Taking Risks: Punt Or Go For It

Be a risk taker. Create change. Take chances. Be bold. We come across these inspirational messages again and again when we go out to conferences, read librarian blogs or the latest library manifestos. We are urged to grasp the reins of innovation and seize the spirit of entrepreneurialism. A good deal of what I read in this vein, in and beyond the library literature, is worthwhile. So why isn’t risk-taking happening more often in our academic libraries. The problem is that taking risks is easier said than done, and when it comes down to it most of us will avoid doing so at all costs. A recent sports incident provides an answer, and that answer, put simply, is that if you take risks and fail it can be a painful experience.

The good news is that when most of us do take risks and fail the exposure is limited. We may suffer some embarrassment or anguish, but we can also survive it. With some luck we have a supervisor or colleagues that are supportive, and they’ll see the failure as a learning experience. Risk taking and subsequent failure, when taken on a public stage, can lead to devastating humiliation and far ranging second guessing and hindsight. We recently had a good example of this from the world of sports. On November 18, 2009 the New England Patriots played the rival Indianapolis Colts. With a slim lead and just over two minutes to play, the Patriot’s Coach Belichick took a huge risk on fourth down with two yards to go for a new set of downs – on his own 29 yard line.

If the call succeeded the Patriots could run out the clock and cruise to victory. If the call failed the Colts would get the ball with great scoring position and more than enough time to score. What happened? The Patriots failed to get the first down, and the Colts got the ball and scored the winning touchdown. Belichick was widely criticized for his call and the Monday morning coaches said he should have played it safe and punted. But did he really make the wrong call?

While some analysts argued that given Belichick’s past risk-taking record in similar situations (mostly successful) and the odds of punting and still losing, perhaps he was right to take the risk of “going for it”. Isn’t that what we seem to hear more often. We should be willing to take a risk and go for it. I suspect that most of us are punters. Rather than go for it we opt for the safe move. Part of the problem is knowing when to take a risk. Part of our decision-making process is based on how a risk is framed. If we frame it as a gain or win we are more likely to take the risk whereas if we frame it as a loss we are more risk adverse (this is greatly simplifying the studies of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory). Another way to think about risk is the waterline perspective.

The origin of the waterline approach is credited to Peter Drucker, but I learned of it from Jim Collins as I watched a video interview (watch the first 2-3 minutes) about his latest book, How the Mighty Fall. It’s a simple idea. Picture your library as a ship on the water. Ask if your risk is above or below the waterline. If it is above and you fail, chances are you can make a decent repair and save the ship. If it’s below and you fail, that blows a whole in the ship and a repair might be possible but it’s far less likely to happen. What about Belichick’s risk? Was it above or below? I guess it depends on how you frame it. For the game, it was below the waterline. For the season, maybe not. Some analysts have said taking risks like that is part of that team’s culture and character. To not take the risk may have altered the very fabric of the team. A big picture perspective would suggest that it was above the waterline in the scope of the entire season, and that would suggest it was worth taking the risk.

What we can learn from this episode is that taking risks is important and necessary, but that the perspective can make a difference in how we judge the outcome. It is wise to frame the risk situation correctly, and consult with colleagues on whether it appears to be above or below the waterline. The next time you and your colleagues have a punt or go for it decision to make, be cautious but don’t necessarily opt immediately for the punt. It’s possible to go for it and fail, and yet survive to see another day – quite possibly having learned something important from the experience.

6 thoughts on “Taking Risks: Punt Or Go For It

  1. Hi Steve,

    Here’s my question: Are there any real risks to be taken in the library world? Whenever I hear people talking about taking risks, I honestly get confused because I have never seen a risk actually be taken. Innovations have been made, but there seems to be no risk involved. No “to go for it on fourth down or not” situations, where if you make the wrong call something bad will actually happen. It seems like the only risk is a risk of embarrassing ones self, and I personally don’t consider that a risk (so that may be just my definition).

    What risks are there?

  2. That’s a good question Brian. It brings to mind a talk I gave a few months ago at a library conference on entrepreneurship. My talk was titled “The Entrepreneurial Librarian: Demystifying and Oxymoron”, and I tried to make the point that there may be no such thing as an entrepreneurial librarian. If you study classic entreprenuers, both successful and failed, it is literally a case of individuals who went for broke. They plowed everything they owned and more into their ideas – and if they failed they would lose everything – not just suffer embarrassment or having to explain a failed idea to a higher up.

    So you can make a case that no librarian risks everything they personally own (or all that the library holds) when taking an entrepreneurial venture. But if you look at what some libraries have done, you can certainly see the hallmarks of entrepreneurial spirit in their efforts. Getting back to risk taking, yes, I think there are risks that extend beyond mere embarrassment. For example, plowing considerable budget dollars into developing an extensive tutorial or a piece of open source software. No, the library staff don’t risk losing their own money, but it’s still taking a risk because what you lose is the opportunity to invest the money elsewhere – which ultimately hurts the user community.

    It also depends on what you mean by “bad”. No, no one will suffer harm, hopefully no one will lose their job; the stakes may not be quite that high. But if you are a library administrator who invests budget dollars into a project that is risky (no clear sense of success or return – but with real potential) and it fails, you might have to explain to a provost what happened to those funds and the outcome may be worse than embarrassment. And it might be that it doesn’t really matter if the only risk is embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment may be all the excuse a librarian needs to punt.

    Let’s say you have an idea to eliminate the reference desk and perform all reference by cell phone. That’s a pretty radical departure from the traditional process, and not without a variety of risk on multiple levels (embarrassment, having colleagues lose faith in you or questioning your judgement, lost opportunities, and some possible financial risk as well). If it fails there might be a signifcant dropoff in reference activity and it might be a challenge to bring back the users. Again, no one is losing everything, but it’s be worse than just saying “well, i guess i figured wrong on the one”. The important thing is that at least something new was tried, and that the librarian didn’t just punt when faced with a decision to risk change or play it safe and stay the same.

    I wonder how others would answer Brian’s question.

  3. Thank you very much for such a rich response! I actually paid my living expenses & car loan in college a couple years back by doing freelance web design, and your distinction between the “go-for-broke” entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial librarian is an interesting one. I think that’s actually the distinction that explains my gap in understanding of risk within the library: between the visceral and the subtle.

    If I didn’t bring in enough clients, or I didn’t get paid on time, or didn’t have savings, or had a larger tax bill than anticipated because I didn’t pay enough in quarterly taxes, then financially things could get dicey. Occasionally I would have to put groceries on my credit card or just eat really cheap. Now that I work in a library, I don’t have to worry about anything like that (and I got my car paid off too!).

    I had also considered the wasted time and effort should a project fail or become too bloated by moving beyond its original scope, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the downside. As Steven Covey says, “put first things first,” and I find that to be valuable to think about even as a web designer within the organization.

    I actually write a piece of open source software that improves image viewing for CONTENTdm digital collections, and have shared it with the community. I’ve gotten requests for improvement, and would love to spend hours and hours on it, but I find it difficult to balance my time working on improvements to the software with my main responsibilities at work. It’s the balance between catering closely to our own patrons, and trying to make a wider impact in the library community as well, and calculating that time might be one library equivalent of a “go for it or punt” situation.

    Thanks again for the interesting response!

  4. It’s hard to take risks in an environment where the library cannot make significant decisions independently but must go through administrators, committees, etc. For example, at my library we are trying to institute chat reference services via Meebo, which doesn’t seem to me like any form of a risk, but are being told that there are “accessibility [I don't know if this is being used as a buzzword to mean ADA compliant]/copyright” and “freedom of speech” [??] issues” and that the college cabinet will be considering the issue.

  5. Yep, Kyri. Risk taking requires holding at least some power. What I can individually do is constrained in all sorts of ways by hierarchies, staffing structures, tenure struggles, who works where and when, etc. But maybe Bell is writing mostly to an audience of people In Charge?

  6. We’ve all heard the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness for taking a risk than asking for permission” but clearly that doesn’t always work and could even get you in some trouble – it depends on what it involves. I would think implementing a chat service could definitely fall into the try it first and apologize later category, especially if you are using a free client. It’s certainly an “above the waterline” risk, and perhaps you might want to use this as an idea for presenting chat reference to your colleagues or administration. What Kyri is hearing – and I don’t know who it’s coming from (admin, IT, etc) is standard create a barrier stuff. I’m not writing to administrators in this post although I’ve probably written a post before chastising administrators for creating these kinds of artificial barriers to innovation that requires some risk. I’m advocating for risk taking from all levels of the organization. Let’s face it, higher ed is full of constraints. See my previous post about persistence paying off. You may have an idea that is hitting a roadblock, but be persistent. Keep bringing it up (not every week). Try to have data to support your idea. Show how other libraries are using it successfully (unless it’s so innovative and risky you are the first). I am sure that there are more than a few academic libraries that do not frustrate their staffs the way Kyri and Emily are. If that describes your library lets hear from you.

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