary of the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change… Social architecture: “addresses the design elements critical to an organization to support the positive core”[ii]. Not super helpful. Provocative propositions: “statements that bridge the best of ‘what is’ with an organization’s vision of ‘what might be’”[iii]. Um, okay…

We could get bogged down in ambiguous definitions (the creators of Appreciative Inquiry can’t seem to resist them). Instead, I’ll try my hand at an oversimplified but mentally graspable rendition: the Design phase rethinks how things are currently done (the reigning social architecture) in relation to the ideal Dream state (as written in provocative propositions).

Perhaps a library-relevant example can clear things up even further:

Anywhere Public Library (APL) prides itself as a community gathering point. Its building has several areas well-suited to public meetings and group activities. Though these spaces get quite a bit of use, members of the Change Action Team (CAT) would like to maximize their potential. To make their dream tangible, they composed the following provocative proposition:

Anywhere Public Library is a hub in its community. Residents gather at APL because of its inviting atmosphere, friendly staff, ample meeting space, and clean facilities. APL hosts engaging and entertaining programs that appeal to local groups and interests. Community members are welcome to plan events at APL with the help of our dedicated team.

In composing their provocative proposition, APL’s CAT subtly characterized a social architecture that may not have been linked to the library as place, such as: inviting atmosphere, friendly staff, clean facilities, engaging and entertaining programs, etc. Now that these elements are coupled, all can be addressed in light of their impact on patron visits.

Destiny: What will be?

Consider Anywhere Public Library’s provocative proposition again. It sounds reasonable, right? In fact, you could say it reflects the organization when it is at its best. That should be easy to accomplish, yes?

Therein lies the magic of Appreciative Inquiry: it ultimately makes accomplishing an ideal state seem like a piece of cake. After going through the first three steps, the primary task of the Destiny phase is to simply let change take its course. “By this stage in the process, because of the shared positive image of the future, everyone is invited to align his or her interactions in cocreating the future”[iv]. The goal is not so lofty as to be unreachable, thereby motivating staff to achieve it. It does not aim at low-hanging fruit, either, so changes still feel meaningful and boost confidence.

Success in these endeavors breathes life and energy into the organization, building momentum as the 4-D Cycle revolves back around to the Discovery phase. The process continues over time as the organization builds upon its gains and approaches its dynamic ideal state.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title Appreciative Inquiry – Part 2.


[i] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 162.

[ii] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 438.

[iii] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 437.

[iv] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 46-47.

AI: Discovery & Dream

In a previous post (Managing Change Logically, Imaginatively, and Actively) I outlined four steps that libraries can take to harness change. Having addressed the first suggestion in detail (The Library’s Timeless Purpose) I’ll now expand on to the second: conducting “appreciative inquiry” to identify strengths.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to organizational change developed by David Cooperrider, Fairmount Minerals Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and Director of University Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. In his words: “The assumption of AI is simple: every organization has something that works right – things that give it life when it is vital, effective, and successful. AI begins by identifying this positive core and connecting organizational visions, plans, and structures to it in ways that heighten energy and inspire action for change.” [1]

In contrast to traditional problem-solving models, AI concentrates on building from existing strengths. Doing so shifts the focus away from deficits and toward assets, thereby cultivating a constructive attitude toward change. I know what you’re thinking: “that all sounds well and good, but how can libraries actually put this strategy into practice?” Thankfully, Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros laid it all out in their Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change. At 400+ value-packed pages, I can hardly summarize the handbook in one measly post, so I’ve split its centerpiece – the Appreciative Inquiry “4-D” Cycle – into two. This one describes the first two D’s (Discovery and Dream) and my next post will address the second two (Design and Destiny). For a very simplified overview, check out the nifty graphic I found on AI Australia’s website: [2]

affirmative topic choice illustration

Before we get into the Ds, lets take a moment to address the hub of the diagram: affirmative topic choice. Why is it smack dab in the middle, you ask? Because everything else revolves around it. Each stage of appreciative inquiry orbits the original topic choice, which means that change agents must select it carefully and consciously. Affirmative intention is critical to the success of AI. Keep it positive, people!

Discovery: What gives life?
In the context of AI, discovery is all about conversation, starting with interviews. These aren’t those scary meetings you’re subjected to in the job search, in which you’re asked “what are your greatest weaknesses?” and so forth. Quite the opposite, actually. Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros suggest a handful of affirmative questions to guide AI interviews:

  1. What would you describe as being a high-point experience in your organization, a time when you were most alive and engaged?
  2. Without being modest, what is it that you value most about yourself, your work, and your organization?
  3. What are the core factors that give life to your organization – when it is at its best, without which the organization would cease to exist?
  4. What three wishes do you have now to enhance the health and vitality of your organization? [3]

These questions solicit accounts of peak performance. “People share stories of exceptional accomplishments, discuss the core life-giving factors of their organizations, and deliberate on the aspects of their organization’s history that they most value and want to bring forward to their work in the future.” [4] Ideally every stakeholder in the organization participates in interviews. After all of the interviews are finished, the responses are compiled and analyzed for recurring themes.

Dream: What might be?
“When the best of ‘what is’ has been identified, the mind naturally begins to search further and to envision new possibilities.” [5] Using discovered strengths as a jumping off point, AI encourages organizations to imagine a future that optimizes these advantages. Lofty dreams become solid potentialities when they are grounded in past and present realities. The action component of this step involves collective brainstorming. Bring individuals within the organization together to share their reveries. Commonalities emerge that can then steer the next step in the AI process: the Design phase.

As I mentioned earlier, I will continue this synopsis of Appreciative Inquiry’s 4-D process in my next post. For those of you who want to read ahead, get your hands on a copy of the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title Appreciative Inquiry: Identifying Your Library’s Existing Strengths.


[1] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), back cover.

[2] Appreciative Inquiry Australia. “4D-Cycle.” Appreciative Inquiry Australia. Accessed January 6, 2013.

[3] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 36.

[4] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 43.

[5] David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline M. Stavros, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook for Leaders of Change (Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 6.

Timeless Purpose

In my previous post (Managing Change Logically, Imaginatively, and Actively) I outlined four steps that libraries can take to harness change. I’d like to expand on each in turn, starting with our timeless purpose.

My ideas on this matter were extracted from the New England Library Association workshop Rethinking Libraries: A New Model for a New World, during which Molly Rodgers described Wayne Library Alliance’s reinvention. She repeatedly emphasized the centrality of “timeless purpose” in the process. A “timeless purpose” is exactly what it sounds like: a reason for being which is so fundamental that it cannot be modified. In his article Change is Good—But First, Know What Should Never Change, Jim Collins asserted that “any great and enduring human institution must have an underpinning of core values and a sense of timeless purpose that should never change.” The first step in managing change is identifying what must stay the same.

We may have some notion as to what our timeless purpose is, but it is neither straightforward nor crystal clear. This is one reason why planning for change can be so difficult: our raison d’être is complex, multifaceted, and seemingly shape-shifting. We easily lose sight of slippery philosophical doctrines in the bustle of day-to-day operations. Thankfully we can always turn to ALA’s Code of Ethics for a reminder. I’ll spare you a full reiteration and, once again, encourage you to review it at your leisure. Suffice it to say, we all care deeply about its tenets and would not alter them, even under drastically different circumstances.

Another indicator of “timeless purpose” can be found in those witty little ditties drawn up by organizations to announce their function to the world: mission statements. While the two are not synonymous, both are intended to provide a durable base grounding an institution. And – bonus! – they tend to be more concise and compelling than the Code of Ethics. Consider the following samples, which were featured in a Private Law Libraries Special Interest Section toolkit:

Seattle Public Library: “The Seattle Public Library brings people, information and ideas together to enrich lives and build community.”

Chicago Public Library: “Read, Learn, Discover!”

Orange County Library System: “Information, Imagination, Inspiration.”

Daly City Public Library (California): “Preserving Yesterday, Informing Today, Inspiring Tomorrow.”

Well-written mission statements hint at our timeless purpose in ways that are catchy and memorable. I welcome any readers to share your favorite(s) in the comments section below.

Wayne Library Alliance documented their timeless purpose in a slightly different way. Rodgers hired two consultants – Lyn Hopper and Stephen Spohn Jr. – who, in collaboration with staff, developed a “lens” through which they could collectively envision their libraries’ future. This lens pinpointed the nexus where their core values, service strengths and community demand coalesced. They then designed a graphic representation to clearly illustrate their model, thereby making it tangible to staff and patrons (see diagram below). The graphic was affixed to the back of employee identification cards and hung on posters in their libraries. This not only kept their timeless purpose top-of-mind, but also ensured that any changes being considered would remain faithful to these permanent imperatives.


For more information about Wayne Library Alliance’s project, I highly recommend their Reinventing the Public Library workbook available through WebJunction. Their methodical approach serves as a model of intentional planning for libraries undergoing change.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title The Library’s Timeless Purpose.


[1] Rodgers, Molly. “Rethinking Libraries: A New Model for a New World.” (presentation, New England Library Association Annual Conference, Sturbridge, MA, October 14-16, 2012).

[2] Collins, Jim. “Change is Good – But First, Know What Should Never Change.” Jim Collins. Accessed December 1, 2012.

[3]American Library Association. “Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” American Library Association. Accessed November 8, 2012.

[4] Private Law Libraries SIS. “Toolkit: Mission Statement.” American Association of Law Libraries. Accessed November 20, 2012.

[5] Hopper, Lyn; Rodgers, Molly; Spohn Jr., Stephen H, and LYRASIS. “Reinventing the Public Library: A Workbook for Pennsylvania Libraries.” Reinventing Libraries Planning Workbook. Accessed November 20, 2012.

Harnessing Change

“The process of changing libraries and information centres has started. It is time for the librarians and information specialists to tackle the task systematically.” Adeyoyin, Imam, and Bello

Mere mention of the word “change” evokes strong reactions, particularly when directed toward one’s livelihood. We often hear it uttered in and about public libraries. It is debated in meetings, whispered at the water cooler, scribbled across the literature, and amplified at conferences. Like it or not, change is afoot, much of which is beyond our locus of control. We can, however, regulate our response to societal and technological change. Deliberate adaptation enables libraries to harness change to our advantage. You may find yourself wondering, “how the heck can libraries accomplish such a daunting task?” I suggest we start with the following steps.

  • Distinguish our “timeless purpose”
  • Conduct “appreciative inquiry” to identify strengths
  • Select “pivot points for change”
  • Embrace “smart failure”

Before we make any changes, we must remember the foundations of our field. Doing so lays the groundwork for appropriate modifications that preserve the library’s timeless purpose. ALA offers a handy Code of Ethics cheat sheet boiling it down to eight key points. It is so brief, in fact, that it fits right on your membership card! For those of you that have (ahem) “misplaced” yours, the whole shebang is on their website. Mission and value statements also hint at core library standards – I recommend rifling through a few to compare and contrast. If all else fails, break out that dusty old Intro to Library Science textbook for a refresher course.

With our timeless purpose in mind, we can then conduct a strengths-based assessment of our libraries. Isolating the things we do best provides a solid base to build upon. Cooperrider and Whitney describe this process in their book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. In a nutshell, their “discovery” phase involves a collaborative investigation to uncover best practices. It’s as easy as moseying around your library asking employees and patrons what services deserve a gold star. Compile the list and toot your own horn. Reinforcing constructive attributes positions an organization to thrive as it evolves.

These strengths can be used as “pivots for change,” a concept that I borrowed from The Unquiet Librarian, who was inspired by Seth Godin. He advised that industries facing imminent change acclimate by using their assets in different ways. For example: librarians can keep offering reference services, but deliver them through assorted channels (in person, over the phone, online, via text message, in chat rooms). Pivots ease change by couching it within familiar skills, knowledge, and abilities.

Following the abovementioned steps, we reach the hard part: implementing change. At this stage even the best-laid plans often go awry. Change is a risk that rarely goes unpunished. In his TED Talk “Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World” Eddie Obeng describes employees’ hesitance to introduce new ideas despite employers’ emphasis on innovation. He attributes their trepidation to worries that they will be fired if they fail. However, change imposes itself if we don’t initiate it, so we cannot stall indefinitely for fear of failure. Libraries can combat reluctance by rewarding “smart failure” from which lessons are learned and progress is made.

We cannot control the seismic shift taking place in the information landscape, nor the technological advancements driving the transformation, but we can control our response as changes arise. Anchoring to our timeless purpose, drawing on our strengths, establishing pivot points, and accepting smart failure serve to empower libraries and librarians. We can then manage change logically, imaginatively, and actively.

Originally published at Public Libraries Online under the title Managing Change Logically, Imaginatively, and Actively.