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Avoiding Mission Creep

World’s largest Swiss Army Knife

Last evening our president and provost were invited to chat with the faculty about their vision, past, present, and future for the college. It was an excellent event, and I appreciated the opportunity to have genuine conversations with the people making the big decisions on campus. One of the things that really resonated with me was when our president said that mission creep is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education. Everyone brings unique talents and strengths to an organization. This means that people will want to pursue different interests, but if those interests start getting too far outside the mission of the institution or what you’re actually trying to achieve there will be a lot of wasted energy.

In libraries, as a microcosm of higher ed, I think that this can be true as well. Libraries by their nature are a service industry–a helping industry. Because of this we often try to be all things to all people, or we continue things that still serve some people but perhaps not as effectively as in the past. Because we love helping others it makes it really hard to say no. Yet to innovate, and meet the challenges of the future, saying no is extremely important. The late Steve Jobs understood this well:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Librarians do need to serve, but we also need to learn how to say no. We only have a limited amount of resources, funds, and energy. If we say yes to everything and don’t continually reevaluate services and initiatives we risk spreading ourselves thin. This can lead to burnout and a lot of mediocre services as opposed to engagement and several services that delight and amaze our users.

We shouldn’t be asking “what else can we do?” We should be asking “who are our current and future users as opposed our past users, imagined users, or the users we wish existed?” “What should we be saying no to?” “What is going to amaze our users?”

 

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New Job Title: Innovation Catalyst Librarian

image via WilzDesign on Flickr

There are a growing number of positions that I’ve seen that are focused on new technologies and fresh ideas in libraries. From time to time I get questions or emails asking about my previous role as an Emerging Technologies Librarian and advice that I might have for people starting out in a similar role. While I think these roles are going to be very different from institution to institution I think there are some bits of advice that will contribute to success in a role dedicated to new tech and ideas. People in these roles should not think of themselves as the “tech person” though. Thinking only about tech is extremely limiting. They should think of themselves as innovation catalysts. That is the reason they were hired, though it’s not always that explicit. They were hired to make meaningful change at their institution. To do this sort of work, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Spend time in the future

For someone who wants to be a leader of meaningful change in the library, it’s necessary to focus on the future, not just incremental improvements. Being aware of trends inside and especially outside of libraries will allow you to more easily change course or seize opportunities you might otherwise miss. The thing is though, this takes time. You have to regularly set aside time to read, research, explore and engage with others. You have to purposely spend time in the future. Some of my favorite spots include blogs, people on Twitter, and even print magazines.

Blogs:

Twitter:
List of some Twitter Folks focused on the future (people like Anil Dash, Seth Brogan, Joi Ito, Richard Branson, etc.)
Magazines (a lot of this content is free online but I like the print design and can’t I check my email on a magazine):

Experiment…a lot

Not every initiative that you try is going to work. This shouldn’t  be discouraging though. As Churchill said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As a librarian who is trying to invent the future, you have to do a lot of experimentation. You have to have multiple pilot projects going and be learning from them, especially the ones that don’t work. To do this type of work you need to develop an experimental, entrepreneurial spirit. A couple of great resources for this are Think Like a Startup and Too Much Assessment Not Enough Innovation, whitepapers by Brian Mathews.

Stop talking to librarians

Librarians are awesome, but they’re not always the best people to talk to if you want fresh, future oriented perspectives. That’s not to say that librarians are stuck in the past, for the most part we’re not. But being professionals we bring a certain perspective and it becomes hard to see through different lenses. The most important people you can talk to are members of your learning community. Talk regularly to students and faculty, not about the library but about their needs and what they feel success looks like. Attend faculty senate meetings and student advisory boards. Create opportunities to talk with and better understand your users and see the world with fresh eyes.

Whether you’re an emerging technologies librarian or an innovation catalyst librarian (I hope someone uses this title)  it’s necessary to be aware of larger trends, develop entrepreneurial habits, and get outside your limited perspective and your curse of knowledge. What other habits or perspectives do you find necessary in inventing the future of libraries?

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What’s Right With Libraries?

changing life bulbs

image via DyanaVphotos on Flickr

There are no shortage of problems in librarianship. Publisher’s and libraries are wrangling over ebooks. Higher education and the academy is under siege. There are regularly stories of funding cuts. And apparently libraries are in crisis. It’s easy to see only what’s wrong and what problems are facing us, especially if that is what we are looking for. But what if we flipped that around?

What if instead of only focusing on solving problems, we focused on creative initiatives happening right now? What if instead of putting out fires we looked at proactive ideas to the issues facing us? What if in the place of managing crises, we looked at the distinct strengths of and the vast human potential of libraries and started building there?

There are clearly challenges facing libraries, and they can’t be ignored, but we default to looking at the problems and become overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on deficits and what is wrong with libraries, we need to look at the myriad opportunities for innovation and build on what is going right in libraries. This is a shift in perspective that could make a significant change, but it also takes a shift in action.

What could we do to shift our organizations, workplaces, and selves from problem and deficit-based thinking to potential and strength-based thinking?

Ask Better Questions

The questions we repeatedly ask determine where we direct our energy. If we ask in meetings or in strategic planning, questions like “how can we better market our services” or “how can we improve our service” then we’ll likely get incremental improvement with more problems following closely on the heels of those questions. But if instead we are constantly asking “how can we inspire human curiosity,” or “how can we be radically relevant to our users lives,” or “how can we amaze people everyday,” we are more likely to get transformational change. In questioning, we need to start with what we genuinely want, not what we want less of. “Don’t think about better vacuum cleaners, think about cleaner floors.” Asking better questions, like in Brian Mathews’ recent whitepaper Think Like a Startup, is the first step to coming up with better, revolutionary answers.

Build on Strengths

The management guru Peter Drucker said “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” Too often we spend time trying to improve our weaknesses, and correct what’s wrong. There are so many things that libraries don’t do well, and that’s fine. But if we spend our energy focusing on what we do poorly it will be wasted. Libraries and librarians have distinct strengths like nurturing curiosity and creating unrecognized connections. If we can identify and amplify those current strengths our work will be much more focused, and the resources and services we provide will be much more effective.

Create Potential Rich Work Environments

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about two different ways of looking at work and motivation. In the first type (Type X) motivation stems from external desires and rewards. In the second type (Type I) motivation arises intrinsically out of challenge and a sense of meaning. Librarianship is a career path obviously focused more on the intrinsic rewards and the moments that make it all worth it, but work is not always structured that way. Instead of focusing on purpose or challenge we get caught in the day to day of maintaining the systems, answering emails, and teaching classes. What if we could find strategies that regularly got us out of our routines and got us focused on why and challenging us to grow? What if we instituted a FedEx day for our next work retreat where the point was to create a new service or offering in the course of a day? Library leaders need to find ways to focus on not only maintaining and getting our daily tasks done but connecting our work to the powerful reasons we got into this profession in the first place.

There are plenty of voices asking what’s wrong, what’s broken in libraries. A much more generative question is what’s right with libraries, and how can we start building there?