The last few years have been difficult ones for many libraries. Budget cutbacks, hours reductions, salary freezes, and falling staff morale are but a few of the challenges that libraries have had to address. But signs of a (slowly) improving economy have many of us hoping for better times to come. With this thought I was reminded of an open letter to library directors, penned almost seven years ago. I am reprinting it here because I believe it is both timely and (still) relevant. Perhaps the only change I would make would be to address not only Directors, but Leaders at all levels.
As the person in charge, you have perhaps the best understanding of your organization’s goals and you are empowered to coordinate change and innovation. Every suggestion here depends upon you for organization into a coherent, big-picture strategy.
1. Move staff around. While we would not want to encourage arbitrarily moving staff around, sometimes lateral transfers can be healthy for both the staff and the organization. This can be accomplished both in systems with several branches, where staff are given lateral transfers between branches, and in a main library, where a staff member is moved to a separate department. Although you would not want staffing to be so fluid as to prohibit stability within a branch or department, it is in a library’s best interest to acknowledge the positive aspects of staffing relocations and transfers. Such change provides fresh perspectives and gives staff the opportunity to work with different management styles.
2. Pull people together. Have a big project? Temporarily relocate staff to improve communication and efficiency in order to get the project done. This can occur on many levels. Administrative staff are usually already in the same building, in which case pulling everyone together should not be a problem. But when you identify who you want on your team (see the next few ideas), you may very well find that team members are split across locations. Bringing them together into one facility, even if only temporarily, allows for more face-to-face meetings, fewer misunderstandings and conflicts, and a better final product.
3. Listen to your young people. Young and new employees bring a wealth of ideas and opinions to their new positions. Harvest this enthusiasm by bringing several new staff into every project, every service creation meeting, and any other meeting that could use a shot of energy. Consider positioning them in areas that need improving, or bring them into headquarters and put them on a team.
4. No one should inherit a position. How often have we seen the following: You have a retiring department head who has been in her position for 10 years or more, and her second-in-command is automatically chosen to replace her. Maybe not the worst decision, but not necessarily one that will spark change and innovation. Instead, don’t automatically move her executive officer into the position. Look outside the department for new blood, with new ideas, someone who is going to think outside the departmental box. You are bound to find a lot of talent out there in other departments, branches, or libraries.
5. Change and innovation begin at the top. Are you the boss, the director, the CEO? How often do you host brainstorming sessions? Do you sit in on departmental meetings? If you make this a regular part of your routine, staff will grow accustomed to your presence, and, hopefully, be more open and honest in front of you. Try pulling in your younger staff and including them in your thought process. Give them an inside picture of your organization, and listen to what they have to say.
6. Reward and recognize your change leaders. Do you rate your management team on new ideas and implementing positive change? Are supervisors given real credit for innovating and improving library services? It is time to begin formally recognizing these talents and rewarding your employees for their originality and innovation. But make sure they know that leading a successful team that creates positive change is more important than simply tossing out new ideas every few weeks. Change is team-oriented, and those managers who can create innovative teams and nurture positive change are the most valuable.
7. Create a team of eyes and ears. Tap several staff members system or library-wide and appoint them as your personal reconnaissance officers. Let them look for ideas for new services and ways to improve existing services. Give them the library car (or leave to explore) every three or four months, and have them visit other libraries in your region. Then, let them meet with you regularly every couple of months and listen to what they have to say. Keep your department heads out of this meeting so your recons feel free to talk about what they think needs to be changed. Be open-minded, because a lot of what they say will sound naïve and may call into question some fundamental principles under which you have always operated. Don’t hold their enthusiasm against them, though; this naiveté is exactly what you are looking for in order to break through traditional thinking.
8. Nothing stimulates change like change. When staff members observe new ideas being implemented, they see that innovation is recognized—and possibly rewarded. What methods do you have in place for fast-tracking ideas? Does everything have to go into the strategic plan, or do you have the flexibility to take an idea from one person or team and quickly pull together an implementation team? Set a goal of two or three fast-track ideas a year. Get them going, gather numbers regarding success or failure, and have a review team sit down and evaluate after six months. If it isn’t working, kill it. Don’t make a big deal out of failures. But, if it is working, then make sure that the entire system knows who came up with the idea—and reward that person or group in some manner.
9. Frontline staff know your customers better than anyone else. What are your customers saying? Face it, you don’t really know. You may speak to one or two in the course of a day (often to those who are the most upset). You may have friends who visit your library and give you feedback. But you still really don’t know your customers nearly as well as your frontline staff does. Frontline staff may deal with several dozen people each day, hearing every comment, suggestion, and complaint imaginable. Make it easy and safe for frontline staff to get their ideas up to you and your leadership team. And get those same frontline staff to pass along customer comments— not just those that customers take the time to write down, but the verbal comments and concerns that staff hear every day. Have a rotating team of one or two staff members from every branch location. Let them meet quarterly and produce a simple report, so that ideas are mixed together and no one person feels like they cannot be honest in his or her communications for fear of retaliation. Read their reports and share the ideas with your leadership team. Much like your reconnaissance team members, try to be open-minded and see your staff’s viewpoints and reasoning.
10. Just do it. If you attempt even just a few of these ideas, you will find yourself out of your office more— which is a good thing!
[from Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service]