Innovative Thinking – Why Is It So Hard?

Without a doubt, there are some really innovative people in the library world who are doing some amazing things. But are these people the norm or are they the exception? How many of us do innovative things or have innovative ideas on a daily basis (or a weekly one)? I know that I have this perception that innovation is a difficult task – too difficult for me to accomplish. Trying to figure out how to change a culture that doesn’t foster innovation is even more challenging. I was intrigued by a post by Stephen Abram in which he has some some ideas about what kills innovation. He links to a post by Jeffrey Phillips from a blog called Innovate on Purpose. Phillip suggests that lack of sustained feedback is one of the biggest barriers to innovation. In response, Abram asks “Now does that ring true in libraryland?” In my experience, definitely. Even when we do tackle innovative projects, they are often just that – projects. Life returns to normal after they have been completed. They have a beginning and an end. We don’t have a continually evolving innovative attitude. And, we don’t necessarily have good mechanisms to encourage spontaneous feedback. People don’t generally come up and say “I have a great idea.” More often than not, they only voice an opinion when asked about something.

Abram asks some other tough questions about behaviors that can kill innovative thought. He adds: “Do our management processes require every idea to be fully formed. Do we have difficulty with new ideas and pilots and experiments. Do new ideas get crushed under the weight of a single user’s negative feedback…?” I have certainly seen these types of things happen. I don’t really have any concrete answers about encouraging innovative thinking, but I do agree that as a whole those of us in the library world aren’t very good at it. How do we get staff to be excited about the library, to voice their thoughts and opinions, to think creatively? I do believe that innovation has to be a team effort -something that everyone buys into. It seems to me this is a culture that needs to be cultivated.


4 Responses to Innovative Thinking – Why Is It So Hard?

  1. Stephen K Abram says:

    Great thoughts Jennifer. Keep that up and you’ll graduate even quicker!


    Stephen Abram

  2. Jason says:

    As I’ve said in my own postings and comments in various blogs, I think that the overall library culture can make a difference. Abram makes some good points, but I would like to expand on the idea of bringing more experienced staff on board with seeing the advantages of innovation. Since experienced staff are probably used to a top-down model of leadership, maybe an executive fiat would help them become more used to thinking in an “innovative” way.

    Despite the way it may sound, I am certainly not advocating that administrators tell experienced staff to use every new technology available or get fired. Rather, administrators should encourage the kind of “reciprocal mentoring” that Abram advocates, where technology-savvy staff can get their less tech-savvy counterparts to think about libraries in broader terms related to the contemporary world. Perhaps such staff could be designated to keep up with innovations, and hold seminars every so often for all library staff to attend. It may seem “passive,” but it’s better than telling staff that they’re on their own to keep up. Of course, if innovative thinking seeps its way into a library’s culture, such a program would probably become unnecessary over time.

    Naturally, the designated staff would need to have a light touch. Telling older staff to “innovate or die” will only alienate them. If I were asked to give such presentations, I would consider using their interests as a springboard for talking about such innovations, and having a light touch so that they do not feel threatened by the many innovative ideas we could all use. (I know that such “innovate or die” talk makes me feel uneasy, and I’m only in my 30s.) Furthermore, such designated staff should be prepared to discuss how such innovations fit in with the perennial roles fulfilled by libraries.

    As for innovation, I am not talking about using the technologies available today “because they’re there.” In fact, getting stuck on specific technologies seems just as regressive as not adapting them at all. (In other words, we would just be buying time before becoming regressive again.) Again, library administrators should foster a culture of innovation, where the roles of technologies can be put in a proper perspective. I believe that we should primarily think about the “timeless” aspects of libraries (an arguably vague concept), and figure out ways that we can improve on them with new and emerging technologies. I’m sure that many innovation-minded librarians already believe this, but I just have concerns about technology ruling what we do.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Jason, I agree that the issue here is the library culture. Innovation needs to be a part of the overall culture of the library, its staff and even its users to some extent. True, this type of culture needs come from the management. You make some good points about steps that can be taken to create such a culture. But, everyone needs to be receptive and ready for such a program to take hold. One thing that I do think can help is to remove the technology aspect from this discussion. Innovative ideas do not necessarily have to rely upon technology.

    One of my thoughts is that in a truly innovative culture, everyone feels comfortable expressing new ideas or thoughts about how to improve services. My overall impression is that so many people tend to be scared of or wary of technology because they don’t understand it, because it intimidates them or because it frustrates them. I find that technology often limits what we are able to do mostly because it isn’t well understood by the majority. In an innovative culture, ideas should flow freely.

    You have a valid concern about technology ruling what we do – and even what we don’t do. Technology can be (and often is) a bit of a liability. When we rely so heavily on technology and have so few people who understand it, we create significant problems that can inhibit our ability to serve our patrons.

    Thanks for your great thoughts!!!!!

    Also, a big thanks to Stephen Abram for his kind words – and for his original post.

  4. Jason says:

    Thanks for the response, Jennifer. Thinking about perceptions of “technology” and “innovation,” it seems possible that semantics might get in the way of true progress. Someone who started as a librarian many years ago might have gone in as an idealist, but something caused them to sour along the way. Maybe no one listened to their ideas, so they ended up”settling in” and doing what others told them to do. Now, others want them to become “idealistic” again, but they don’t know how to do so anymore. Some staff might be too far gone, but library cultures need to encourage staff to resurrect their idealism. Tacking hollow words (like “proactive” and “initiative”) to documents and discussions remain woefully insufficient, as is the apparent obsession of some folks with technological band-aids. I just hope we can transcend all that, and come up with a deeper definition of innovation that encourages broader dialogue.

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