On Innovation, Control and the Organization

A wonderful post by Eric Schnell caught my eye last week.


His words are so well-chosen and ideas so spot on IMHO:

To move towards a move innovative organization requires experimentation, trial and error, doing new things, and breaking rules.  Libraries looking to become more innovative are confronted with reality: it takes 100 crazy ideas to find 10 worth funding experimentally in order to identify 1 project worth pursuing. As it has been said, that it takes a lot of acorns to grow an oak tree.

The challenge is that most library organizations are structured and managed to continue current practices rather for than for innovation. Both strategy and resource alignment are focused on supporting short term missions and goals. This holds library organizations captive to a culture that is antagonistic toward innovation. Such a culture kills most attempts at innovation and can eventually drive innovative individuals away.  It is not that the individuals within a library do not want to innovate, they talk about it all the time. Simply put, the structure of library organizations and their approach to management may make them unwittingly systematically hostile to innovation.
Schnell highlights a book by Gary Hamel:
Gary Hamel notes that that the bottleneck within an organization that ultimately throttles innovation is almost always located at the top. Organizations are trained to look to the top for clues about where it’s going.
What happens if the folks at the top are mired in outdated ways of thinking? Some directors may stifle innovation because in their career they’ve never been encouraged to foster such a culture. Others may just not care to as they finish their careers. Others may have played the role of gatekeeper for so long, there’s no alternative.
Others go out of their way to empower staff. One dean of libraries once told me: “I don’t understand all the new stuff, but that’s what I rely on my staff to do: figure it out and tell me what we should do.” I’d take that style any day!
Michael Casey and I just wrote about library marketing for our next column and from what we’ve heard from our calls on Twitter, some libraries are throttled by tight control on the message. Guess what? The world has moved on and the message belongs to everyone. (The column will be out October 16th)
More from Schnell:
In his book The Future of Management, Hamel discusses new management principles which can help transform a library into a more innovative culture, including:

  • variety, diversity, experimentation, depoliticizing / depolarization of decision making
  • resource allocation flexibility
  • enabling activism through democracy (devolution of accountability, distributed leadership, unalienable )
  • engagement and mobilization through a common cause
  • increasing the odds and successful contribution of serendipity
These are wonderful points and they speak to where I think business, organizations, and, yes, libraries. I use a category here at TTW called Library Innovators, and I suspect that many of the libraries and librarians I tag with that category as I gather stuff here would fall in line with some of the principles above.
Of course, my mind turns to LIS curriculum. I don’t teach management but I would be very interested in seeing how these new models are being incorporated into courses. Shouldn’t we be instilling a sense of experimentation, flexibility and a sense of curiosity in our graduates?
I thank Eric for the most cool post. Much to ponder.