September 18, 2017

Leading the Creative Library | Leading from the Library

Steven BellIt helps leaders to harness their own creative potential, but they should also pay attention to creating the right culture and environment that lead to a creative library organization as a whole.

There’s a fun scene in the Deep Dive episode of Nightline in which the design firm IDEO is profiled. David Kelley takes the interviewer on a tour of the office. First there’s the corporate board room and the boring meetings held there. Then they go into the staff area. Kelley explains that they let the employees deck out their working space in whatever way appeals to them: the wilder the better. Kelly explains why there is an airplane wing sticking out of the wall: “They just had to have it,” he tells the interviewer. Kelley, who knows a thing or two about how to help people unleash their inner creativity, establishes the link between IDEO’s playful office culture and its ability to stimulate creative thinking. Kelley tells the interviewer that if you walk through an office and there’s a bunch of “stiffs” sitting at cubicles it’s unlikely to be a creative organization. An unscientific observation to be sure, but with IDEO’s record of innovation, we should pay attention to its methods for fueling organizational creativity.

It’s in the Job Description

If you read the job descriptions for library administrators, those leaders should be among the most creative, innovative, and dynamic thinkers in the organization. They should be bubbling over with ideas, both incremental and revolutionary. While some leaders may fail to live up to the creative dynamism those descriptions would have you believe they possess, even those that do will likely succeed in achieving their vision only if they can bring along the rest of the staff on the creative journey. How, then, do leaders, whether in charge of the library organization or a small team-based project, instill a creative spirit within their colleagues so that everyone is tapping into their inner creativity? Is it as simple as letting everyone design their own workspace? Hanging an airplane wing on the wall is hardly a viable option for many of us, but here’s what some of the experts recommend.

Unlock the Potential

What’s sure to be an obstacle for even the most creative leaders is convincing staff of their own creative ability. Holding them back is the belief that only some people, such as IDEO designers, are creative. Not so, according to experts like Kelley and Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO. All workers have creative potential. It’s up to leaders to help them access it. In his post “Unlock Your Organization’s Creative Potential” Brown writes “Building a creative workforce takes more than hiring a bunch of designers and hosting happy hours. It requires a mindset shift that begins with leadership.” This is from a design thinking expert who actually does hire designers. But viewers of the Deep Dive video discover that IDEO is more than that. The firm also hires marketers, anthropologists, scientists, and other non-design field professionals. To bring out the creativity in this diverse workforce, leaders like Brown and Kelley provide a physical space that is conducive to creative experimentation. It also helps that they make use of a design process that facilitates creative thinking and action. While that provides a supportive environment, Brown says that leaders need to empower individuals and teams to fulfill their creative potential.

Roles for the Creative Workplace

Efforts to lead a creative library will most likely encounter constraints. What works for IDEO may be beyond the reach of library leaders who are mostly constrained by their budgets or limits to changes they can make to the workspace. One piece of advice that Brown gives may help leaders transcend these barriers. The key thing is to be a curious leader, one who asks the questions that challenge staff assumptions, force them to look beyond their own environment, and cause them to think and act reflectively. To do this, Brown suggests that leaders fulfill three roles:

  • Explorer—Asking questions is good leadership practice, but the conclusions should provide direction for where the library is headed and offer a compelling vision that inspires staff to follow. That can open up the door to creative thinking for how to get there. In the explorer role, leaders should be pursing new mysteries rather than finding contentment with the status quo, and then leveraging organizational creativity to test new possibilities.
  • Gardener—Much in the same way that a garden needs proper care and feeding to create the right conditions for growth, leaders need to pay attention to the workplace environment to provide the leaderly equivalents of fertilizer and water—energy and inspiration—to promote staff creativity.
  • Coach—The ambiguity and mistakes that individuals and teams encounter will challenge their creativity quotient. Leaders need to know when to step in and offer guidance, but they must be present and engaged to offer the right level of support. Done properly, leaders can maintain the desired levels of creative effort and prevent organizational creativity from becoming a victim of risk aversion.

Create Your Deep Dive

A common thread through the workplace creativity literature is that great ideas and bursts of inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone within the organization. That may be, but it still requires leaders who create the right environment and establish practices that will allow organizational creativity to flourish. That same literature offers a multitude of advice and techniques for the creative workplace. In the library world, few leaders are able to replicate the playful environments of organizations like IDEO, Google, and others that offer recreational outlets of every imaginable type. If you can afford that, great, but there are ways to unleash and enable staff creativity when resources are limited.

Try an idea challenge where staff record any idea, no matter how off the wall, in a notebook over a period of weeks. Then bring staff together to share their notebook contents and identify the ideas that merit more detailed exploration. Staff will enjoy learning about their colleagues’ wild ideas, and it gets the creative forces flowing as everyone builds on what’s being shared. It all starts when library leaders are intentional about unlocking the potential for creativity. What happens next? After the deep dive, leaders must follow through by empowering staff to engage with and implement their ideas. A creative library that fails to become a great library for its community members is hardly better than a library organization with no creativity at all.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. The observation about office space is worth noting. In libraries, we focus on learning spaces for the community but forget that our own workspaces need to be conducive to learning, collaboration and creativity too–not a place where “there’s a bunch of “stiffs” sitting at cubicles.”

    • Thanks for sharing your observation Katherine. As office spaces do change and more of us are likely to find ourselves in cubicles I hope we can find ways to keep the space engaging for creativity. Or it may be that we’ll be spending far less space in offices and engaging in creative ways throughout the building and community – in the cafe, in the consultation space, in other academic buildings, off campus, etc.

  2. Somewhat Anonymouse says:

    First of all, please never get rid of Stephen Bell! HIs ideas and thoughts are so needed in our profession. His blog gets the most comments. LIbrary Directors do not need to be the most creative. You can let others play that role. But for heaven’s sake, if you are going to take the title of Director, then at least be the best leader in the organization. Be dynamic, rather than creative. Be a yes person, provide feedback and guidance, and use the ideas of the creative staff’s ideas. If you are a director and are not getting the results you want, then look to who you are listening to. It takes all kinds to make a great library. You need the people with ideas, you need the people who can take the ideas and make them happen, and you need the people (surely, just a few though) who seek to provide the status quo. Great libraries give the power to the people focused on the right things.