1

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?

3

5 Ways to Start Leading Right Now

image via jaqueline-w on Flickr

When I was at a session on leadership at the Rhode Island Library Association conference, someone in the audience raised a question that I’ve thought a lot about myself: “How can I bring about change when I am not in charge and don’t have power or authority?” I’ve heard this question echoed other places. It’s a concern shared by many librarians hungry for change. Margaret J. Wheatley gives a more unorthodox definition of leadership. She says that “a leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.” I agree.

Leadership does not mean calling all the shots or having a big office, it means wanting to help and doing what you can to bring about change. Coming back to the original question, “how can I enact change when I’m not in charge,” there are strategies that I’ve found that allow you to start leading whatever your position:

  • Start acting like a leader - To be a leader you have to play the part. You can’t sit silently at meetings or complain that you have too much work if you want change. Leaders don’t complain, they put forward positive visions and solutions. Leaders may plan, but not endlessly. They don’t sit around wishing or waiting for change. They take action. They also value everyone on the team and try to empower them. Leaders are dedicated and set an example for those around them. By acting like a leader people will see you as one and start looking to you for ideas and opportunities to collaborate.
  • Ask good questions – Real leaders do not simply accept the status quo. They are constantly evaluating their organizations. They look for ways to improve their organizations, not just keep them afloat. To this end, they ask questions about decisions and about things that are taken for granted. “Why do we still subscribe to this resource?” “Why do we still have a print reference collection?” Leaders also ask good focusing questions. Questions focus us and “human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about.“ By crafting positive questions that direct us towards shared goals and visions we lay the groundwork for change.
  • Take on responsibility – If you want change you have to be willing to work for it. If you put forward an idea that you think is really great, be willing to take responsibility for seeing it through. You can get people to help you, but you can’t simply propose endless ideas that others should implement. Be willing to accept responsibility, take on projects and actually “be the change you want to see.”
  • Understand your influence - Just because you do not have formal power or a fancy title does’nt mean you have no power. Everyone has and can increase their ability to influence others. Your influence comes in a number of ways whether it’s personal abilities, structural and organizational abilities, or social connections that you’ve developed. A great resource I’ve read about understaning influence is the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.
  • Find a partner (or two) - No leader is an island. Change cannot come from just one person (especially not just one person at the top). Change comes from a small group of committed individuals. Find people within your organization as well as people outside your organization who want to bring about change. By partnering on projects and inviting others to come along on the change ride you create more groundswell and support for whatever initiative you are trying to realize.

Leadership is not a position, it’s an attitude. Everyone in an organization has the ability to bring about change. The first step is recognizing that.

What are some strategies that you use to bring about change in your organization without formal power?

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Ask The Right Questions

“Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about.”  - David Cooperrider

I have been thinking a lot recently about the power of questions in creating meaningful change in organizations. I posted earlier about taking a 6 week online class about Appreciative Inquiry. One of the principles of AI states that questions and change are not separate things. They happen simultaneously. One of the most important things that we can do in bringing about change is to develop and ask good questions.

So, if human systems grow in the direction of their persistent questions, what sorts of questions should we be asking?

  • Our budget has been cut again. How can we do more with less?
  • How can we show that we still have value?
  • How can libraries avoid obsolescence?

If these are the types of questions that we regularly ask at our institutions and our professional organizations and conferences then we are in trouble. If these are the questions that focus us, then we will constantly be thinking about proving our worth, avoiding budget cuts, and our eventual demise. We’ll be focused on fear as opposed to actually providing value and doing good. We need better questions.

  • How can we create amazing experiences everyday for our users?
  • How can we develop our students into expert questions-askers?
  • How can we make our libraries invaluable and irreplaceable in our communities?
  • How can we nurture abundant curiosity?
If questions like these are the ones that guide our thinking we’ll do extraordinary things. These questions aren’t trying to solve problems or even merely discover what we are already doing. These questions paint an optimum vision of the future and propel us towards it. Instead of trying to solve problems, put out fires, or simply stay afloat we are asking how can we create the kind of future we want.
What questions are you asking at your institution? What questions do you want to be asking?