Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Does the Medici Effect Work for Libraries?

The Medicis were a banking family in Florence that funded sculptors, scientists, poets, painters, and architects among others. Individuals from many disciplines converged upon the city of Florence where they learned from one another while breaking down barriers between disciplines. They forged a world based on new ideas and created what we know as as the Renaissance.

In his book The Medici Effect, author Frans Johansson discusses how he sees the drivers of innovation as being diversity and the intersection of disciplines.
"The key difference between a field and an intersection of fields lies in how concepts within them are combined... If you operate within a field, you primarily are able to combine concepts within that particular field, generating ideas that evolve along a particular direction -- what I call directional ideas. When you step into the Intersection, you can combine concepts between multiple fields, generating ideas that leap in new directions -- what I call intersectional ideas."
Most individuals are predisposed to using directional thinking when faced with a problem or challenge. Solutions based on the intersection of ideas requires breaking down the barriers between traditional methods, fields, and disciplines. Intersectional ideas are important because they have the potential to create what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive innovations.

We recently interviewed candidates for our open Library Director (technically an AVP) position. I asked about how one goes about changing the culture of a library from one being focused on planning and makings sure everything we do is right the first time to a culture in which half-baked ideas and failure are permissible.

One candidate responded that the culture needs to be changed from the inside out. When asked for an example, they describe a situation where they intentionally hired a person with a technical services background to work in the circulation department. Their thinking was that the staff member would bring to the circulation department a perceptive based on the technical services discipline. The result was that new ideas and processes developed. The candidate intentionally created a new intersection, which resulted in a mini-Medici Effect, if you will.

Libraries looking to become more innovative can do so by intentionally creating an environment/organization in the Medici Effect can occur. This can be accomplished very simply by strategic reassignment of staff in key areas as the candidate did.

On a much larger scale, a library can reorganize itself so that existing work/social networks are broken up, an approach that Johansson also suggests. Breaking networks takes a deliberate effort and is tricky because networks are made up of relationships between people, and relationships are cultivated over time. Social networks are built upon relationships that often go beyond work and becomes the foundation for trust. Breaking these social networks would mean disrupting the social capital that has been built within parts of the organization.

Still, one can build a strong argument that innovation is more likely to occur when an organization moves from one that aspires to enhance existing social networks to one that breaks them, then rebuilds them over again.

Photo "Medici statute" by Vic15 is available though the Creative Commons license Sphere: Related Content


The.Effing.Librarian said...

we did something similar last year when we hired someone who had no experience in what were doing at the time; but he had experience in what I thought we should be doing in that department. it would be great to have unlimited funds to hire the people you need to create the environment you want, wouldn't it? cheers

Philip said...

Great article. So happy to discover another, more sophisticated term other than "thinking outside of the box" or radical.