Failing Forward - Risk and Reward Conference: Interview with Conference Organizers

The Risk and Reward Conference (R Squared) occurred September 9-11, 2012 in Telluride, Colorado. This interview occurred two weeks prior to the conference.

"Faced with diminishing budgets, new technologies and changing customer needs, the traditional library faces extinction. We must adapt and innovate to transform from a quiet storehouse of books to a dynamic center of free engagement with knowledge." The library mission statement for this conference sums up the need for all libraries to take risks even if it means "Failing Forward." Pam Smith and Shelley Walchek conceived the idea of creating this opportunity. I recently had the opportunity to interview the two risk takers who conceived and implemented this ground breaking event, Shelly Walchak and Stacie Leddons. Shelley is a Senior Consultant with the Colorado State Library; Stacie is the Communications Manager with Anythink Public Libraries.

What prompted the need for a Risk and Reward Conference?

Shelley and Stacie can provide the back-story about how this initially came about.

Shelley Walchak (SW): Libraries across the country have been deeply concerned about their future since the beginning of the recession, and yet, one Colorado library district - Anythink Libraries (Rangeview Library District in Adams County) seemed to be resistant to the downturn. In fact, within the last 5 years they have built or remodeled seven libraries and won ALA's National Medal as well as the John Cotton Dana Marketing Award.

SW: Colorado libraries were curious as to how Director Pam Smith and her staff were so successful. As I worked with libraries across Colorado, directors and staff wanted to understand Anythink's successes. And so, a visit with Pam Smith, followed by a discussion with her Manager of Communications, Stacie Ledden, led to the development of a committee to create a conference that would explore Anythink's successes. Without the following committee members, R-Squared: The Risk & Reward Conference would not have been born: John Bellina and Tasso Stathopulos from Ricochet Ideas, Barb Brattin (Telluride), Susan Dobbs (Anythink) , Shelly Drumm (formerly with Colorado State Library (CSL), Ryan Ewers (Aurora), Jamie Hollier (CSL), Scott Lupo (Anythink), Steve Hansen (formerly Anythink), Valerie Horton (Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC), Christine Kreger (CSL), Stacie Ledden (Anythink), Sharon Morris (CSL), Judy Poe (Bayfield) , Elena Rosenfeld (Weld), Crystal Schimpf, (CSL), Pam Smith (Anythink), Judy Van Acker (CLiC), and Shelley Walchak (CSL).

Stacie Ledden (SL): Once Pam and Shelley started talking about launching a conference, they brought in the Anythink Communications team.

SL: At the time we were working on an exhibit for Anythink called "The Power of Creativity," which will be on display at R-Squared. The exhibit highlights six characteristics of creative individuals--originality, curiosity, risk-taking, open-mindedness, connecting, productivity--and its purpose is to show people that creativity manifests itself in many different ways. It's not just artists, writers, dancers, musicians who are creative: everyone has some creative ability.

SL: This inspired our initial brainstorming around R-Squared.

SL: Once the committee was formed and things started rolling, we brought in the creative team at Ricochet Ideas--the same team that helped us develop the Anythink brand and that did the branding for R-Squared. John Bellina and Tasso Stathopulos helped us to refine our vision for R-Squared, establish the audience and voice of the brand, and push ourselves to make this truly a unique experience.

What was the initial response from colleagues, powers that be?

SW: The response was electric! At library conferences across the country and in discussions on social networks, the buzz spread quickly. Everyone wanted to attend. We began talking to vendors and foundations and found support from movers and shakers in the library world including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Gale-Cengage.

SL: At Anythink, we're used to jumping in with both feet, so there was a lot of support from colleagues there.

What, if any, resistance came from the library community?

SW: I can't say there was any resistance about the concepts we are trying to address--creativity, innovation, smart risks and rewards. We knew we had to find a magical spot to hold the conference and ended up choosing Telluride, which has made transportation a challenge to some, but it's part of the risk we took to ensure being located in an inspirational location.

SL: Over the past year, I've had the privilege of traveling all over the country, coordinating guerilla marketing promotions and talking with people about R-Squared and taking big risks in libraries. Most of the people I've spoken with get it--their eyes light up and they say, "Yes! This is the direction we should be going!" There's an almost palpable desire to shake things up--to look at other industries and learn from the ways they're innovating. More than anything, people are passionate about what they do, but they're looking for something to help them take it to the next level. And they want to ensure that libraries survive and thrive.

SL: There has been some resistance from folks who think R-Squared is redundant in some way. They think that libraries are already thinking creatively and there wouldn't be much to learn that they don't know already. I completely agree that libraries are doing some amazing things--with technology, with branding, with supporting creativity. But we always have more to learn, more to room for growth. And what's really going to make R-Squared special is having all of these innovators, risk-takers who are passionate about creative thinking in libraries, all together in a magical place like Telluride. The content will be the icing on the cake. The power of R-Squared will come out of the connections that are made, and the inspiration and drive we bring out in each other.

Describe the risks of planning this type of conference.

SW: The risks of planning a conference like this are easily understood. Will people come to the conference? How will we obtain the funding we need to cover the costs of the programs and speakers that will make a difference? Will participants be able to afford the cost of the registration and the transportation costs to get to the conference? How will we find enough people who are committed to making this happen? How do we stay fresh and positive over 18 months of planning? And most importantly – how do we demonstrate at this conference what it is we are bringing people in to learn and do? Can we practice what we preach? We know we have.

SL: The planning for R-Squared has become a second job. So, there's the risk of taking on a massive project when you have your "real job" to tend to. Also, it could totally fail. We could have gone out and talked with people and they could have looked at us, scratching their heads, wondering what the heck we were talking about. But that didn't happen. The fact that the success of this conference was built on word of mouth and social media just shows that there was a need for something like this. When you talk with people about it, it's almost like they were hungry for it--a conference with a different vision, a different format, that doesn't focus on "the stuff” so much as the philosophies that could potentially transform how we do business.

SL: There were also big risks in hosting this conference in Telluride. We knew we wanted it to be in a magical place that would inspire creativity and big ideas.

SL: However, Telluride isn't the easiest place to get to, and it's pricey. We knew we had to make it as affordable as possible--and that it was a risk in itself for attendees just getting there. But I wouldn't change it for the world. Once people see how beautiful it is, they'll know it was worth it.

Describe the rewards of planning this type of conference.

SW: It's premature to answer this question because the real rewards are going to come at the conference as we watch people become inspired and excited and learn to take risks and understand rewards and encourage that to happen at their organizations. However, there have certainly been rewards during the planning--learning more about innovation and new ideas, understanding how to work closely with many kinds of people over a long period of time and just realizing that we took something from a seed to a full garden.

SL: As in most things, the biggest rewards thus far are the connections made with other people. I've made some amazing friends among the planning committee as part of this process, and it's reinforced the fact that we have such incredible talent here in Colorado.

SL: There's also validation in the fact that 350 people are willing to trek to Telluride from across the country for this inaugural conference. Many of the philosophies that have inspired us at Anythink are explored at R-Squared, and so it feels good to know that there are a lot of people out there that feel the same way we do about the direction libraries can go.

What have you learned about risk & reward while planning this conference?

SW: I have become inspired personally. I realize that with a strong team committed to spending the necessary time, accepting divers ideas, adding a little fun and throwing it all together, you can make something great happen.

SL: The biggest thing I've learned is that when people are inspired, they're willing to take bigger risks. And when a group of people has a common goal, a common vision, they can be unstoppable. They can change the course of history. It sounds lofty and dramatic, but it's true. We've proven it at Anythink in the way we've reinvented our library services, and again with the R-Squared team in launching this conference.

How has this experience benefited you professionally and personally? Did it force you to step outside your comfort zone?

SW: In fact I have been so positively affected by this experience that I am taking my own personal risk next year by leaving my current position and taking off a year to do a writing project called 52 Rivers where I will explore 52 rivers--one a week--learning about all kinds of things related to fly fishing, the outdoors and life. Professionally, I learned how to better manage situations where passionate people came together to take risks to make something great happen. Certainly there were some bumpy roads, but we have prevailed in the end.

SL: Working at Anythink is one of the best things that ever happened to me--personally and professionally. Just when I think I've pushed myself more than I ever have, we come up with another idea that's bigger and bolder than the last one. R-Squared is proof that anything's possible. If you surround yourself with people who believe in something as passionately as you do, and are willing to work side by side with you to make that vision come to fruition, you can accomplish anything.

SL: Not only have I pushed myself as an individual--as a writer, marketer, event planner, etc.--but I've learned how important it is to work as a team, to support each other, be patient with each other and make each other laugh, and when you're just about at breaking point gently push each other to reach even farther. It hasn't always been rainbows and cupcakes, but getting through the tough parts together has made us even closer, and the conference even better. I think attendees will love what we have in store.