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.
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?
“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?