Take Two: Giving Failed Programs a Second Chance


A great idea. That’s how it all starts.

Every program or service we think up and put into action begins as an idea we believe will check off certain boxes of qualities that will deem it a success. It will benefit our teens, it will benefit the community, it will be fun, it will be well-attended, and sometimes it’s just that you feel it will be awesome. Except, even with the best of intentions, even the best of ideas can fail. We’ve all experienced this, right? Please say that you have, or else this blog post means nothing and I truly am a failure.

So how does a great idea become a failure in practice? After a lot of self-reflection and observation I’ve found the following as factors:



Last month, I talked a little bit about my teen writing group. These teens are seriously enthusiastic about writing. For a while, this enthusiasm created an unruly club environment where people were talking on top of each other, people were getting interrupted mid-thought, and people were becoming frustrated. After one particular meeting, I hit one of my lowest lows while working in teen services because I felt so disregarded as a facilitator of this group. I felt like it was a big old #fail.

That’s when I implemented the Rule of the Cowboy Hat. The rule was that whoever was wearing the Cowboy Hat would be able to speak. I always had one (because I’m special) and one of the teens would get to wear the other one. Yes, this is a direct steal of the “rule of the conch” from Lord of the Flies, but our story had a happier ending. It took the group a little bit to get used to the idea, but they became much more mindful of when and how they expressed their ideas and opinions. This small change in the structure of the way the group ran made a big difference. What I felt was an utter failure after the Meeting-We-Must-Not-Speak-Of (it still gives me shivers every time I think about it), actually just needed a structural tweak.

Other structural changes to consider for your programs and services: group vs individual work, shorter vs longer timeframe for activities, stations vs lecture-style instruction, self-guided vs instructor-led, passive programs vs programs.



This year, I was super stoked to revisit a program I loved doing last year. It was a program where college students (mostly ex-TAB members) came to talk to college-bound teens about what school is really like. They dispelled myths, told some fun anecdotes, and answered all sorts of questions. It was awesome!

That’s why I was spectacularly bummed when only 3 teens showed up this year. It was still a great program and those 3 teens got a lot out of it, but still… only 3? I couldn’t understand it. What was different?

Comparing the two programs, I realized the only real difference was the timing of the program. The previous year, I had it at the very beginning of August and this year I had it in the middle of August. Doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but when you take into account that truly college-bound teens (the graduated seniors who are literally packing and leaving for college) are crazy busy during August getting ready for a new phase in their life, that 1-2 week difference can understandably make or break attendance for a program.

Maybe I should have thought of all this before I scheduled the program for the second week of August this year. But the thing is, now I know. Or at least, I think I know. Really, only time and experimentation with the timing of the program will tell if this is the main factor for the failure in program attendance this year.

Other timing issues to consider: holidays, days off of school, big afterschool events (e.g. homecoming game, dances, variety shows, etc.), community events.



I always have a hard time coming to terms with this one. Maybe it’s because when I want something to work so much, I just can’t accept when it doesn’t. But this is a reality of the job—sometimes the program just isn’t a good fit for your teens.

At the moment, the only example I can think of from my experience is a simple activity I’ve tried to implement: paper crafts.

I love paper crafts. Ever since I was a kid, I did origami and made elaborate paper accessories for my Halloween costumes. It was part of my culture, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. But teens, at least in my community, seem to have no interest in it. So many a printed paper craft and origami sheet has gone into the recycling bin after a program. (As well as my tears.)

But that’s the nature of the job. We’re here to serve the teens in our community, and sometimes the things we enjoy or feel are important are things that just don’t resonate with our patrons. It’s okay…I still like paper crafts. I’ve just realized that maybe the teens who walk into our teen space or are at my programs probably won’t feel the same way. The joy then, is figuring out what does interest them, and to make my time with them and their experience at the library more worthwhile.

Other fit issues to consider: age appropriateness, skill level, school curriculum, community’s values.



Sometimes we take a failed program, service, or interaction to heart. Don’t let it bring you down for long. Take a second take: just think about how to tweak it or change it for next time. And yes, there will be a next time, and you’ll be ready.

Also, whenever I’m down on myself, I like to watch/read great commencement speeches. This one about failure by Conan O’Brien is hilarious and heartfelt. And this one by J.K. Rowling is amazing because Rowling is our queen!

Tell us about your “failed” programs in the comments. How did you turn it around? What advice do you have for others? Are you still looking for a solution?


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