Guerilla Innovations – Lessons Learned from NEASIS&T

After a necessary break from blogging, I’m back and I’d like to share with you the experience I had as a presenter at NEASIS&T’s exciting program, From Guerilla Innovation to Institutional Transformation: Information Professionals as Change Agents. The talk featured John Blyberg, Jessamyn West, and myself. Though my summary is a bit overdue (the program took place on November 15th), the themes we explored are ones I hope we’ll continue to think about for the foreseeable future.

Not to judge a program by its title, but I was thrilled to see this request come my way. We information professionals are all too familiar with change. We see almost daily changes in technology, our patrons’ expectations, our budgets, and so on. What’s more difficult to recognize is that as our environments change, so too must our approaches to how we do our work. Design thinking plays a role here. We need to be innovative in how we craft user experiences so that they resonate with today’s patrons.

My presentation opened the program with a discussion of creativity – what it is and how to ‘get’ it. Creativity is a fascinating topic for me because it’s something that we all have but rarely use to its full potential. There are many reasons for this, including that creativity might appear too elusive for those of us who don’t think we fit a creative-type mold (the good news is that there isn’t one. Everyone is creative). Also, by its nature, creativity is both a creative and a destructive force. Creative ideas demand change; they entail risk; the creative process is both disciplined and chaotic. All of these qualities can make even the most innovative among us a little squeamish. While my talk was about an hour long, the following is quick summary of what I consider to be the most important points:

  • Creativity is a professional competency. It’s incumbent upon us to nurture our own creativity as well as the creativity within our organizations.
  • Nurturing creativity means:
    • Giving ideas time to percolate before dismissing them (your ideas and those of others).
    • Stepping out of comfort zones. It’s important to actively seek out new experiences and perspectives to generate new ideas.
    • Having fun.
    • Working in groups
    • Flattening hierarchies.
  • The qualities that make creativity scary (risk, change, uncertainty), are the very qualities we need to embrace if we are to remain relevant.
  • Creativity should be held accountable. It may sound ethereal, but creativity is a means of solving real problems.
    • Problems are great sources of ideas. Seek out white spaces, or unmet needs, just as you would seek out solutions.
  • Creativity is NOT a waste of time. It’s the raw material of innovation. Innovation is necessary for libraries’ survival.

(In my next DBL post, I’ll describe some creativity-friendly techniques you can use to awaken your creative talents).

Next up was John who discussed how creative ideas can become realities in the workplace. His talk was fantastic, as evidenced by my many pages of notes. From my experience and point-of-view, all of his suggestions are absolutely true. Here are the some of his key tips:

  • Refrain from being reactionary. It’s crucial to get the basics down pat before moving onto the next big thing.
  • People are your greatest asset. (That’s worth repeating). People are your greatest asset. John recommends using the 51% rule: Look for people who bring that extra level of commitment to their jobs. They can learn the rest.
  • Hierarchies can quash innovation. Often, it’s best to talk directly to colleagues in different departments, rather than through the chain.
  • Embed innovative people throughout every unit of your organization.
  • Understand your culture and be true to who you are.
  • Be flexible. John’s pledge to staff members is that if they really want to do something, he won’t say no as long as they are in it for the long-term.
  • Inculcate a continuous innovation state of mind and don’t dwell on one project or component of a project for too long.
  • Use flexible data structures. Data should be modular so as you collect data from anywhere, consider how it could be used in the future for multiple uses.

Some of my favorite points of John’s had to do with navigating the political structure to get things done. I wholeheartedly agree with his suggestion of offering a counter-vision. If you have an idea/passion/interest, be prepared to defend it against criticisms and other ideas. To do so, John recommended developing a personal and collaborative ideology and to draft a personal mission statement so that you’re ready to win people over on your vision under any circumstance. Also, when working on projects, invite the people you’re serving in on the planning stages. Doing so helps to gain buy-in and commitment to the initiative’s long-term success.

Jessamyn closed the session with a captivating talk on Agitprop (a combination of the words propaganda and agitation). I have far fewer notes on her talk because I got completely wrapped up in her story-telling abilities, which are phenomenal. Suffice it to say, Jessamyn favors an activist approach to change, calling on librarians to remain “truly, defiantly, radically public.” The new word I adopted from her talk was ‘suboptimal.’ Jessamyn argued that one should be able to identify a practice as ‘suboptimal’ without putting colleagues on the defensive. Agreed. As I mentioned earlier, creativity and innovation require that old or traditional ways of doing things should, at the very least, be open for discussion. Dismissing ideas too soon is a sure way to kill innovations ideas before they have a chance to prove their value.

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