I’m currently reading Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup. Ries talks a great deal about experimenting and validating learning. Often we provide products or create services because we think it is what has an impact or is what our users want. But in a number of examples that Ries provides, adding new features or services does not create any change at all and a lot of what organizations do is superfluous. This leads him to ask “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?”
To answer this question he says that we need to identify and test our assumptions through a number of small experiments. He also says that we need metrics that can tell us something as opposed to vanity metrics. An example of a vanity metric in libraries would be something like gate count. It says “we have a bunch of people coming in and out of the building,” but it doesn’t go to much farther than that. Why are these people coming in? Does it have something to do with our efforts?
He also talks about “success theater,” (the work we do to make ourselves look successful). It’s good to have charts and graphs that go up and to the right, but do those actually tell us anything? Is it our efforts that our making a difference or something else? Are we accidentally getting it right? Is it a fluke? What happens if the numbers go down?
So this brings me to my question: what are the assumptions we have in libraries and how to we test them?
Assumptions abound in libraries: students need research help from librarians, we need to be on social media, students need to be taught how to use a database. These assumptions might be different from institution to institution, but each place has their own assumptions.
We also have a variety of metrics and numbers that we can pay attention to in libraries: gate count, database statistics, circulation numbers, reference statistics, number of classes taught, assessment data, student surveys, etc. Which numbers are really valuable for testing assumptions and which are just noise?
What are some of our assumptions in libraries? What assumptions do you test at your library? What assumptions would you like to test? What metrics do or could you use to validate your learning?
This past semester I took on a new role as Assistant Director of the Library. My focus in this role is digital strategy and user experience, but since my excellent colleague Sarah Cohen left last spring I have also been filling in as the organizer of the Teaching Librarians. This week though, I am very excited to hand the position off to Alan Carbery our new Assistant Director for Information Literacy. It’s a great team of teachers, and I know Alan will be an asset in providing us leadership.
With Alan’s arrival I’m eager to be directing more energy towards the digital strategy and user experience side of my position. One of the things I’m really excited about is a new team that I helped to form at the start of last semester that’s focusing on these areas. At the initial meeting our group recognized that as a library we often have great ideas, but many of them don’t come to fruition because every semester we get busy and some are inevitably forgotten. We wanted to form a team that could not only come up with ideas, but also create a space where these ideas could be incubated and given legs. As part of our first meeting we came up with a team name and some shared principles. I love the name we came up with even though it’s a bit geeky. We called ourselves NERD (New Entrepreneurial Research & Development). As for the shared principles, among other things we wanted a team that:
- has focus, is directed towards goals, and sets timelines and deadlines for ourselves so we can actually get things done.
- is not exclusive or exclusionary. Other people can join on and off, and we’ll sometimes intentionally want people there.
- makes decisions not just on gut feelings, conjecture, or what other people are doing but on data and evidence.
- purposefully tests out ideas using user research, interviews and data.
- meets students where they are not where we assume they are or want them to be.
- works in an environment of perpetual beta where we brainstorm, choose ideas, pilot/prototype them, and then ship them knowing that they are not finished and with an eye to improving them.
In the past semester we’ve been tackling things like improving the reference experience for students and improving how study rooms are utilized. We’re already off to a great start this semester and I know we’re going to do some amazing things.
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?”