Newsline April 2017

In life, not everything works out as you had planned. Probably most things don't work out that way. This is also the case with organizations and with projects, and it is also true with NISO. I know it might come as a surprise to learn that not every project within NISO is destined for success. There are a variety of reasons why things don't work out. Perhaps an educational event is organized in an inconvenient place or conflicts with a different event, or say you plan a presentation and a huge news event prevents participation.

Some errors are simply bad assumptions; others are just bad luck and beyond your control. You can't always put yourself in someone else's shoes, so you may miss a particular detail or perspective on a problem. There are also problems that grow slowly from faulty reads on the situation at the outset, or presumptions about the environment that shift over time and overwhelm the effort in its later stages. Furthermore, there is the ever-present Rumsfeld aphorism, "there are unknown unknowns," which is to say that things we don't know can cause failure, and we may never know why.

While not every project NISO has launched or pursued has been a success, fortunately, we've had more successes than failures! Happily, each year during our annual meeting, I have the opportunity to talk about what has gone well, how quickly working groups have progressed, and all the new members NISO has gained. Who doesn't like to talk about their successes? Sometimes, however, projects or efforts go unnoticed because they simply aren't advanced and they peter out. Others slowly grind to a halt because of competing priorities or limited interest. Still others are completed but don't see the adoption we were hoping for. Knowing when to set aside a project and move on is more art than science. Understanding in advance what will work and what won't is probably a dark art.

In the technology world, knowing how to fail, understanding how to move on or "pivot," are important compentencies. During a panel discussion I participated in at the Library Publishing Coalition forum in Baltimore on March 20-22, 2017, Angela Cochran talked about the skill necessary to kill off a project and how it is lacking in our community. People often don't like looking at in detail at the reasons for something not working out. On the other hand, sometimes they wallow in their mistakes. Perhaps this is why projects that should be put to bed still linger. I am pleased that NISO generally looks at why some things aren't working and accepts the demise of projects. But a deeper problem has to do with organizations with limited resources focusing on failing efforts, possibly diverting resources from projects that could have greater impact. It's worth remembering, though, that even failure has the upside of being a learning opportunity. I take my cue in this from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. When the host of radio show "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" told Tyson he lost because he got two questions wrong, the scientist said, "I look at it differently. I look at had I gotten all three right...I would've learned nothing. But having gotten two wrong, I learned two things today." I hope we all learn quickly and apply what we have learned!

Todd Carpenter

Executive Director