Innovation has been a big theme in the library literature and the biblioblogosphere since I first entered the profession, and with the development of the discourse around Library 2.0, the theme has picked up momentum. Indeed, the need for innovation, and having the space in which to innovate, are the things that get me excited about my work.
But innovation is also tough. It’s gotta be daunting to be constantly operating out on the leading edge (but no doubt exciting too), and not just because the process of being creative and carrying out change is a big task. Part of the challenge is the sheer abundance of opportunities we have to innovate: lots of things could be done better, reimagined, scrapped, reinvented, started from scratch. Just how do we get it all done? Which bit do we tackle first? And how do we overcome the obstacles?
In my experience, it’s relatively easy to come up with a vision or an idea for what we want to achieve. The tough part is actually defining the actions we need to take to achieve the innovation, and then executing those actions. How do we move from idea to action to realisation? How do we get other people fired up about having the opportunity to innovate? How do we create and inhabit a culture of innovation? These are issues I’ve been pondering at length in recent weeks.
So it was with great interest that I read a post on innovation from Jack Martin Leith’s blog, which I was alerted to via Stephen’s Lighthouse. This post outlines a number of the author’s propositions related to innovation. As self-defined propositions, rather than truisms, I guess these statements are open for discussion and debate. Which is good, because debate brings refinement… In fact, if you read the full post, you can see the refinement/debate process at work.
On a first reading, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with all of these propositions – some of them felt a little idealistic and a little unattainable. The more I read them, though, the more I can see the gold. Sure, it’s probably not realistic to expect that we can model each and every one of these propositions in our professional lives. But there is a whole lot in this post that warrants some careful thought, and a whole lot that I’ll be looking to apply in my own professional practice.
Some things I took away from this blog post:
- The desired present: Think of the now, not the future. We can execute change now, so we should stop imagining innovation as a future achievement and start living it and working towards it in the now. This proposition has a lot to offer. What can we do right now to affect much needed change?
- Articulate the problem in a way that allows it to be solved. Leith say if “we want to be effective problem solvers, we must develop the ability to define the problem in such a way that it is solvable, and design a minimalist intervention that creates a rapid and irreversible shift from the current state of affairs to the desired state.” How often do we feel that we are banging our heads against brick walls? I wonder how much of this has to do with the way we articulate and approach the problem? This idea was a bit of a revelation for me. Have I been guilty of setting myself up for failure by articulating problems in a way that makes them seem entirely unsolvable? Perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board and redefine some of the problems I’m working on.
- Take a minimalist approach: assess which small actions will have the biggest effect on the achievement of the desired present, and take those actions. For example, there seems to be general consensus in the biblioblogosphere that OPACs leave a lot to be desired. Scrapping them totally is not on the cards, at least in the short term, but what small action could we take to improve the situation? (I’m thinking LibraryThing for Library’s widgets – a small action that could dramatically improve our users’ experience of the OPAC).
- A leader who wants to see innovation should model creative behaviours.
- Conversation is key: don’t send one way messages, but rather provide opportunities for people to engage in conversations. I feed off conversation; I think out loud; I generate ideas by hearing about other peoples’ and by bouncing thoughts backwards and forwards. So this proposition rings very true for me. For more thought: how do we create an environment that supports conversation? How do we get conversations to happen across the organisation? How do we accommodate different peoples’ preferred communication styles in order to involve them in the conversation?
- There is no neat and tidy, one size fits all methodology for innovation. Innovation cannot be constrained within the confines of a business process, but rather should be allowed to organically grow.
- Play. Test. Try out something that isn’t quite ready. Then use pilot results and feedback to modify, start again from scratch, reimagine.
- Take responsibility for your ideas; nurture them, champion them, preserve their essence throughout the refinement process. Leith calls this being their godparents.
- Leith suggests that if you take the needs of all stakeholders into account when designing the actions you will take to realise innovation, then resistance to change should be non-existent. He suggests that if you encounter resistance, you should head back to the drawing board and design an action that will be ‘irresistible’ to all stakeholders. While I’m not sure that it’s possible to make every action irresistible to every stakeholder, I think there is a lesson here. If we encounter a lot of resistance, then we should go back and rethink, taking into account the needs of all our stakeholders, because the solutions we come up with will only improve as a result of this process. But I don’t think it’s entirely realistic to suggest that it’s possible to redesign and redesign and redesign to the point where everyone is happy. Surely there will be times where you can’t please everyone?
- Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate.
- “Join in”, not “buy in”: “Buy in” implies a sense of predetermined-ness; the idea that it’s going to happen with or without the support of stakeholders; an attitude of “we’ve made this decision, now how do we get them to agree?”. What we really need is people to get involved in the innovation process right from the start. “Join in” is about getting people involved from the very beginning; it’s about developing and executing the idea together. It’s intrinsically bound up in the concept of collaboration.
- Leith also addresses the idea that is something of a soapbox for me: abandonment is not a dirty word. We cannot continue to add new initiatives to our line-up without reassessing what we already do and abandoning those things that need to be abandoned. Abandonment is healthy and necessary.
- Intuition has a role to play in decision making. This is a tough one for us to grapple with as a profession. We are a profession that adheres to rules, researches problems, works towards logical conclusions. This is a tough one for me personally to grapple with, because I am a strong supporter of evidence based practice. But I have to agree with Leith: intuition does have a role to play in the innovation process. It might be that that role extends no further than to the formation of the initial idea from which an innovation will evolve, but instinct is relevant. My personal feeling is that it should be backed up wherever possible with hard data, but sometimes, you do need to go out on a limb.
This is a thoughtful post that certainly provides stimulus for thinking about innovation. I think it’s really useful to spend time thinking about the processes that occupy so much of our time.
Highly recommended reading.