The community served by the Birmingham Public Library, AL, this October gained three new programs targeted to branch-level needs—Vintage Memory Making, with an eye to sewing and crafting; After School Writing, keyed to supporting penmanship, including cursive writing; and New Parenting, focused on helping caregivers through the first years. All three ideas stem from staff participation in the library’s recently launched Innovative Cool Award initiative, which interconnects the organization, including trustees, and helps the library be responsive to the community.
The Birmingham project points to the evergreen challenge of how to engage staff at every level in the evolving work of libraries, aligning to the mission while tapping into the expertise each person holds. It was developed by the Board of Trustees, which saw the opportunity to spur new ideas and help board members get closer to the work at hand. It is paid for through a special fund fueled by board members’ donations. While relatively small scale—with grants of $50 for each project—the initiative allows ideas to get tested and succeeds at rewarding staff creativity.
This kind of staff innovation is often discussed but harder to support without an organizational commitment. The gap between an expectation to engage in creativity and the ability to do so is evidenced by results of a recent survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review. It found that “although a majority of employees say innovation is everybody’s responsibility, not everyone actually gets the resources needed to innovate” (see A Global Survey Explains Why Your Employees Don’t Innovate). “There’s an especially large disconnect…between leaders and lower-level employees. While nearly nine in ten non-managers strongly believe they ought to be involved in innovation, far fewer (roughly six in ten) say they actually are.”
I wonder how libraries as a sector would land on this scale—and see a direction for a research project.
The key is to prioritize and enable staff to contribute to the mission-driven success of the organization. That takes a process: to avoid dead ends and the resulting sense of futility in the face of bureaucracy. There are other examples worth considering, such as Chicago Public Library’s work with integrating human-centered design techniques into the institution and creating a framework for ideas to bubble up to get tested. As well, there are Brooklyn Public Library’s Incubator Project, New York Public Library’s Innovation Project, and the University of Texas Arlington Libraries’ Innovation Mini-Grant program. The Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington have been recognized for their work integrating an idea management process into the day to day. It’s not just for large libraries, either; those of any size can invite staff innovation and provide support (in the form of help, time, and training as well as dollars) to turn ideas into practice.
The benefits are clear. Staffers at every level get more deeply connected to the mission and the reasoning behind leadership choices, and local needs get addressed. Additionally, fostering a culture of cross-organizational incubation answers one of the problems in the tension between front-line staff—those executing the core mission every day who can feel underappreciated and devalued—and high-level thinkers, who can feel unappreciated by their peers because they are not necessarily in the flow of that daily work. Instead, investing in a process to make sound ideas from every position real bakes the innovation mind-set into the whole staff. This allows for an infrastructure that surfaces pain points and offers a variety of channels for different types of contributions; it enables ideas that reach outside an individual’s area of work to welcoming ears.
The challenges are also clear. This kind of investment means information and perspective have to flow both ways. Administration has to create pathways for sharing strategic goals and information through the entire organization, and it needs to support the professional development required to keep every individual up-to-date and engaged. Management must trust the whole team, beyond lip service, to get from great ideas to great implementation.
Is staff leading innovation in your library? If so, we want to hear about it.