Tag Archives: risk-taking

ACRL 2011: Walking The Talk

If you attended ACRL 2011 I hope you enjoyed it. I just completed the evaluation (be sure to complete it if you attended), and gave the conference high marks (disclosure: I co-chaired the keynotes committee). One of the things I really like about the ACRL conference is that it constantly evolves. A number of new initiatives were introduced this year. Some risks were taken, and some new things worked better than others. A few of the standbys may not be working as well as they used to. But it’s the way we want our own academic libraries to function – taking risks to try new things for the benefit of the end user – or in this case – you – the conference attendee. We have speakers who encourage us to take risks in the name of change. We read it in our literature. Be an innovator. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. You know the talk. Well, for me, the message of ACRL 2011 is that we need to walk the talk – and that’s just what ACRL did.

Take the choice of Clinton Kelly as the final keynote speaker. Not everyone agrees that this was a wise choice. For their final keynoter big library conferences usually go for NPR personalities, distinguished authors or highly recognized library advocates – especially if they are Hollywood personalities. Kelly is none of those. He’s the star of a TLC reality show. Not just any show but one with a strong message about personal change. Kelly shared seven rules for change, and spent more time on Q&A than most speakers. Maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t. The point is that ACRL didn’t play it safe. They took a risk, and based on the reaction in the audience I’d say it was a risk well worth taking that paid off by giving attendees a great end to the conference.

Take the conference bag for example. For the years 2009 and 2007 ACRL conferences I’ve featured photos of the ACRL conference bag. Guess what? There is no ACRL conference bag in 2011. While I personally miss the bag – well not having it – just being able to critique it and provide a photo for you – I support the decision not to have one. The conference factsheet indicates that the members indicated that the bag just wasn’t necessary. We all have plenty of these bags. If you come to the conference and you really, really need a bag for your stuff, you can always find a vendor at the exhibits giving them away. And we all know librarians prefer to score exhibit hall swag anyway.

What else was new/different/risky? For example:

* Reduced time allowed for contributed papers from two 30-minute slots to three 20-minute slots. On the upside more librarians got to give a paper which is great. On the downside (experienced personally) it is tough to summarize months of research in 12 minutes – but constraints should bring out our creative side. Also on the upside, if the speaker is not so great, it won’t last long. I vote a thumbs up for this change. A risk worth taking.

* Introduction of the IdeaPower Unconference. I only got to one of these but it was packed. My take is that these are lightning talks with Q&A at the end. Sometimes I wasn’t exactly sure what the idea was, although I could tell it was about a project someone tried at their library. Whatever you thought of the presentations, it did give more attendees a chance to participate and present, and from what I heard this was really popular and well received. So this one gets a thumbs up too – not all that risky but it could have bombed.

* Moving the Cyber Zed Shed out of the Shed and into an actual conference room. While I understand the rationale for this – in 2007 and 2009 the CZS was packed to the gills – moving it to a regular room just seemed to take some of the wind out of the CZS sail. Maybe it was that it just didn’t have the “alternate conference” vibe that it used to. I’m going to give this a thumbs down. Either move it back into the exhibit hall or some weird spot or put it to rest. If you can’t get in because the area is small, well, there’s always another program. Again, not a huge risk but a change well worth trying.

*Heavy promotion of conference tweeting. This is not all that risky or groundbreaking these days. Seems like every library conference is judging itself by the volume of tweets it generates – and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Seems like we were just trying to encourage live blogging – but I think there are hardly any blog posts about the conference at all – and I think that’s our loss. I read that the conference generated approximately 8,500 tweets. I did attend two sessions where presenters asked attendees to tweet back responses relevant to the presentation. In at least one of them an attendee protested that he didn’t have a twitter account, and therefore couldn’t participate.

I guess my thinking on this is that if everyone is tweeting about the presentations during the presentations – is anyone really paying attention to what the presenters are saying. I know all the tweeters will say they multi-task well and can tweet and listen. Not me. I was tweeting when asked to, and I know for a fact that I missed something the presenter said because other people were chuckling and I had no clue. There’s no way I would even have attempted to tweet during Jaron Lanier’s keynote – I didn’t want to miss a word he said. Yet other folks were tweeting a plenty. I’m sure they missed something. A presentation of mine didn’t get much tweeting action. I don’t know what that means. Maybe I gave nothing to tweet about. Maybe I kept the audience so engaged that they didn’t want to stop and tweet. I hope it’s the latter. Anyway, I think I’ll do more listening and less tweeting – to me you start tweeting when you are bored and need a distraction to keep yourself engaged. Next time, let’s have a conference with such great speakers that the number of tweets actually goes down. So I turn my thumb sideways on this one. Great for those who like it, but forgettable for those who would rather listen to the talks without distraction or who don’t have a twitter account. Who the heck even knows how we’ll be communicating electronically in 2013.

Speaking of 2013, ACRL 2013 will be in Indianapolis – an up and coming city with a vibrant downtown (I was just there two weeks ago so I know). Will they go with “Start Your Engine – Racing to Our Future” as the Conference theme (Indy 500 – get it). Who knows? One thing I do know is that ACRL is the type of conference that doesn’t rest on its laurels. There will be changes. There will be evolution. Risks will be taken. You can count on it.

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.