Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Improvisational Innovation

Our very own Library Journal cosponsored a symposium last week called Play, Learn, Innovate, and I was sorry to see there was no exclamation point after the title. If you missed it, you can read all about it in this article at Library Journal.

I didn’t attend the symposium, or perhaps I did, but I was interested in the the discussion of the “rules of improv acting as [a] frame for a broader discussion of fostering innovation and creativity,”  because the rules reminded me of the managerial strategy of a librarian I once worked with who was in charge of a largish department.

“The rules include ‘always agree and say yes,’ ‘make statements’ (instead of merely raising questions), and ‘there are no mistakes, only opportunities,’ conceived to allow playful momentum to build.”

Always say yes, don’t ask questions, I never make mistakes. These were the words she lived by, so maybe she was an improv actor!

“Always say yes” makes it easy to set people up for questions like, “are you still a slacker?” Questions like that are hard to answer even when you don’t have to say yes.

However, I realize loaded questions isn’t the point of the improv rules. They’re supposed to spur “innovation.” Innovation is a tricky word. It has positive connotations, but all it really means is changing things or introducing new things. Credit default swaps were innovative, for example.

I’ll have to change the details some to keep the actors anonymous, but the improvisational, innovative person I knew wanted to introduce some major innovations which would have been disastrous for the library. How would they have played out under the rules of improv?

The plan was to radically reorganize every year for five years, then at the end of the five years evaluate all the previous organizational plans and determine which one was the most effective. That’s not exactly what the real plan was, but it wasn’t that from from it.

Anyone who has been through a major institutional reorganization knows how disruptive, unsettling, and morale-lowering it can be. This is often true even for reorgs that just about everyone thinks are good ideas.

Imagine frequent reorgs merely for experimental purposes. That’s pretty darn innovative! Do you think that’s a good idea?

Improvisational innovators already have you right there, because you can only say “yes.” That was certainly what the improvisational innovator I’m talking about expected, and probably all she heard.

You can’t ask questions either, because you can only “make statements,” at least as the rules were quoted. I don’t see any harm in raising questions, and am not sure why raising questions would ever be qualified by “merely.” The  big question for the improvisational innovator was, why? “Why?” is a question that’s rarely answered by “change agents.”

I should also point out that a question is a statement, specifically an interrogative statement used to text knowledge, but that’s not important right now.

So you have to make a non-interrogative statement about this. “WTF?” is probably an inappropriate statement as well. It slows the flow of innovation. Besides, it’s also a question.

Evaluative statements are probably off the table. “That’s a really stupid idea” implies that something might be a mistake, and there are no mistakes, only opportunities in need of solutions.

Once you get locked into the improvisational logic, it’s hard to stop any changes, or even any proposals for change. That’s the whole point, of course. Everything gets run up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, then we can leverage our synergies to make CHANGE happen, right, team!

There’s no “I” in “team,” but that’s not important right now.

The problem is that when you’re under pressure to change, then you have to make a change, even if there are no good changes to make. Everyone can throw out ideas, but what if they’re all bad?

You can’t really evaluate them if you’ve thrown reason out the door, which the improvisational innovators necessarily do. When you’re talking about innovation, often the improv needs to be squashed early, lest one be forced to endure frequent, pointless changes just so you can be “innovative.”

Other people can be improvisational innovators. I’ll stick to critical thinking, because improvisational innovation can wreak a lot of havoc.

And the improvisational innovator, what happened to her? After wreaking havoc and getting a lot of attention, she naturally left to be a library director at a bigger library, which gave her lots more opportunity to wreak havoc.

Say yes to havoc, and remember that it creates a lot of opportunities for solutions.



  1. Randal Powell says:

    “Change” is not always good, and the “status quo” is not always good. What is needed is clear, logical, well-informed thinking – or if you prefer, critical thinking. But are most people capable of clear, logical, well-informed thinking?

  2. Randal,

    Most people are NOT capable of this. If we don’t change, how to we justify increased budgets?

    Seriously, change for change’s sake is just as bad as not changing for tradition’s sake. Asa profession, there should be changes made, but rational changes with reason and evidence to support them.

  3. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Maybe we get so much irrational change because rational change is so difficult and we’ve got to do something. Despite the widespread conservatism in the profession, people get bored.

  4. thanks. inspired by your post, my new library philosphy is “we’re trying something new.” when anything happens, that’s my response: “your library smells funny.” We’re trying something new. “your book drop is on fire.” We’re trying something new.
    so Change is automatic. any event looks like I planned it. and so I become a Change Agent without doing anything. awesome, huh?

  5. Cry havoc! And let slip the improvisational innovators…?

  6. AL, I am very sorry to hear about your experiences with this person. I hope no one else has to go through with that!

    As for these rules of improvisation. They sound a lot like the rules for brainstorming: throw out ideas, do not criticize ideas, keep building ideas.

    Daring to dream, improvising ideas and brainstorming ideas for the future can be a lot of fun. That fun could promote creativity, raise moral and help people get back to work with renewed, uplifted spirits. That is what I got from Josh Hadro’s review of the symposium.

    But, there comes a time when the brainstorming must stop and you use the ideas that you’ve come up with. This is the time to analyze ideas, to criticize, to ask questions and to determine if the ideas proposed work with the organization’s existing structure – thus avoiding some of the havoc – and the vision for the future. Of course, this assumes that there is already a structure and vision. Mission statements, vision statements, norms and values are helpful in this regard.

    Even though the application of critical thinking ignores the rules mentioned above, there could still be a chance for this to be fun too. (I’d also invoke the rules “Give reasons for criticisms” and “Don’t take them personally”.)

    When the criticizing is finished and a plan on what to do is agreed upon, hopefully the fun that was generated by the brainstorming / improvisation / criticizing will carry forward into the implementation of the plan, and other areas of the organization.

  7. Joneser says:

    This sounds familiar. When you don’t know what the (*%& to do, reorganize!!

  8. To the Annoyed Librarian,

    Amen sister!

  9. I think Margaret Atwood pegged it on the “change is not always good.” Alive – dead … that’s a change.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE