One thing we’ve got plenty of in our libraries is shelves. We use them to store our books and any other materials you might fit on them. When we refer to getting something off the shelf, it is really all about discovery. Every time one of our community members opens a book it’s an opportunity to learn something new and to generate unique ideas.
There’s another type of shelf we all have in our libraries. It’s the imaginary shelf where we store our ideas and our innovation plans. Many of us have no trouble coming up with ideas, sometimes too many of them. Too often these ideas just end up sitting on the shelf. For one reason or another, whether it’s a lack of resources, reaching for too much too soon, allowing critics to create roadblocks or simply failing to obtain the needed resources, many of our ideas whither and fade away. That’s why we put them on that shelf, hoping that we’ll eventually have the time to take them off, give them a dusting and put them to good use. That’s the hard part. Too often our ideas never make it off the shelf.
That’s where strategies for “getting things off the shelf” may be of help. It refers to a set of strategies created by Ellison “Dick” Urban, formerly of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and now the Director of Washington Operations at Draper Laboratory. In the course of his work, he frequently was responsible for shepherding technology projects from the idea to implementation stages. Urban says that he “always had great interest in the entire chain of events from new concept formulation to customer adoption but have sometimes been frustrated by the inability of great ideas and creative prototype artifacts to reach the desired end state”. In an interview at Ubiqity, Urban shares the 10 point checklist he developed to get things off the shelf. I’ll share them here and attempt to put them into a library context.
#1 – Own a discriminating technology: Ideas for new library projects should clearly articulate how they differ from existing approaches. Developers should be able to identify what makes the idea unique. With multiple ideas from which to choose, those that are truly unique will deliver the greatest value and are therefor worthwhile of having resources allocated to their development. This step helps to insure that the idea get the necessary resources to see it through to implementation.
#2 – Walk a mile in a warrior’s boots: Ideas may sound great in the library conference room, but it’s important to get a sense of how they would work in the field. So get out of the office and get out into the community. Urban says that decision makers need to the people who could provide critical feedback on the idea, and share suggestions for what might improve the idea or confirm that it’s not ready for further development.
#3 – Have a plan but don’t stick to it: Ideas have a better chance of success if they start with an operational plan for implementation. Urban’s advice is to “make “value added to the user” a key parameter for periodic evaluation of progress. Constantly evaluate your plan against your goals and objectives and be prepared to change everything”. Be flexible about needing to change during the process, and keep asking if the plan still makes sense.
#4 – Make a commitment: It’s a good idea, once a plan is in place, to share it some community members, perhaps a faculty or student library advisory group. Once ideas are shared with members of the library community, it creates a greater commitment to bring the idea to fruition. Consider making them part of the development team, as it will add momentum to the process, but be careful about raising expectations too high.
#5 – Lead your contractors: This is Urban’s military language for simply being a good team leader. Inspire them. Make sure they know they’re developing the idea for the community members, not the idea champion. Urban says “It’s ok to fail. Build concept and design iterations into the process. Review frequently. Learn from mistakes. Change course as often as necessary.” Good advice.
#6 – Build a constituency: This is a simple one and easy to do in most libraries – make it about the team. Your idea will have a better chance for success if you involve others and avoid trying to be the hero. If it’s your idea, be the idea champion. Help make it happen by empowering others to turn your vision into something concrete.
#7 – Work the acquisition system: Every organization has a system for acquiring the resources needed to accomplish a project. Knowing as much as you can about how the system works and who are the key people to support the project increases the odds the idea will make it to the finish line.
#8 – Look for windows of opportunity: Right now your idea may be premature for moving to the next stage. It may be best to wait until a situation arises where this idea can emerge as a viable solution or when the resource and support system may be better capable of helping the idea achieve implementation. A key to success in higher education is persistence. Keep believing in your idea and others will join the effort when window of opportunity opens. I have always found that a key to success in higher education is persistence. Keep believing in your idea and others will join the effort when window of opportunity opens.
#9 – Be conscious of “dollars and sense”: Stay focused on the affordability of your project, and the value that it’s going to bring to your community. Make sure you have a consistent message that communicates the value that the project will deliver.
#10 – Don’t forget the little things: Be nice to all the people upon whom the success of your project depends. Treat them with respect, and be honest in your dealings with them. Make sure you thank them.
If you read the original article you’ll see that most of the ten points on this checklist refer heavily to military situations. That’s where Urban did most of his work, but at the end of the article he acknowledges these ten can be applied to any field – including higher education. Keep in mind that the checklist only helps to see ideas through to the end. It may improve the odds of success but there’s no guarantee the idea won’t fail. You still have to take the risks. Creating a better library experience with the ideas you and your colleagues generate all begins with getting them off the shelf.