One Person’s “It Can’t Be Done” Is Another Person’s “Easy Fix”

Sometimes the only way to solve a challenging problem is to try seeing it from a completely different perspective. Call that “problem reversal” or “turn it on its head” – the hardest part is realizing a totally different approach is needed.






On my regular bike ride to work one morning I began to hear a strange sound, like something vibrating or metal hitting metal. Usually my bike rides as quite as the Absolutely No Noise Room at the library. Unfortunately one of the bolts fastening my bike rack to the frame broke leaving half the bolt in the bike. The rack was holding steady, though moving around enough to create the chatter. It sounded lousy but the bike was otherwise riding fine.

On the way home from work I stopped at a bike shop on my route – but not my usual shop. A bike mechanic came over to take a look. He quickly declared “Sorry, but it can’t be fixed”. He said that efforts to remove the broken bolt would likely strip out the threads and there’d be no way to attach the bike rack. Disappointing news but I decided to try again – at my regular shop.

One of the staff was doubtful anything could be done. Another thought it might be fixed with an expensive replacement part. A third technician came over, looked the situation over a bit and said “Let me take it into the back. I have an idea.”

It actually turned out to be quite a simple fix. Instead of dealing with the broken bolt – an obviously more complicated job – he realized the rack could be attached to another spot in the bike frame. He just needed to find the right bolt for it. Ten minutes and ten dollars later I was on my way with a good as new bike rack.

How did this bike technician see what no one else did? How did he change the focus from the broken bolt to an entirely different route to the solution – one that in retrospect seemed more obvious. Certainly not to that first mechanic who only saw an insurmountable problem. Was it experience? Just luck that he saw a solution no one else did? I think it was something else entirely.

For lack of a better description, I’d call it reframing a problem though I think it’s deeper than that. To my way of thinking it is more a case of being able to turn a problem completely on its head in order to examine it from an angle that is 180 degrees different. One term I’ve come across that might describe it is problem reversal.

Whatever you call it, this is no easy task to achieve. Our minds get locked on to a single track that we think must be the answer. That first mechanic could only see the problems associated with getting the bolt out of the frame. Once he locked on to that singular perception he no longer was able to see the possibilities for an alternate mounting option. For him that solution simply failed to exist.

What does that look like? This TED talk offers what might be an example of what happens to our minds. Read this sentence:

After reading this sentence you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize the second “the”.

See how easy that happens owing to our attention blindness or fixed mindset. Now if you read this sentence backwards – turning it completely on its head and looking at it from a completely different perspective – you can’t miss that there are two occurrences of “the” in a row. So how can we train our minds to examine a problem, especially one where our locked mind sees no solution, by looking at it from multiple perspectives?

One technique I’ve come to use is to simply walk away from the problem and just stop thinking about it entirely. Consider this not-so-serious example. Not only am I one of those people who reads the local newspaper every day, but I still read the paper version. I also always finish my newspaper reading with the comics page. In particular I set aside five minutes for the daily Jumble puzzle.(examples here). My mind really struggles with this sort of puzzle though I’ve gotten better with practice.

Sometimes I see the solution within seconds. When I don’t my mind can got locked on the jumbled words so that I only see the letters in one possible order. That’s when I just stop and move on to the comic strips. If I still don’t have it I may go off to take care of other things. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not when I come back to the Jumble I can see it in a different way. Just stepping away, even with small challenges, can often unlock the mind. But will it work for more unwieldy problems?

It can, albeit with a more radical attitude adjustment. This notion first dawned on me as a graduate library school student at Drexel University in 1977. I was taking my first-ever computer programming course. We used PL-1 in the course and it was worse then trying to learn a foreign language. Now this is back in the day when students typed each line of code on a single computer punch card. Then all the punch cards were submitted at the computer center for mainframe processing. If the program failed it required a thorough troubleshoot to find the problem. It could be anything from a missing comma to a big-time syntax error. Then the offending punch cards had to be re-done, re-submitted…until it worked.

While it was a real thrill to write a working solution, it seemed overwhelmingly laborious. I just wanted to help people do research, and learning PL-1 seemed like a complete waste of time. Then came one assignment. All we had to do was write the code to take eight mixed-up words and print them out to form a proper sentence. I believe it was “The quick brown fox jumped over the fence.” If I can still remember that you get the picture this was a traumatic experience.

Simple enough, right. I failed again and again to get it to work. I went through dozens of punch cards and many hours waiting at the computer center. While I don’t quite recall all the details I remember clearly where I was when the solution finally came to me. I was actually working on something entirely different. What popped into my head was nearly a reversal of the strategy that got me nowhere. I had to start again from scratch but the new program worked. Suddenly it all seemed so clear. How was I was initially blinded to it?

While that course convinced me I was not destined for computer programming, the lesson learned of real value was the discovery of a few strategies and skills for tackling a frustrating problem with no easy solution. Continuing in a frustrating way with the same strategy, attempting only minor tweaks, only takes you so far. Eventually you must determine that the situation requires examination from an entirely different perspective.

Whether you think of that as problem reversal or “working backwards” or simply turning a problem on its head, coming up with a creative idea or innovative solution occasionally requires us to persist in seeking a solution when everyone else believes it can’t be done. Sometimes it is just a matter of walking away, clearing the mind and eliminating the distractions that obscure the solution – and then coming at it from a completely new perspective.

Have you had a similar experience? What problem did you encounter that led you to a realization about problem reversal? Did you come up with a name or creative description for your technique that is worth sharing here?

Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.

Taking Advantage of a Creative Insight

My first position as an academic librarian was in a business library. Much like the familiar liaison model of service delivery, each of us librarians maintained several subject specialties. As the newly hired librarian I had little choice. I was assigned the subjects that no one else wanted. No surprise then how accounting became part of my liaison package.

One of my responsibilities involved oversight of our Disclosure collection of microfiche annual reports and Securities and Exchange Commission documents. It was a huge tangled mess of content that no one really understood, leading to its lack of use. Initially I forced myself to learn how to file the microfiche so I could train student workers to do it so that I could then forget about it and go on to more important things. But something happened. I discovered a whole world of fascinating information in those documents. Devoting time to learn about the different SEC filings allowed me to better understand the relationship between them and how they could contribute to business research in areas such as mergers and acquisitions.

My intense interest in these documents and a realization that many business researchers were overlooking their value led me to want to learn more rather than less. Ultimately it led me to become the go-to-person at the business school for assistance and support in using the SEC documents collection. It helped to have a guide to a poorly designed, non-intuitive micro-format collection. The experience inspired me to share my knowledge to help others. That led to research guides and presentations. A published article in the library literature was followed by more presentations and publications and eventually a book. Without a creative insight into a service gap going unfilled none of it may have happened.

Not that I have any particular interest in baby products – or “gear” as it is referred to in Jamie Grayson’s story – but it caught my attention because it directly connects with my own experience at the business library as the accounting liaison librarian. It’s about getting caught up in something you thought was a boring waste of your time, but then your unexpected passion for it leads to a creative insight and a multitude of opportunities for new products and services. The gist of the story conveyed in this article is to understand how an out-of-work, single actor with no children became the number one go-to-person for information and advice about baby gear. It all happened because of a creative insight – seeing something that others didn’t and then capitalizing on that idea to build it into a growing suite of services and products.

Grayson, just another out-of-work actor, is desperate for a job to pay the bills until his next acting gig. With few options he replies to an ad for a position at a large baby products retailer seeking actors to demonstrate the products. Initially Grayson demonstrated one product only – an expensive stroller. The last thing Grayson expected was to develop a passion for baby gear. Bored with that one product he decides to branch out from strollers and endeavors to gain expertise in as many baby products as possible. He read baby blogs, follows product reviews and studies what parents say about the products. He even spent a year alongside midwives to learn about the birth and parenting experience. Soon enough Grayson was the expert.

Grayson also recognized that his acting ability gave him an edge. He had a true knack for demonstrations that enabled parents to choose the right products. The store owners gave Grayson even more responsibility, putting him in charge of all product demonstrations. Thanks to word-of-mouth parents began to seek Grayson out for his advice. They trusted his unbiased and honest recommendations. Things got really crazy for Grayson when he was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about finding the right baby products in different price ranges.

That’s when Grayson had his creative insight. He saw an unfilled gap for a product/service that no one else did.

That’s how he came to start the Babyguy Gear Guide, a compendium of news, reviews and information about baby products. From there it’s another success story. Grayson owes it to a combination of factors that include his acting ability, his position as an outsider who can be objective and critical of the products, building trust with his audience and maintaining an unthreatening presence with which moms and dads are comfortable. But it all started with the recognition of a service gap that needed filling.

The big takeaway for me in Grayson’s story is how that one creative insight led to a completely new service. It’s also provides a good answer to the question “What is creativity?” Grayson came up with a really good idea for something new or an improvement on past efforts, and was able to bring his idea to fruition. But it may have been more than that. At the start he fell into a job and then it got kind of boring. He was good at that one product demonstration, but he needed more. Creative endeavor requires more than just insights that lead to ideas. It must be fueled by an investment of hard work and time to make things happen.

Rather than quit and go on to something else, Grayson instead immersed himself in his work by learning everything he could about baby gear and gadgets. It all led to the realization that consumers wanted a certain type of expertise to guide them in making the best product choices. He also did the field research that led to the realization of the gap in services. He spoke to parents. He went to product conventions. He experienced the childrearing process from the parents’ perspective. He saw the patterns coming together: expensive baby gear; affluent parents; internet commerce; review-driven consumers; options overload; social media. Grayson’s creative insight is owed to much more than job boredom.

Grayson’s story may help us to understand how a creative idea and what follows happens, but what can we take away from this story to help us design better libraries? How would a library design a space that would encourage, inspire or facilitate community members to achieve more creativity? What services could librarians provide in a creativity zone? Is it even possible to design such a space? At the ACRL2015 Conference colleagues and I participated in a panel session titled “Turn Your Library Into an Idea Engine: Creating the Ideal Creativity Space“. We explored some basic ideas about creativity, how libraries have evolved over time as places where creativity can occur, how librarians can be intentional about designing a space that contributes to creativity and innovation and offered an example of such a space in a medical center library. When it comes to intangibles like creativity no one has all the answers. Our panel presentation demonstrated that the opportunity is there and that the campus or community library is a natural location to situate a space to bring together the many elements that contribute to creativity and innovation.

As colleges and universities, cities and corporations all place greater emphasis on the importance of creativity as a driver of innovation, entrepreneurship and the growth of new products and services, librarians may have an opportunity to support the effort to help community members discover their inner creativity. If we can learn from the stories and experiences of people like Jamie Grayson we may better understand how to help individuals tap their creativity flow. I believe creativity hubs would immensely add to the value libraries already deliver to their communities.

You might even be asking yourself, as a librarian, what are you doing now that seems like a dead end, but may ultimately turn out to be your next great new service. What’s your microfiche documents collection? It’s there just waiting for you to have a creative insight. Be sure to take advantage of it.

Sharing Designerly Advice

When commencement time rolls around we are suddenly inundated with reports of all the wise advice for future success that college graduates receive. Whether it’s celebrities, politicians, newscasters or scholars, all seek to impart some wisdom on this year’s crop of graduating students. What happens when experts are asked to give design advice to graduating design students? Some potentially useful advice for librarians who have a passion for (or even serious interest) design is what happens.

In the article “9 Top Designers On What Every New Grad Should Know” we learn what the experienced designers think is the best advice for the new designers. Learn to code? Hire on with a top design firm or go out on your own? How to apply what you learned? Some of that to be sure but also some basics that we can all appreciate.

For example, Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Ideo, recommends paying attention to organizational culture. It won’t matter how creative you if you fail to understand how the organization behaves. He advises approaching organizational culture as one more constraint with which designers must work.

Gadi Amit, president and principal designer of New Deal Design, also has some basic advice about complexity. Use design to bring about the clarity from within complexity. Use the constraints to create “one magical experience of physical and digital design.” Likewise, Kate Aronowitz, vice president of design at Wealthfront, advises grads to keep it simple and be intentional. Don’t wait for luck to shape your career with a big surprise.

Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, advocates for new designers to take risks. Worry less about a big paycheck than understanding what type of work ignites your passion. Also, be nice because no one wants to hire a-holes or egomaniacs. Definitely advice we can all use.

Maria Giudice, vice president of user experience at Autodesk, believes it’s important to think of oneself as a leader or future leader. She believes that everything that students are learning in design school today, from design thinking to learning how to execute, is what is needed to be a great leader. As always, don’t wait to be asked to take a leadership role.

Aron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, says that it’s important to keep the focus on what products do as a way to inform what they look like. The future of products and services is to design so that people’s needs are anticipated and decisions are made for them. Understand that and the opportunities are limitless.

My takeaway from all this advice is that a passion for design, a desire to help people find clarity when confronting confusion and paying attention to people’s needs are a large part of what designers need to do to be successful. It helps to work well with others and believe in yourself, but it’s important to understand the constraints of the workplace and our projects if we are to make the most of our talent.

And yeah, learn to code – says Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures.

Libraries Could Use An Experience Design Hub

I never thought I’d be writing a post that points to something McDonald’s is doing, but I recently discovered they maintain an Innovation Center that allows the fast food company to study and potentially improve the McDonald’s user experience. It’s an idea worth exploring. I have had an occasional experience at McDonald’s, usually when there are no other options. For example, two years ago I was visiting a library and needed to take a break for lunch. Given the location and the time available there was not much else to choose. I ordered a salad (pre-made) and a cup of coffee.

As one might expect the experience was about convenience, speed of delivery and low cost. The most significant barrier to having a good customer experience at McDonald’s, I think – and there probably more than a few from which to choose – is the limited options and a “take it this way or go elsewhere” design. If I wanted a little milk for my coffee instead of the standard creamer packet I would need to buy a bottle of milk. For the customer, convenience comes at a cost.

Times have changed and McDonald’s is struggling to grapple with its longest sales decline in company history.Competition on one end of the spectrum from cheaper fast-food restaurants and on the other end from healthier restaurant options is putting the squeeze on McDonald’s profits. As many other organizations do, when competing on price or product alone isn’t working, look to improve the experience. That’s the gist of this article that was reprinted in Sunday newspapers around the country. To that end McDonald’s has run an Innovation Center since 2001.

What’s changed is that instead of simply finding ways to cut ten seconds off the time it takes to fry, package and deliver a burger, a diversified staff now works to improve the service experience. “The focus is really on what customers are looking for” said Melody Roberts, senior director of experience design innovation. I was looking for a small container of free milk for my coffee. Who knew that McDonald’s employs a senior director of experience design?

What I thought was interesting about this article, and I’m sure McDonald’s is not alone in developing such a facility, is the idea of creating an entire replica of the store and setting it up to maximize the testing of customer service options and the collection of data about customer experiences. Just imagine having the capacity to make on-the-fly modifications to experiment with a minor change and the ability to bring in real people, not paid actors, to engage with staff and the environment for the purpose of studying actual customer transactions.

Now imagine some type of design hub for libraries. What if we could create a working model of a library where we could invite in people to have service interactions, use the study spaces or work collaboratively, and openly capture information about how the library is being used. A lab-like setting could also allow for experimentation with new types of services. The people using the library could be instantly polled about their likes and dislikes, and we could ask them to try the service again after having made user-centered adjustments.

Harvard University operates the Library Innovation Lab, and the intent is to experiment with new ideas that could prove beneficial to libraries and their member communities. Most of the innovations tend to be technological in nature, such as new software to enhance the discovery process. It’s a lab that experiments with innovations that could be useful to all types of libraries. Have the folks who run it ever thought about using it as a hub for researching the library user experience? I doubt it’s set up to tackle that type of work.

Chicago’s public library received a Gates Foundation grant to explore new innovations and configurations that would improve the library experience. The Next Library 2014 Conference invited librarians from around the globe to learn more about service innovation. These two efforts are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of providing the library profession with a true experience design hub. The value of these initiatives is that they demonstrate we can put resources into experimental labs where the outcomes can benefit all librarians, not just those working in a single sphere of the profession.

I’m not suggesting that creating such a hub would be an easy thing to do. Creating, organizing and staffing a mock library innovation and experience center would be no simple task. It would require some sort of national effort and funding to set up, staff and maintain the operation. Perhaps it could be set up within an existing library and staff from different regional libraries would be tapped to participate in various experiments and service testing.

What’s learned could give librarians better insights into what community members are looking for from their library. That information could help libraries of all types to improve the customer experience, whether it was service at a desk, by virtual modes or through websites. Who knows what else could be accomplished with an experimental service design hub?

I would like to know what our community members’ “milk container” request is. What’s that minor but crucial element that could make the difference between a decent experience and a truly great one. Do we, as a profession, have the desire or grit to create a library experience design hub? I’d like to know what you think. Crazy idea or something worth pursuing?