Turning “No” into “Yes”

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Often times, it’s born at the desk.

Staff members think of a new idea, and they want to share it with the decision-makers. They put together a presentation or proposal at the suggestion of their immediate supervisor and take it up to administration. But they receive a cold reception. Not only are they told, “No,” but they were “talked to” by the department head: “How could anyone think such an idea would work? Didn’t they realize that their idea had been tried five years earlier?”

Other times it’s born at a rousing conference or workshop. Ideas, innovation, and inspiration are the order of the day. Back at the library, a proposal for that new blog, instant messaging (IM) reference service, or the technology du jour gets the green light. But reality sinks in as roadblocks go up; poor planning diverts a good idea into limbo and a chain of long, drawn-out meetings sucks every bit of life from the inspiration.

A committee forms to analyze the technology, then a team comes together to write best practices, and then a workgroup begins a pilot program-and suddenly it’s 12 months later, and nothing has happened. More time is spent proofing and wordsmithing than actually planning and implementing.

Openness to change

Is this an exaggeration? Far too much truth lives in this scenario. And it’s not just new ideas that get trapped in this culture of perfect. Good people every day get trampled on by staffers who insist on blaming others for their own ineptitude. How many times have we all heard, “We’re not going to answer your question because you didn’t ask it correctly”?

Good employees who were once open to change and receptive to new ideas become entrenched in their positions and somewhere along the way become closed, curmudgeonly, and unreceptive to new ideas. Things now must be done “my way” and “by the book.”

New ideas are feared, and the words used to describe their birth become weapons. We hear “immature” and “kids” and “inexperienced” casually tossed off to symbolize the younger generation, while older staff who have new ideas are labeled whiners and dissenters and “those who should know better.”

Avoiding disaster

These dual issues of “the culture of no” and “the culture of perfect” are not easy to address. Alone, they can cause serious damage to the library. Together they spell real disaster–public relations nightmares, financial debacles, and, perhaps most damaging, the complete loss of trust between staff and administrators. This last rending is sometimes near impossible to repair.

Fractures that run this deep in an organization require structural change. Setting up vertical teams with staff from all levels of the organization is one of the first things that can be done. Strong vertical teams engender trust and solicit buy-in. They make frontline staffers actually part of the solution, and they allow everyone from the top-level administrator to that desk staffer see the big-picture issues the library faces.

Choose what fits

Successfully turning a “no” into a “yes” might simply mean allocating some time and staff to the Emerging Technology Team or Emerging Ideas Committee. Their exploration, evidence gathering, evaluation, and open discussion via a blog may be time very well spent. The more we know about a technology and its pitfalls the better.

The more we see past technolust and keeping up with the library down the street or on the cover of L.], the better we are equipped to make decisions for our users. We’d rather see three well-researched, well-planned initiatives go onto the project board than every foray into new realms and new sites the Biblioblogosphere is buzzing about. Simply put, choose what fits for you.

Get around the problem of “no” by creating an innovation workgroup. This team, charged with accepting new ideas and using the vertical-team format to give them all a fair and impartial review, can meet monthly to examine the newest crop of suggestions and ideas. Done properly and without reprisals, all ideas can get the open and honest evaluation they deserve.

A few libraries even keep logs of each time staff members are told “no.” Debriefing once a month, they discover that sometimes a string of nos can become yeses if policies are changed or shifted even slightly. Try a “no log” or innovation workgroup and see.

Right tool for the job

We’ve done many presentations highlighting the tools of the day–and we’ve written on them extensively. It’s easy to forget they’re not for everyone. Choose the tool combination that fits for your library.

Taming the culture of perfect can be done with a different mindset, one that involves play and experience.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

May 1, 2007 Library Journal