What does innovation mean in a library?

This spring, I was asked to lead a team the Alameda County Library to explore how the library can be more innovative and how it can be a catalyst for innovation in the community. This is the first of a series of posts describing our journey.

What does innovation mean in a library?

That was the question posed to me by Cindy Chadwick, the CEO of the Alameda County Library, this spring when she asked me to lead an “innovation team”.  Actually, she wanted five things:

  1. Figure out how we define what it means to be an innovative library.
  2. Develop and codify a process for innovation that ACLibrary can use to develop new internal and external initiatives and then apply that process to three new initiatives and share what happens.
  3. Make recommendations about how the ACLibrary management team can track and manage innovation,
  4. Make recommendations of how the library can shift the internal organizational culture to be more innovative.
  5. Craft an innovation playbook that can be shared internally and externally.

Oh…and she wanted it by Tuesday. That part was mostly a joke. Realistically, we figured this would take a minimum of six or eight months. We started by creating a team of four people from across different parts of the library, each with a reputation for independent thinking.  The team includes the coordinator of our team library services, an IT person used to off-the-wall projects and the head of our circulation services to start. Two more spots on the team will be filled midsummer by volunteers from across the library.

The very first part of our mandate was perhaps the most tricky because, in order to define what an innovative library is, we need to define what innovation is. So, as a team, we started having individual conversations and facilitated group dialogues to see how our staff and members define innovation. Here are a few of the answers that we heard:

  • “Apple – what they do.” Helpful, but not specific enough. Apple uses design to create user-friendly products. Could we do the same?
  • “Technology.”   Also good, but we felt like there are lots of innovations that are not technological. So this was actually a helpful distinction
  • “Solving new problems.” That felt like it was pointed in the right direction.  It also implies that innovation is the answer to a question or a problem. In other words, innovation is a response to a question or a challenge.
  • “Solving old problems in a new way.” That felt closer and it felt like it was broader than just technology.

Naturally, since the team is largely librarians, we turned to books. One book that we found was terrific was Kosta Peric’s “The Castle and The Sandbox” in which he describes his efforts to transform the culture in a conservative financial services company.  Kosta describes innovation as the “process of bringing an idea to fruition. Fruition can mean commercial success, cost reduction or adoption.” So innovation starts with an idea and is the process of manifesting or realizing the idea. We liked this because it didn’t seem to focus on technology and it implies that there is a process. But as a library, we are also focused on innovation they doesn’t have a profit motive. Like one of the responses above, this definition also implies that innovation is in response to a question. In other words, there is a “why?” question that precedes innovation.

We also liked the definition by Joe Dwyer, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Kellogg business school: “Innovation is the process of creating value by applying novel solutions to meaningful problems.”  To us, this implies that an innovation needs to novel, it needs to be meaningful, but it doesn’t necessarily need to have business value.

The definition that we liked the most came from a book called Innovation Nation by John Kao. John defines innovation as “the ability of people to create their desired future.”  We liked three things about this definition.

First, it’s not technology focused. Here in Silicon Valley, we tend to assume that any and all innovation is about computers, the Internet, the latest app etc. Second, this definition implies WHY we innovate. We certainly innovate to solve problems, but we solve those problems to create a future that we want. Any future. The desired future can be big: for example, a future in which we solve wicked problems such as climate change and live in harmony with the environment.  Or the desired future could be one in which we can house and feed everyone on the planet. But the desired future can also be small, in which we learn to make a special dinner on Friday. All of these are desired futures. And they are all meaningful, to whoever desires the future.

Finally, we liked the definition because it seemed highly democratic and inclusive. We all innovate. Because we are human. One does not need a graduate degree in computer science or “innovation studies” (whatever that is), just a willingness to see what is, imagine what could be and find a way there.

So now that we have a definition of innovation, what does it mean to be an innovative library? That’s coming next.

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