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.

Playful Design

Last month’s ALA TechSource’s Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium (GLLS) transformed my thinking about library services and, in particular, my thinking about designing user experiences. During the conference, I was enthralled by speaker after speaker who described how games not only draw in hard-to-reach patrons, but how they inspire a greater level of engagement among those patrons. School children, for example, who resist cracking open textbooks eagerly consume lengthy, complicated gaming guides and spend endless hours trying to master new gaming skills. Why do they expend the extra effort? The answer, in part, is play.


According to James Paul Gee, GLLS speaker and author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, marketers figured out something that teachers and librarians have yet to master: sound learning principles sell complexity. In the case of games, those principles have been applied to play so that learning, in effect, becomes fun. It follows that if librarians were to apply some or all of these learning principles to designing library experiences, patrons would enjoy using the library and even become more likely to take on the complicated aspects of using our services.


Using play to encourage deeper learning is not a new idea in library circles. In her article, Play Matters: The Academic Librarian’s Role in Fostering Historical Thinking, librarian-extraordinaire Lisa Norberg proposes creating digital sandboxes full of rich primary source materials that encourage students to explore and have fun with the resources. Then, if they want, they can continue to learn more about how to locate them using library search tools. In doing so, librarians can engage patrons on an emotional level before “leveling up” to more advanced techniques.


What, then are the key learning principles librarians should apply to their services? Gee mentioned 12 during his talk at the Symposium, which I’m paraphrasing liberally here:

  1. Lower the consequence of failure. In other words, make libraries risk-free zones.

  2. Put learning before competence. No one is born knowing how to use a library so patrons shouldn’t feel as though they’re expected to be experts on their first visit.

  3. Make players/patrons co-designers so that their actions matter and make a difference. This could mean inviting patrons to make design decisions from the earliest planning stages to implementation.

  4. Order challenges so that they become progressively more difficult (like levels in a game).

  5. Arrange challenges in cycles. Players/patrons are given the chance to test a skill, perfect it, then move on to another challenge where they can build on the skill.

  6. Test players/patrons to the outer edges of their abilities so that challenges are not too difficult or too easy.

  7. Ask players/patrons to consider situations and relationships, not just facts.

  8. Foster empathy for a complex system (the library?) by making players/patrons a part of it.

  9. Give verbal information just in time to be useful.

  10. “Situate” meanings by enabling patrons to associate the meanings of unknown words and symbols within proper contexts. (As an example, Gee mentioned how difficult it is for students to learn Geology terms because they’re given word definitions for phenomena they have never personally experienced or have a frame of reference for).

  11. Encourage “modding,” or allowing players/patrons to change what they don’t like about a situation to better fit their preferences.

  12. Give feedback and assessment. (The Ann Arbor District Library knows just how important rankings are among gamers, which is evident in their popular tournament leaderboards).

Maybe it seems unrealistic to incorporate every one of these principles into all of our services, but it is striking just how few of them we seem to apply. As Lisa Hinchliffe pointed out in her GLLS talk, the OPAC, for example, is not reaffirming for patrons because it doesn’t let them know whether or not they conducted a successful search. If we employ the above principles to our OPAC including giving assessment, allowing modding, providing needed information just in time, and so on, we could improve patron’s search skills while making research more enjoyable.


When designing library services, play is a serious consideration. Play enhances enjoyment, encourages people to develop skills, improves learning outcomes, and forges emotional bonds between patrons and libraries. Thinking about how these 12 principles can improve our services is a good place to start for more playful library designs.

An Approach to Customer-Centric Innovation

Generating innovative ideas is imperative for the survival and growth of any organization, including libraries. However, those ideas are only worthwhile insofar as customers value them. Authors Larry Seldon and Ian C. MacMillan propose a process of customer research and development (R&D) that results in products and services that directly address customer needs. Their HBR article, Manage Customer-Centric Innovation – Systematically addresses the “growth gap” that results when R&D is far removed from customer and investor support.

The solution for more relevant innovations, as they see it, is a process they call “customer-centric innovation” or CCI. This is a growth strategy as well, since the process results in an extension of the consumer base as well as product offerings. The process consists of 3 phases:

Phase 1: Establish and develop the core

In this phase, the focus is on understanding current customers better and developing a value proposition for them. The authors define the value proposition as,

“the complete customer experience, including products, services, and any interaction with the company.”

In the authors’ example of how one company achieved this, designers applied ethnographic research to understand the exact relationship between their product (luggage) and their current customer base of male frequent business air travelers.

Phase 2: Extend (2a: Extend Capabilities; 2b: Extend Segments)

Extend Capabilities

Here, innovators need to devise the resources and mechanisms for filling the needs identified in Phase 1. Essentially, this phase ensures that the firm is keeping its core segment happy.

Extend Segments

In the process of completing Phase 1, researchers should seek other customer segments who could benefit from them their offerings. These segments have similar needs to those in the core segment, but their needs are different enough to justify modifications to offerings using the firm’s existing resources.

Phase 3: Stretch (3a: Stretch Capabilities; 3b: Stretch Segments)

In my view, this is the phase where innovators leave familiar territory for the unknown, and where greater risk enters the process.

Stretch Capabilities
New capabilities are developed to attend to various needs of existing segments as well as new segments.

Stretch Segments
Here, the organization attempts to find segments unrelated to the core who can benefit from existing offerings.

In this CCI model, a deep understanding of current customers and abilities forms the basis of growth in two arenas: what the organization is able to do and who it’s able to do it for.

There are three other key components to a successful CCI. First, frontline employees MUST be participants in the R&D. As the authors put it,

“Our experience shows that the only way to sustain customer R&D is by putting customer-facing employees behind the wheel.”

They mention numerous companies that do so successfully, including Best Buy which has 750 outlets designated as Customer Centricity stores. In these stores, frontline employees are free to experiment with marketing tactics like signage, product groupings, and displays to determine what effect these changes have on customers’ behaviors. The result has been sales growth that is double that of the rest of the stores, according to the authors.

Secondly, organizations must retain a defensive posture. In doing so, they continually scan for changes in customer expectations, technology, and other possible disruptions. The authors insist,

“Customer R&D’s mission is to know more about the company’s existing customers than anyone else on the planet and to ensure that the company is strategically and operationally prepared to preempt any competitor’s move.”

Finally, did I mention that CCI should involve customers too? Not just observing customers, but bringing them into the R&D process as co-innovators. One company mentioned in the article uses an online panel of thousands of customers as sounding boards for new projects.

What does this mean for libraries?

There are a number of key points I took away from this article as it relates to library work:

  • Managers must put frontline staff in charge of innovation. The innovation process is not a top-down approach. If anything, it’s a grassroots effort. Internal structures may need to be realigned so as to empower employees and entrench innovation as a part of doing business.
  • Innovation begins here and now. No library can expect to add new services or attract new patrons without first being able to identify, understand, and serve existing ones. The innovation process begins with taking stock and knowing your patrons and their needs at a level of detail unmatched by anyone else.
  • Instability is the only way to stay safe. If we’re not scanning the horizon for new and better ways of serving patrons, we’re vulnerable to competitive threats. Experimentation and risk-taking, though possibly disruptive, are healthy and the basis for successful, meaningful growth.
  • Patrons are innovation partners. To get to know our patrons better than anyone else, we need reach out to them as well as bring them into our organization as partners. The authors of the CCI article take customer involvement a step further:

“The firm should institutionalize customer centricity. This is accomplished by making the customer segments the basic business unites of the company; that is, organizing by customer segment rather than by product, geography, or function.”

In this way of thinking, we’re not only in business for our patrons, they quite literally ARE our business.

[This article can be found in the Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2006, p. 108-116.]

An Interview with Dennie Heye on Creativity

Information scientist Dennie Heye is author of the book Characteristics of the Successful 21st Century Information Professional. In it, Heye has a chapter on creativity, an expanded version of which is available in the article, “Creativity and Innovation.” The article offers a number of tips and ideas for developing this important competency. I was especially interested in Heye’s notion that librarians can become “creativity facilitators” for their users by offering appropriate spaces, classes, community connections, and readings to support creative ambitions. I e-mailed Heye to learn more about his views on creativity. The following are my questions and his responses. I recommend reading the full article to learn more about techniques that will enhance your creativity.

1. You argue that creativity is a critical tool in the modern librarian’s repertoire. Why is creativity so important in today’s environment and what’s the relationship between creativity and change?

Creativity is key in my view because it helps us deal with constant change and should help us drive the change we want. By being creative, people feel more motivated and get a sense of achievement – we used our skills (creativity) to improve a situation, tool or service. You don’t get a wow-feeling from filling out a template or just going through the motions, but we do get that feeling when we have a great idea!

2. Interestingly, you argue that information professionals should support creativity within their organizations/campuses/communities and you also offer some examples of how to do this. What’s the benefit for librarians and users in doing so and do you see this as an increasingly important role for librarians?

“Libraries have always been the space to absorb knowledge from others and build upon that with new ideas. Think about how many ideas were generated in libraries when someone had a “Eureka!” moment after reading a journal or browsing a book. It is only natural that we build upon that role now, and I think we have the skills to do so. It will put us closer to the heart of our organisation and puts us in a key role.”

3. You mention that you cannot force creativity or innovation on demand (I completely agree with this by the way, based on my own experience!). Given this, how can librarians accommodate creative thinking in work environments characterized by multiple simultaneous projects and tight deadlines? Are there changes that must be made at the organizational level to facilitate creativity?

“In an ideal world the organisation would change to adopt a more creative and innovative way of working. But we all know that this is very unlikely to happen. So I would say, go for a grass roots approach. There is always room for creativity and innovative thinking – for example, every project has a brain storming phase to kick [it] off. I also work within a project-driven department, but we have Game Changer projects to facilitatie new ideas. If someone has a great idea [of] how to improve a process or has a promising solution, a project is set up to investigate with time and budget for that person. On a smaller scale, an “idea box” would be a great start, as long as management commits to taking every idea suggestion seriously.”

4. You describe a number of techniques for generating creative ideas. Which tip is your favorite and why?

“Being curious – as a kid I was always asking questions about the why and how, which I now see reflected in my 4 year old daughter (and now I know how it can drive parents crazy 😉 ). Sometimes I wish I could look at the world through the eyes of a 4 year old, they don’t just accept what you tell them but they keep asking “why” or “how” until they get it. That is something I feel we should use more often, to really understand something… For instance, this is a nice technique to challenge current ways of working: Why do you do it? Why do YOU do it? Why is it done the way it is done?”

5. Risk is a necessary implication of creativity. What suggestions do you have for information professionals working in risk-aversive organizations who want to flex their creative muscle?

“Start small – don’t try to change everything at once and provide mitigations for the identified risks. Make clear that you want to improve to better meet the goals of your organisation instead of going through the motions. If you can demonstrate that small changes have made a difference and that the risks were mitigated, this will be noticed.”

6. What else would you like to share about creativity and innovation?

“I have always like Bill Gates’ quote: “Nothing is a powerful as an innovative idea.”‘

LAMSTAIH and Other Creativity Insights from Play

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by creative coach Tim Leonard of the Richmond-based creativity consultancy firm, Play. Leonard described the models and approaches employed by Play to help clients reach their creative potential. His words were inspiring. He reaffirmed my belief that any employee or organization can capitalize on its innate ability to be creative. In addition, he offered concrete approaches to harnessing creativity – techniques that librarians can also learn and apply to create better user experiences. Here are the highlights of the talk and my commentary:


Play operates from a central tenet: LAMSTAIH (pronounced Lam-Stye), which stands for Look at More Stuff. Think about It Harder. These seemingly obvious statements are deceptively simple. Look at More Stuff, according to Play, “is the process of designing and experiencing an inspiration inventory to make observations and gain insights.” The mere act of looking, however, is more difficult than it may sound. Most of us, Leonard asserted, are trapped in what he calls a “to-do list mentality” that derails creative thinking. In this mindset, we’re focused on outcomes and on checking projects off of our lists. What’s more conducive to creativity is to focus on process and to actively observe the world around us for inspiration. (Leonard, not surprisingly, argued that a desk is a horrible place for doing this observational work). For better creative thinking, Leonard recommended stepping out from what’s familiar into new and strange environments to observe. These observations, in conjunction with particular methodologies that will be discussed later, can lead to insights that drive innovations. In essence, Leonard suggested pointing that “to-do list mentality” toward focused observation. In one example, Leonard pointed to Loggerhead Tools’ award-winning Bionic Wrench design, which was inspired by the shutter of a camera’s lens.

The Think About it Harder piece of LAMSTAIH “is the process in which specific tools and methodologies are applied to transform observations and insights into concrete ideas & concepts.” Though I don’t pretend to grasp the process fully at this point in time, it involves ditching preconceived notions of your objective, breaking the objective down into its core elements, and then focusing your observations on those core pieces. Play recommends first making “safe” observations on things closely related to those core pieces, and then widening the search to things that are only tangentially related so as to side-step your brain’s preconceived notions in order to make truly innovative discoveries.

The 5 M’s

Leonard discussed another model called the 5 M Model of Systemic Innovation. This model is used to understand innovation at the organizational level. The M’s in question are Mood, Mindset, Mechanisms, Measurement, and Momentum. Leonard discussed the first 3 M’s in detail.


Mood is fairly self-explanatory. It’s the climate for innovation and the mindspace where people work.


Leonard referred to Mindset as the intellectual foundation of creativity. It’s the personal traits and behaviors exhibited by members of the organization. There are 4 aspects of Mindset that people can control to foster creativity:

1. Change Perspective: Examine a problem from every angle and point of view. Leonard noted that most companies are very bad at this because the dominant point-of-view is established by the organizational leaders.

2. Confusion Tolerance: Confusion tolerance demands that organizations suspend the need to solve a problem in favor of generating a breadth of possible solutions.

3. Skinned Knees: A.K.A Taking Risks. Leonard mentioned that oftentimes that, for the sake of starting a conversation, people need to offer up ideas that may not be well-received. However, by taking a risk and throwing out an idea, people have something to react to to move beyond stagnant thinking.

4. Passion: Leonard emphasized the importance of bringing your personal passion to work with you. He said that there is often a discrepency between the “work self” and “real self” and that by bringing the two closer together, innovations are more likely to occur.


Mechanisms are the tools and processes of innovation, or “the how.” One mechanism Leonard mentioned was something called “worst idea.” If no one can think of a good idea, Leonard recommends that everyone offer up their worst idea. This technique gets people thinking and often leads to the best ideas. To demonstrate this, Leonard mentioned a project he worked on in which is team was charged with the monumental task of promoting wool clothing with a fresh take. The worse idea offered involved letting a herd of sheep loose in Manhattan. The idea that was actually executed was one in which models walked sheep around Manhattan.

At the end of his talk, I was not only inspired but I had generated countless questions about Play’s approaches and their potential application to libraries. Specifically, I began to more fully understand that creativity is the end result of a lot of hard work. One must consciously seek out unique experiences and insights while restraining one’s natural inclination to jump to conclusions. I then began thinking about current marketplace trends toward consumer empowerment and businesses’ desire to capitalize on innovations generated by customers. Is this deference toward customers as a source of innovation warranted? I asked Leonard his thoughts on this and mentioned how Apple purposefully doesn’t use focus groups as a source of ideas. He responded that Apple needs to be a few steps ahead of its customers to be competitive and that customers likely wouldn’t be able to articulate a vision like what Apple designers devise. I believe the same holds true in the library world. We can’t wait for great ideas to spontaneously sprout up from patrons or competitors. It’s a professional imperative that we librarians learn how to seek out and strategically develop innovative ideas. Creativity requires focused effort, not good luck. If we are to appeal to patrons’ imaginations and create real value for them, we must adopt an inquisitive and experimental attitude in which the world outside of our library walls is our laboratory. In fact, if Play’s philosophy holds true, our institutions are destined to stagnate or worse, become completely anachronistic, if we don’t look broadly for insights. We can and should invite our patrons in on this journey, but they too need the tools, guidance, opportunity, and incentives to discover new ideas. It’s our job to lead the way and we can’t delegate that responsibility, as doing so would be a disservice to our patrons and our communities. We should, however, be encouraged to know that creativity is something each and every one of us can learn to practice and apply.

To learn more about creativity from Play’s point-of-view, read their Red Papers, many of which I’ve linked to throughout this piece.