November 22, 2017

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Future Fatigue | Designing the Future

How much looking ahead is too much?

Businessman holding magic ball in his handFrom the moment we started planning this special issue I could practically hear the eye rolls on Twitter—not another Library of the Future. Often expressed informally through back channels, there’s nonetheless a strong contrarian strand of thought that holds librarianship—if not all of American society—spends too much time, energy, and ink trying to predict what’s next. Too great a focus on the future, say such skeptics, shortchanges the present, preventing practitioners from being “in the moment,” and can make library leaders devalue the work that still comprises the vast majority of interactions to chase trends that appeal to, at best, a much smaller subset of users.

Moreover, the accuracy rate of forecasts is not high—many extend current trends but fail to anticipate the curveball that will change the game, or focus on technology and neglect social change. Libraries can spend a lot of time, energy, and money gearing up for futures that never come to be—and risk creating a culture of cynicism among staff and stakeholders most needed to buy into change efforts if they are to succeed. The increasing rate of technological development only accelerates this cycle—staffers need no longer be nearing retirement to remember multiple calls to embrace the latest craze as the future of the library… only to see it fade out and be replaced by the next next big thing. QR codes, anyone?

Disruption vS. iteration

The disruption narrative that dominates the business conversation currently, and is spreading to libraries, can sap energy from iterative and incremental progress by established institutions and make it feel futile, since it’s supposedly inevitable that real change will come from scrappy start-ups inventing from scratch. While establishing a “skunkworks” within a larger institution, deliberately freed of many constraints to emulate such a start-up, can be productive—think New York Public Library Labs or the Harvard Library Lab—if the results require being rolled out at scale, there are often challenges when big system obstacles come back into play.

Even when the projects, often digital, stand alone, the resources and attention spent on them can feel as if they’re stealing focus and funding from the not new, unsexy, but deeply necessary work being done on the front lines. The resources involved probably wouldn’t go far in practice, but the impact on morale can be real, nonetheless, and few staffers are willing to admit it via official channels. A 2014 Decisionwise study of more than 100,000 U.S. employees found that more than a third were afraid to speak up at work, either in fear of retribution or the belief that feedback would not be heard.

Change or churn?

A focus on novelty has a high cost in churn. Grant funders make no bones about prioritizing kick-starting innovative projects that, in theory, will be absorbed into operating budgets. But often that doesn’t happen—pilots prove their concept but are still discontinued when the soft money runs out and there isn’t enough funding to cover new projects and still get the core job done. Similarly, because it’s easier to raise donations for new construction than operating costs, the brand new building with drastically reduced hours, or even occasionally shuttered altogether, is a staple of library news.

While researching for this issue, the editors of LJ discovered that many groundbreaking experiments in future thinking launched in the last decade had already folded. Of course, that a project ends is not necessarily proof of failure—the need may simply have been met—and failure itself is not proof that it wasn’t worth doing. As the “fail faster” mantra has it, failure is not only a necessary cost of innovation, it helps refine a follow-up effort.

Fighting fatigue

We’ve gathered a list of strategies to combat future fatigue without giving up altogether on gearing up.

  • Be transparent about past misfires and how you’re using lessons learned to prevent making the same mistake.
  • Involve staff in the change process from the beginning.
  • Like today’s physical libraries full of furniture on casters, try to make big investments flexible. If the future turns out not to look exactly as planned, it’s relatively easy to “pivot” and retool.
  • Accept a certain degree of failure as the cost of doing business, and be transparent about that, too. If staff share the context that a one-third success rate is a pretty good batting average, the inevitable misses won’t puncture their faith that other future-forward projects remain worthwhile.
  • Pay attention to the Gartner hype cycle, and take anything that’s peaking with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of value to meeting users where they are right now even if they won’t be there in two years, but don’t mistake a fad for a fundamental shift.
  • Finally, listen to your contrarians. Don’t let them deflate brainstorming sessions with negativity, but do create a “speak up” culture in which they feel it’s safe to raise concerns before it’s too late. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that 63% of employees in such a culture say they are not afraid to fail, compared to 21% of those without it. Those employees are also 14% more likely to go the extra mile for their employer (84% vs. 70%) and are less than half as likely to plan to leave within a year (12% vs. 28%).

That might just be the key to future success.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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