Monday, September 08, 2008

Library Innovation Requires Regularizing the Irregular

To move towards a move innovative organization requires experimentation, trial and error, doing new things, and breaking rules. Libraries looking to become more innovative are confronted with reality: it takes 100 crazy ideas to find 10 worth funding experimentally in order to identify 1 project worth pursuing. As it has been said, it takes a lot of acorns to grow an oak tree.

The challenge is that most library organizations are structured and managed to continue current practices rather for than for innovation. Both strategy and resource alignment are focused on supporting short term missions and goals. This holds library organizations captive to a culture that is antagonistic toward innovation. Such a culture kills most attempts at innovation and can eventually drive innovative individuals away. It is not that the individuals within a library do not want to innovate, they talk about it all the time. Simply put, the structure of library organizations and their approach to management may make them unwittingly systematically hostile to innovation.

Gary Hamel notes that that the bottleneck within an organization that ultimately throttles innovation is almost always located at the top. Organizations are trained to look to the top for clues about where it's going. In such organization the vast majority of people have simply ceded responsibility for innovation. When the authority to set strategy and direction is held so narrowly then attempts at innovation inevitably falter. Therefore, new voices and new thinking are essential for a library to create a culture of innovation.

In his book The Future of Management, Hamel discusses new management principles which can help transform a library into a more innovative culture, including:
  • variety, diversity, experimentation, depoliticizing / depolarization of decision making
  • resource allocation flexibility
  • enabling activism through democracy (devolution of accountability, distributed leadership, unalienable >
  • engagement and mobilization through a common cause
  • increasing the odds and successful contribution of serendipity
Other interesting quotes from Hamel:
“To a large extent, managers play the role of parents, school principles, crossing guards and hall monitors. They employ control from without because employees have been deprived of the ability to exercise control from within. Adolescents outgrow most of these constraining influences; employees often aren’t given that chance. The result: disaffection. Adults enjoy being treated like 13-year olds even less than 13-year olds.”

“One can fairly describe the development of modern management as an unending quest to regularize the irregular, starting with errant and disorderly employees. Increasingly, though, we live in an irregular world, where irregular people take advantage of irregular events and use irregular means to produce irregular products that yield irregular profits.”

“Try to imagine what a democracy of ideas would look like. Employees would feel free to share their thoughts and opinions, however politically charged they might be. No single gatekeeper would be allowed to quash an idea or set the boundaries on its
dissemination. New ideas would be given the chance to garner support before being voted up or down by senior execs. The internal debate about strategy, direction and policy would be open, vigorous, and uncensored. Maybe this sounds hopelessly romantic, but such a thoughtocracy already exists—not in any big company, but on the web.”

"When you step on a treadmill and start to jog, your heart automatically increases the blood supply to your muscles. When you stand up in front of an audience to speak, your adrenal gland spontaneously pumps out a hormone that accelerates your heart rate and heightens your faculties. And when you glance at someone who is physically attractive to you, your pupils dilate reflexively, drinking in the agreeable visage. Automatic. Spontaneous. Reflexive. These aren’t the words we typically use to describe deep change in large organizations. And therein lies the challenge: to make deep change more of an autonomic process—to build organizations that are capable of continuous self-renewal in the absence of a crisis."

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stevenb said...

Hi Eric. I enjoyed your discussion of innovation in libraries. I wrote a post about Hamel's book and his ideas on innovation at Designing Better Libraries a few months back - but I focused on just one aspect - the tension between control and innovation - you can't innovate if you try to maintain control of every existing process. See:

I agree that some administrators don't want to bother with innovation and that can be frustrating for library workers. I think it works the other way too. Library workers can be so focused on controlling the existing systems, enforcing the policies, and maintaining rules-based thinking that there is no way administrators can encourage innovation. I like what google does. They give every employee 20% of their time to work on any project he or she wants. That's where many of their greatest innovations have come from. But can you imagine any library letting staff have one whole day off a week for this. How would we keep piling up all those statistics we collect?

Eric Schnell said...


Thanks for the post reminder and link. I led a innovation task force this summer for University Libraries. We struggled with if innovation was top down or bottom up process. What we decided was that it takes an inspired leadership to prime the process.

Yes, staff also play a role it in. Organizations beginning the transition process may need their administrators to loosen up controls first. This sends a signal to staff that it is 'OK' for them to loosen up.

Your stats comment made me chuckle.

Helene said...

Eric- great thoughts and great post

Eric Schnell said...

Thanks, Helene. Hamel's ideas and words. I just brought them into the library context like stevenb has done.

bronwyn.mcburnie said...

Hi Eric, I just wanted to say thanks too for sharing those thoughts on innovation in libraries - they've really helped me conceptualise how to inject and "innovation" goal and strategies into our library team plan.
regard, Bronwyn.
Barrier Reef TAFE Libraries, Townsville, Australia.