Seb Chan (Cooper-Hewitt) and Jane Finnis are co-hosting the closing plenary at Museums & the Web in San Diego this year. They are calling it Epic Fail. The goal? To share failures that the museum technology field, or “we individually” and “we collectively” have had as project teams, institutions, and maybe even the sector as a whole.” Closed door – no texting, and no blogging… so please don’t expect a rundown here.

It seems fitting that this closing plenary is the one I am looking forwards to most – a big, unvarnished dose of brutal honesty. Jane writes:

“Inspired by the valuable lessons we’ve learned personally from over-sharing our own failures on our blogs, and the growing trend in the non-profit and social enterprise sectors to share analyse, and learn from failures – we think the time has come for Museums and the Web to recognise the important role that documenting failures plays in making our community stronger.”


They are taking a cue from FailFaire, which cites that there are many common reasons for failure in the non-profit sector – including, but not limited to:

1. The project wasn’t right for the organization (or the organization wasn’t right for the project)
2. Tech is search of a problem
3. Must-be-invented-here syndrome
4. Know thy end-users
5. Trying to please donors rather than beneficiaries (and chasing small pots of money)
6. Forgetting people
7. Feature creep
8. Lack of a backup plan
9. Not connecting with local needs
10. Not knowing when to say goodbye

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be pro-risk in museum programming, tech-based or otherwise. I was recently talking to a graduate class at RISD when I was asked for clarification. “What is risky programming?” I was asked. Gulp, all I could think to reply was “risky rhymes with frisky.” Luckily I caught myself by asking if she would describe a program that she perceived as “safe,” and that maybe we could work backwards and come up with something that was pro-risk. And then it dawned on me: I am searching for pro-risk opportunities in my programming, as opposed to risk-adverse. 

Pro-risk means fearless innovation with an acceptance towards failure. The gains cannot be marked day to day or month to month; maybe over two years or five years or more. The pattern should look like a jagged line starting at bottom left and moving like the west side of a craggily mountain, like this:

(Fake Risk Analysis X-Y Chart Here)


Risk-adverse is a flatline, steady and calm and expected. But that isn’t where the growth is – not for an institution, and certainly not for the individual. And then I realized, I really do mean to speak in market investment terms. We can diversify the risk, but we need to be pro-risk to see gains, and accept (maybe even brag about) our failures just as loudly than our successes. We can stand on the shoulders of giants.

More on this in the coming week. I am greatly looking forwards to this MW. I head on Amtrak down to San Diego for MW2012 tomorrow, hugging the coastline and resting as much as possible before the conference begins.

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