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Focusing On What Works

person writing on board for the Champlain College Summit

photo by Stephen Mease

A little over a week ago Champlain College hosted a two day summit called Building Partnerships for a Thriving Workforce. They invited college staff, faculty and students, but also a lot of community members, business owners, parents and local stakeholders. The focus of it was creating the workforce of the future which involves both the college but also businesses that need well prepared graduates for an uncertain future. What was really interesting though, was that the summit was based on a process called Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational development method that focuses not on solving problems, but on discovering strengths and what an organization is doing well and then building on it. I’ve seen it used before in planning sessions and it works well. It can be really easy to focus on problems, what’s going wrong, and what is frustrating about an organization or situation, but that isn’t always the most productive way of making lasting, meaningful change.

We talked about this at NELLS a little over a week ago and person mentioned the idea of people becoming “addicted to the drama of complaining.” I thought this was a great phrase. It’s easy to focus on the negative or complain about annoying co-workers or what is going wrong. It’s easy to fall into the trap of asking questions like “what if it doesn’t work,” “what if we have too much success,” or “what if no one likes our idea?” While it’s important to anticipate obstacles, it’s more effective to plan for success.

For more information on appreciative inquiry I’d suggest the Library Trends article The promise of appreciative inquiry in library organizations by Maureen Sullivan. But even as a first step, during your next library meeting when the focus shifts to the problems of the organization, perhaps try to shift the question to “what are we doing well, what makes us effective, and how can we build on that?”

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On Leadership in Libraries

NELLS participants

photo by NELLS participant Kathleen Spahn

This past week I attended the New England Library Leadership Symposium facilitated by Maureen Sullivan in North Andover, MA. She lead a challenging and rewarding program over the course of a week, and as a group we did a lot of sharing and learning.  I wanted to distill down a few lessons that stuck out for me after reflecting on the symposium:

Authenticity is key to leadership and a positive work environment

In order to be successful as a leader you need to be authentic and an open, honest communicator. You need to have a good understanding of yourself. You should not avoid problems or just let them solve themselves. One of the keys to leadership is to foster an environment where you and the whole staff can be their authentic selves and not worry about speaking up or challenging assumptions. If people are constantly walking on eggshells, few new ideas will be presented. One way to do this is by treating people like whole adult human beings as opposed to resources to be managed. You should do things like say thank you or admit mistakes, not because that is what you are “supposed” to do, but because you genuinely respect the other humans that you work with. This will foster trust and allow others to be open, honest, and authentic with you and each other.

You have to manage your own career and happiness

If you are not happy somewhere or are no longer being fulfilled or challenged, you should try to find a way out. In this economy that is not always possible, but if that’s the case you should be looking for other opportunities, even ones that might not be in libraries. Maureen talked about how it would be great if more folks would find work outside of libraries and effect change with libraries in mind. But while you are looking for opportunities, you also need to make sure that you are currently doing work that is fulfilling. This could be serving a state organization, organizing a conference or volunteering in your community. Everyone deserves to be happy and fulfilled in their work. This means you have to take control of your own happiness instead of having it dictated to you.

Leadership exists on a continuum

Leadership is not an either/or position. Everyone has opportunities and the capacity for leadership no matter what they do. One concept Maureen discussed was emergent leadership. This is the idea that leaders can arise out of groups not based on their status but on their abilities. She also called it leading from the middle. Even if you are not in a position of formalized leadership that does not mean you cannot still gain leadership experience. There are a number of programs (ALA’s Emerging Leaders program comes to mind) that offer opportunities to practice leadership skills. There is also no shortage of work to be done in state, regional or national associations. You can take on projects that require project management skills. If you want to learn to lead, the opportunities abound.

The symposium was awesome and I’m likely going to write a few more posts that were inspired by it. I would recommend NELLS or something like it (Tall Texans, Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians) to anyone, no matter what your current position is. There are a lot of changes that need to be made in libraries starting now. We can all effect this change, it just takes some practice.

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New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.