Risk, failure and success

Today, Google announced that they are discontinuing support for Google Wave.  Much of the reaction on the internet has been of the “I always knew it wouldn’t work” or “it has been a total failure” variety.

I would like to offer a different view.  I am really glad that Google tried something out, and when it didn’t have the success they might have hoped for, they made a public statement that they were not continuing the service any more.

I like this for several reasons.

  1. If we only carried out projects where success were assured, we would rarely innovate or improve.
  2. Any new technology is bound to become less relevant (or, at worst, obsolete) eventually.  I would not consider a typewriter a failure just because I don’t use one now.  Perhaps some people have benefitted from Google Wave during its short existence.
  3. Being honest about the status of the service is to be commended, rather than just letting it slip away and hoping people won’t notice.  Other examples include where an author or administrator lets you know that a blog or website is no longer being updated.  Much of the existing content may be useful, so it’s good to leave the site up, but also useful to know that links won’t be checked, and the information may go out of date.  I did this on my previous blog, OxfordStaffDev, which still gets traffic.

Scout badges: a measure of success

Coming back to the idea of failure, I would like to explore the difference between a true failure and a lack of success.  I don’t intend this to sound like a difference in wording for the sake of political correctness.  I believe that a failed project is one where all the necessary resources were in place, but someone or a group of people did not step up and contribute what was necessary for the task to work.  Compare that with a project for which everyone did what they could to make it work, but for some unforeseeable reason, it wasn’t as successful as intended.

FourSquare badges - a different measure of success

I would like to encourage a culture in libraries of taking risks with trying out ideas which are not guaranteed to succeed, but for which all reasonable risks have been managed and taken into account.  This is especially true for ventures into social media.  This summer, I am involved in running the 23 Things Summer Camp session on strategy.  In these sessions, I work with the group to explore the various social media avenues that different libraries could explore, and what might go wrong.  The most frequent worry is “what if someone posts a negative comment on our Facebook page?”.  My response is that our library users have opinions about our service that we rarely pick up via surveys or other tools.  Having a space where we can respond to these concerns is an excellent way of knowing more about what our users think about our libraries.  It also gives us the perfect opportunity to respond to the criticism in a way that hopefully resolves the issue for the user and shows us to be responsive to feedback and willing to act on any suggestions for improvement.  People will complain about things, so I say we are better in that conversation that out of it!

One last point… making “the right decision” versus making “a good decision”.  A few months ago I read about subtleties implied in each, and found the difference liberating.  As I see it, making “the right” decision is committed in time, as it supposes that morality (right) is permanent and unshakeable.  On the other hand, “a good” decision implies one that takes into account all relevant information available at the time, and tries to balance competing priorities for the common interest.  As factors change over time, what was a good decision in the past may need review as more information comes to light; whereas the right decision can be hard to go back on.

Well done, Google, for trying something out and having the courage to admit that it didn’t go as planned.

Further reading: R.I.P. Google Wave by the inimitable Ange Fitzpatrick



  1. Great post, as usual, and some real food for thought.

    I completely agree about being willing to fail. Only trying things that are pre-assured of success limits the learning opportunities for the library or for the individuals concerned. That’s one of the things I was excited about with the Teachmeet approach – that you’re encouraged to talk about things that you’ve tried that *didn’t* work as well as talking about “what I done good”.

  2. ‘I would like to encourage a culture in libraries of taking risks with trying out ideas which are not guaranteed to succeed, but for which all reasonable risks have been managed and taken into account. This is especially true for ventures into social media.’

    I like the points you make throughout but especially the one about risk taking – it is actually a positive experience regardless of the outcomes. How can we move forward with anything if we don’t try? Having had my article published in the Gazette regarding the risks of engaging in a contemporary library role (information role) that no one seems to quite understand, you can see how I would agree with you on this, and your other points.

    I enjoyed reading this, so thank you! :0)

  3. Hear, hear! I totally agree with you on encouraging an ethos of trying these things out, I too think it’s good that Google have been honest about the project and have taken the decision to stop development of Wave. I think other organisations should aim to follow in their example of being brave enough to try innovative projects, with the risk that they may not be successful.

    I also wholeheartedly agree on your view about getting user feedback – I’d far rather there be an avenue to gather feedback and respond to it – if not, the negative feedback will still occur, just not necessarily to your knowledge. I think it shows strength and a true belief in a product or service when feedback can be responded to honestly, and acted upon.

  4. Without risk we would be holed up on the safe side, on things we could justify as being academic, as being stable, we’d be marooned on delicious and linkedin. Those are great resources, but very safe. What about twitter and facebook? How did you keep up-to-date before those two? Without twitter I wouldn’t even know Laura or have been aware of this post?

    If we wait around waiting for programmes to make it to alpha, for our institutions to come up with a similar service to what’s out there but with corporate branding then we have no opportunity to be come part of change, we become passengers.

    Laura, I’m going to be adding this to my Google Wave article reading list. Thanks for a fab read and keep the posts coming!

  5. Pingback: Social media strategy « Laura's Dark Archive

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