"Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success."

From Inc.:

Winning Best New Mistake is a signal distinction at SurePayroll, a $23 million online payroll-processing company based in Glenview, Illinois. The company, which was recently acquired by Paychex, celebrates the end of its busy season with a ceremony called the SureChoice Awards, of which Best New Mistake is the breathlessly awaited culmination. Employees nominate themselves; management receives about 40 proud admissions of error each year. There are three winners (gold, silver, and bronze), and the perpetrator of the gold gaffe receives $400—twice as much as do winners of the company’s other, more traditional, awards.

"We underline the new part," says SurePayroll’s president, Michael Alter. "There’s no award for making the same mistake twice." Last year’s winner tried to streamline a process for customers and ended up frustrating them instead.

Alter dreamed up Best New Mistake to remind staff that, in a culture of innovation, failure is always an option. "If you don’t encourage people to take risks, then you end up with incrementalism forever," says Alter. "Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success."

(Emphasis mine)

The article relates to corporate awards, but the passage above is what got my attention. Here is a company that offers to reward earnest mistakes, risks and actions taken with the best intention that resulted in disaster. It creates an interesting dialogue between employees and management in which they can be honest about their mistakes. In rewarding company oriented risk taking, employees can focus their creative energies without fearing reprisals.

How can libraries reward risk taking in their employees? Do we have a culture of innovation? If so, how? If not, why not?

14 thoughts on “"Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success."

  1. I get to innovate regularly at the library where I work, and it’s all about my boss encouraging/allowing my crazy ideas. I tried revamping a book review blog – flopped. I tried running a live-action-role-playing event inside the library – HUGE success. But it’s about the management. I’d never have tried these things at another library where I interviewed shortly before getting this job.

    • Cool! I’ve been working on a project that I totally stole from another library. It’s working on making more descriptive signs that will facilitate collection browsing. The idea is that people will see names that can trigger thoughts on that author or related ones and boost circulation numbers. It’s low risk, but it’s a start.

  2. I can’t possibly convey how much I love this concept. Every library everywhere, anywhere, should offer this award. I do believe that many librarians are intuitively innovative, but I don’t think the current culture totally embraces risk taking just yet. I sense there is an inherent hesitation to upset the status quo born out of fear, maybe? But I think it’s on the horizon. I agree with Jessica–it’s about the management. If you have someone at the helm who is not afraid to try something new, or more importantly, allow his/her staff to try something new without a committee’s stamp of approval, then anything is possible. I have made mistakes of my own recently and instead of being reproached, I have been praised for voicing my honest concerns and encouraged to do more of the same. It’s that kind of environment that will inspire anyone to put forth their best effort and just maybe come up with the next, best idea.

  3. Wow, this is ace. Ties in neatly with a post about bravery-based librarianship I’m writing to sum up my SLA2011 experiences.

    I think a culture of innovation is extraordinarily difficult to build – but it’s becoming more and more imperative that we do so in libraries. Needs bravery at the top, though.

  4. I am making a BETA prize at my library:
    The prize will go to a project or an idea that challenged the way we do things – Success is not a solo criteria for recieving the prize.
    I agree with Ned that it is difficult to build a culture of innovation. I think that the BETA prize will make it visible that we think that part of the culture is important and that might be a step in the right direction. I´ll keep you updated…

  5. Agreed, management is the key. Fortunately, my Director both embraces innovative ideas AND knows how to sell these ideas to our Board of Trustees, which is so important.

  6. I’m with Dorothea, it makes me feel better about the few ideas I’ve had that have completely failed here at the library. I have a boss who supports a lot of my ideas and is willing to keep trying to get our patrons involved in adult programing.

  7. I tell my staff that my philosophy is that when you try new things and they work, you get all the credit. When they flop, I’ll take all the heat. It’s easy to say that, of course, but it takes time (and a few failures) for people to understand that you really mean and that you’ll back it up. But once people get it, then their creativity can really start to flow. The other piece to it is just emphasizing that we’re in perpetual beta.

  8. Absolutely love this. Director is leaving, I’m stepping in as interim, and we’re going to send fear packing! I’ll share this in my weekly update on Friday and hope that staff appreciates the concept as much as I do. Thanks for this, Andy.

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