A Challenge to Library Managers: Embed Creativity in Your library

Recently I read Sally Turbitt’s Glam Blog Club post where she reveals her frustration as a new Library Graduate at the slowness of the library profession to change, adapt or allow creative practice at all. I have also spoken with creatives newly employed in the library industry, attracted by a Library Manager’s wish to broaden the library skill base, but finding the dogged unwillingness to change anything that Sally speaks about to be entrenched and that all their ideas are rejected. They also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.

So how do we as Library Managers address this issue within our libraries? It is obviously not enough to employ new staff with new ways of thinking and new skills if we do not nurture them and allow creative practice. It is also necessary to invest in our existing staff if we are to build a culture of creativity that allows purposeful innovation.

Here are 5 things that I believe all libraries can do to embed creative practice and to allow innovation to thrive.

1.Time: It is essential that Library Managers explicitly ask their staff to set aside a regular amount of time to be creative. This scheduled time should not be micromanaged, have a set agenda, or be lead by the same team member every time. This creative time can be for learning, play, investigation, fun, with the eventual outcome being innovation, maybe a pilot and new skills. Build this requirement for creative time into the performance plans with your middle managers so that this actually happens. Often as Library Managers we measure our middle managers on limiting and very task orientated outputs. One example of how this could be implemented was written about by Angela Hursh on her blog Super Library Marketing! Great Marketing Ideas for Libraries everywhere. In this blog post Angela discusses a creative initiative with her small marketing team. The team meet once a month, the time prescribed by Angela, and do whatever creative thing they want to do. Angela, as Manager, did not attend or define how these meeting were to be conducted. She did ask that they pass on one great idea from each creative session that could be used in practical marketing purposes. Sometimes they played games, or walked around the library taking photos or just talked through ideas. The point was that they set aside time every month to be creative.

2. Set the limits: There is a reality in libraries: resources, budget, policies, and our strategic plans are all limits that can be viewed and used in a negative, controlling way. And don’t get me wrong they are incredibly frustrating. Recently I read an article on Bookriot by Patricia Elzie Unexpected Lessons from Library School that reaffirmed for me that Libraries can and do “Thrive within limits”. Patricia discusses a professor who shows a video of people making intricate latte art and reminds the class that everyone can do amazing things if you do the best with what you have got. It is an essential lesson that Library Managers must embody optimism and remind our Managers and our Staff that rarely in life do we have everything we wish for and yet we can still be creative and innovative in our practice. Angela Hursh also introduced me to Jay Acunzo and his podcast Unthinkable and his concept that “constraints in your job or side project can be a source of strength for you”. Both these articles reaffirmed for me that limits and the library reality are not a reason to keep the status quo or to repress creative ideas but are to be celebrated and challenged by creative practice. Being honest with your teams about the limits also gives them the best opportunity to develop an idea that will be able to come to fruition so you are setting everyone up for success.

3. Give Purpose: Recently I was also lucky enough to hear the CEO of the Super Retail Group give a short presentation on innovation. With over 11,000 employees there was no shortage of ideas presented to his leadership team for change. For them the issue was that they had not communicated throughout the company what was the most important focus for their business success: The Customer. They wanted their whole staff to be focused on making things easier, more personalised and responsive to their customer and this is where they wanted the innovation to be concentrated. So where is your library’s focus? And please tell me it is outward to your community? Libraries do need to look outside their own business and see their library through different eyes and from different perspectives. Once you and your library leadership team are clear on this focus share this with your teams and focus their creativity. Not at the micromanagement level of specific projects but at the purpose level for where you are wanting the innovation and creative practice to create change. Ensure that your teams look outside of library staff perspectives, and sometimes even outside of the library industry practice, for inspiration, ideas and evidence.

4. Prioritise: Another key lesson from the CEO from the Super Retail Group was that the only time they have been in trouble as a business was when they were implementing too many changes at once. So setting priorities is very important and relates back to the realities of the limits that libraries are faced with every day. But again this is not a reason to do nothing. Library Managers will need to be very transparent about these priorities and the reasons for selecting one team’s idea over another’s but it is essential that they do. Innovative practice can be implemented over time so that the good ideas / innovations are not lost. Allow the teams to pitch their ideas to a focus group of staff and possible even some key stakeholders so that you get a wide response to the ideas and this builds transparent practice into your decision making. It also gives you different perspectives of what is important to your stakeholders and not just what is important to staff. If it is a pilot program that is selected remember to also set the end date and the evaluation requirements so that the pilot can be measured and reported on. It also allows real evidence to be built for changed practices or for stopping a possible ‘loved’ program that is no longer relevant for the new program.

5. Say Yes: It is essential that the Leadership team does say yes to an idea from this creative practice, otherwise the exercise will lack authenticity and your staff will relapse into cynicism with little or no trust in management. Skip Prichard’s blog post 16 Ways Leaders Kill Trust really brought this home to me.

Here’s hoping Library Managers accept the challenge and start embedding creativity in libraries today. Let me know if you are using other strategies in your library leadership practice.