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.