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?

Get Inspired To Innovate: Ignore What You Know

In a fairly well-known library journal I came across a column advising librarians on keeping up. There I found suggestions for how to stay on top of what’s happening in the library profession. At least that was the author’s intent. What left me disappointed was the narrowness of the scope of the suggested resources. It was mostly a collection of the same old “popular” librarian blogs. Several of those listed would hardly even help if your real intent was staying abreast of the latest developments in the profession. My other issue with this column’s advice is that it neglects to point librarians in the right direction for keeping up with content that will inspire them with creative new ideas for innovation. That’s why my advice is for librarians to always look beyond librarianship for greater inspiration. That’s where you’ll find the ideas that could be applied to library practice waiting to be discovered.

You’ll find similar advice in Bill Taylor’s blog post Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine. He reminds us that it’s important that we not let our experience – and all that we know about our industry and what we read about it – limit our capacity to come up with new ways of looking at things. He says we need to have “vuja de” :

The most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu Looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?

He uses Commerce Bank as his primary example. You can read more of the specifics in his column, but what captured my attention is that Commerce refused to benchmark itself against other banks. Think about how often we do this in our libraries. We look to see what the other libraries are doing. We develop “comparison” lists so we know which libraries we need to follow. True, it’s a good idea to occasionally ask colleagues in similar libraries how they handle a specific problem (e.g., I recently asked for advice on a particular policy issue), but just following what other libraries do, according to Taylor, is unlikely to lead to any significant innovation in your library.

Commerce’s leaders ignored what other banks did, especially when the talk turned to “best practices”. Instead it looked at totally different industries. So instead of studying Citibank and BankAmerica, they followed what was happening at Target, Starbucks and Best Buy. Taylor concludes by reminding us:

You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organizations in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them — and how you can apply their ideas to your problems.

By all means, follow the library literature that helps you to become a better librarian, and that keeps you alert to what’s happening in the world of librarianship. That’s a path to continuing professional development that will help you to keep growing and improving your professional practice. But don’t stop there. When it comes to keeping up, go beyond those traditional library magazines and blogs. Don’t place those limits on your powers of creativity and innovation. If you need some suggestions for resources beyond the library literature, you’ll find some at my Keeping Up Website. In the new year, choose to be more intentional about ignoring what you know in order to discover new ways to design a better library experience for your community members.

McDonald’s, Good Ideas and Experience Design – Recommended Reads

Unfortunately I have less time right now than I’d like to write at greater length about each of these three items I’ve recently read. I think each is worth taking the time to read so I’m recommending them here with just a few quick thoughts.

It’s “Masters of Design” special issue time again over at Fast Company. One of the articles was a standout for me – the one about the big McMakeover at McDonald’s. A few years back it seemed the trend was to apply the term “mcdonaldization” to suggest that a fast food model was taking over a particular process, organization or industry. It was a put down, meaning that creativity and innovation were replaced by rote, soulless routines that reduced the quality of service in favor of speed, efficiency and convenience. I even recall an article from College & Research Libraries, the peer-reviewed library journal, that used the term in its title, and it’s been used fairly regularly in higher education to refer to the big business approach taken by for-profit online higher education programs. What’s interesting about all this is that the Fast Company article is high praise for how McDonald’s is using design to re-invent itself – and be anything but McDonaldized (Ok, they’re not exactly breaking the fast food mold). The article highlights the work of Denis Weil, the designer leading the makeover, who says that “Design is doing something with intent.” The article inspires me to think that when it comes to re-invention and mass change, if McDonald’s can do it, why can’t libraries. Well, if we had a designer like Denis Weil (and some of McDonald’s cash), I think we could.

Just yesterday I downloaded Steven Johnson’s TED Talk on “good ideas”, and I’m looking forward to watching it soon. (NOTE: if you weren’t aware of how easy it is to download a selected TT to iTunes – it is easy – give it a try). So today I came across a WSJ article written by Johnson about the origins of good ideas and the importance of being a tinkerer. I now realize he is coming out with a new book on this exact topic. The article provides a taste of the book, which makes the point that real innovation isn’t the work of a lone creative genius sitting alone in a room when a light-bulb idea pops out. That may happen occasionally, but Johnson uses real world examples to demonstrate that good ideas emerge when different ideas, products or processes that already exist come together in new or different ways. In the past much innovation has happened in closed environments, such as corporate R&D shops, and intellectual property laws have kept it competitive and private. Johnson believes that open innovation may create an environment in which many more good ideas can emerge. Read the article, watch the TT – and perhaps you may be inspired to be the “tinkerer” for your library.

From the “user experience backlash” department – sort of – comes this blog post titled “Can Experience be Designed?” from Oliver Reichenstein at iA. While the language suggests that Reichenstein has a problem with the validity of user experience designers, what he basically asks is if the idea of experience design is bullshit. Can you really design an experience for people when everyone achieves a slightly different experience from any particular design which he or she encounters? He asks “Do experience designers shape how users feel or do they shape with respect to how users feel?” Can an architect design a house that delivers a certain type of experience or does the house’s design lead to a spectrum of experiences – based on the lives of the inhabitants and what they bring to the experience? Reichenstein then proceeds to give the reader much to think about the concept and practice of user experience design. I like these types of articles because they force me to question some of my beliefs about design thinking and user experiences. It also helps me to clarify what, in a library, can be improved through user experience design, and how it might be accomplished. I’ll be further reflecting on this one.

Idea Lab In The Library

Librarians like to talk about innovation. We want to be innovative, we believe innovation will lead to a better library future, and we even have a journal dedicated to it so we can write more articles about innovation. Despite all of our talking and writing about innovation, we may be overlooking a more obvious way to create an innovative library work environment. How about creating a physical workplace that is all about facilitating innovation.

What would such a workplace look like? Probably a lot like the Idea Lab at the Stanford University d.school. The Idea Lab is profiled in the June 2010 issue of FastCompany. Perhaps most of what you need to know about the lab is found in this statement by David Kelley, who is a founder of IDEO and d.school, “We’re looking for better ideas – not keep your feet off the furniture.” Can the right environment really contribute to more innovation? According to d.school director George Kembel, “Creativity follows context. If I want an organization to behave in a certain way, I need to design for that.” The article explains how the idea lab, with its open spaces, walls that double as note and sketch pads, its easy-to-rearrange layout, and students are encouraged to add to others’ work, or invite others to collaborate on their own.

I doubt there is any library that has already created an idea lab for its staff. If I’m wrong about that and your library has put together something along the lines of the Stanford d. school Idea Lab, please let me know. Since we have few models for how it might work in a library, I’m taking a shot at it here with a sketch of what it could look like.

idea lab
Possible Layout of a Library Idea Lab

I imagine it having walls/panels that are transparent and could double as space for drawings, notes, ideas, etc. that could be shared and commented on by others. It is easily accessible to the user community; it reduces or eliminates barriers between the librarian and the user – and should promote open innovation with the public. The core of the lab space is a hub that features collaborative furniture where librarians can interact with members of the user community. I’ve been in many libraries where the librarians are tucked away in offices spread throughout the building. A more communal space such as this one where the offices circle the collaborative hub could lead to more group problem sharing and solving – and then more innovation. A variety of technology devices/gadgets could be easily accessible to the staff in the idea lab and it facilitates experimentation. A wall-mounted panel display could serve as a space for presentations, demonstrations and even for librarians to share electronic messages. Maybe there are even some toys and games for visitors to play with – or for the staff whenever they might need a diversion (some of you best thinking comes when you are thinking about something else or nothing at all).

There just might be something to the Idea Lab concept as demonstrated by the folks at the Stanford d. school. Providing the right setting to library workers could indeed promote their innovative spirit, and in the long run contribute to a better library experience for the user community.

Want To Be An Innovator? Put Up Your Antennae!

Continuous improvement is an often sought after goal in libraries. We may be doing good things for our community but resting on our laurels is no formula for future success. It’s important to keep exploring for new ways to enhance the library experience for the end user. A simple way to do that is by making sure we are skilled practitioners of listening and observing. When we do this well we may be amazed at the many great ideas for innovative services that are rooted in what we hear from the library users (and non-users) and in the ways we observe their use of our facilities, collections and services.

In user experience presentations I often mention this simple idea of “listen and observe” , but I was reminded of it by this blog post by Jeffrey Phillips over at Innovate on Purpose. In discussing “How Customer Insights Lead to Innovations” Phillips offers some good examples of how this practice can make a difference. Take the Crayola “Crayon Maker”. Phillips points out that for many years parents and children melted down broken crayons at home so they could shape them into new ones. Crayola picked up on this activity and developed a product that offers the same capability but makes it easier to do.

Here’s another anecdote I came across. Makers of body shampoo wanted to learn more about how men use the product. When they just asked questions in focus groups they heard the attendees answer without thinking much about how they really use the products. But in a study where men were observed using the product the market research folks discovered most men used the body shampoo to shampoo their hair. In the focus groups, no one said anything about this. Now when you go to the supermarket you see body shampoo for men that is also marketed as hair shampoo in one bottle. It’s probably the same shampoo it was before, but this innovation based on observation has increased the market share of these all-in-one products.

listen and observe for innovation inspiration
listen and observe for innovation inspiration

While “listen and observe” is easy advice to give, it is a challenge to implement as a regular practice. We are often so used to being in our own little world that it is hard to notice when something different happens that should signal to us that we’ve just seen or heard something worthy of our attention. It is, I think, a personal behavioral trait that makes innovators who they are. They are the folks who have their antennae up, ready to pick up the signals that communicate something important is happening. They are listening and observing. It’s no different with individuals who have a talent for identifying totally unrelated events or trends, and who have the ability to connect them – to put the puzzle pieces together – in predicting new expectations and trends – before people even realize it’s something they want or need.

How to get started? Visualize yourself as that person who has the antennae up and ready to gather the signals. Practice your listening and observing when you are outside the library. Be a people watcher when you go to stores and restaurants. Look for unusual or odd behaviors that indicate people want something that isn’t readily available. When people complain or whine about something, don’t just ignore them or take the fastest, shortest route to making them go away. Instead think about why they are complaining or whining – or simply asking why they can’t do something they want to do at your library. Watch how your library users make use of the facility, the equipment or the technology. It may be only one time out of a hundred or a thousand that you will notice something unusual, but it’s that one time that could make all the difference in the world to you, your colleagues and the members of your library community. So get those antennae up and get out there!