Startup Mindset for Libraries

What is the Startup Mindset?

Simply put, the startup mindset is creative, flexible thinking.  Forbes.com has a great piece on this.  The article details 5 core philosophies of the startup mindset.  By adopting these, libraries and other organizations can bring useful services and efficient practices onboard more quickly than through traditional library thinking.  These philosophies are:

  1. Curiosity – Ask “why” and “what if” and “why not” and always seek to understand and find a better way.
  2.  Focus on Possibilities – Focus on what could be, rather than focusing on what is.
  3. Disregard for Status Quo – Work like you have nothing to loose, and forget about those sacred cows!
  4. Conquer Fear – Be brave in the face of change and risk.
  5. Speed – Get those services and improvements into production quickly and tweak them while they are live.

The Benefits of the Startup Mindset

One benefit of the startup mindset is clear:  it makes the workplace more interesting.  About six years ago my professional life was transformed simply by thinking differently about my job:  I began to look at my workplace as a lab in which I was to experiment with improving user services. I stopped worrying so much about what was not working and began thinking more objectively about how work differently to achieve my vision of what service could be.  Some things worked, others were chalked up as learning experiences.  But overall the benefits were clear: not only did service improve, but so did the workplace.  Suddenly it was all a lot more interesting.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was running my department like a startup.

A recent episode of the Coaching for Leaders podcast focuses on knowing when it is time to move on professionally.  It reports that “moving on” doesn’t necessarily mean finding a new job.  It may mean reinventing your current job.  Adopting the start up mindset is one way to do this.

Learn More About the Startup Mindset

Want to learn more about the startup mindset and how it applies to libraries?  Read Brian Matthews’ 2012, “Think Like a Startup:  A White Paper to Inspire Library Entrepreneurialism.” Seriously, READ IT! It is inspirational, well written and only 13 pages (including notes).  In my opinion it’s a half-hour well spent. What do you think?

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Disruptive Innovation Rethought

Rethinking Disruptive Innovation

Last spring I wrote a series of blog posts on disruptive innovation as applied to libraries.  In it I discussed ways in which ways in which certain business thinking can be applied to the mission driven sector.  While I still stand by those ideas, I just read a New Yorker article that really made me think. The article questions the value of disruption in business by questioning the research on which disruptive innovation is based, namely the research of Clay Christenson, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Disruptive Innovation:  The Market is not Always Ready

The author makes some thought-provoking points, among them that disruptive innovation is not always successful because sometimes the market isn’t ready for a truly disruptive product.  This reminded me of the introduction of the ISO ILL standard in the late 1990s.  The marketplace (libraries) simply was not ready, and in an industry based on sharing a core group of partners had to be there in order to carry out the fundamental mission.

Disruptive Innovation and Failure

What I couldn’t fully grasp is if the author was arguing for an incremental model of innovation.  Does that still work in today’s world?  She argues that the “Logic of disruptive innovation is the logic of start ups”.  And as a point of fact, most start-ups fail.   “Disruptive innovation is a theory of why businesses fail.”  OK, I will buy that, but perhaps the focus should be less on success or failure and more on creativity?  Disruption is a process as opposed to a result–what if we think of it as simply casting side all preconceived notions and assumptions and looking at something in a completely new way? Certainly it can also lead to failure, but comfort with failure is the necessary flip side of innovation, and the possibility of failure needs to be embraced if we are to strive for true change.  And if one is trying to think in new ways about a problem does that not increase the likelihood that a solution will be found?

What Do Others Say About Disruptive Innovation?

This is indeed a provocative article, and there have been a number of responses to it.   Clay Christensen  himself responded in Businessweek; and others have responded in Slate, Forbes and The Boston Globe, to name a few.  As I work through my thoughts on this I would love to hear what others think about disruptive innovation.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

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The TEDx Talk Every Librarian Should Watch

I often say libraries are not innovative, and when I say this I do so very hesitantly.  As much as I don’t wish to offend those who share my passion for libraries, I also feel very strongly that libraries need to step up their game in the face of competition from companies like Amazon and Google.  This is what entrepreneur Andrew Roskill is saying–much more eloquently than I ever have– in his talk recorded at TEDx Charleston a couple of months ago.  This is a “call to arms” for libraries to provide a niche service based on what they do well, and to do so in a way that’s “easy, elegant and engaging”–like a business.  Watch this talk!  It’s 10 minutes well spent.

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Disrupting the Library, part 7

Disruptive Suggestion #6:  Be Utterly Transparent

Radically embrace the truth.  I love it, but can you think of anything more scary?  What is your library’s truth–maybe use has decreased significantly in the past decade?  Maybe you don’t know what your users want?  Maybe you have been slammed recently on Twitter?  Maybe the campus library is the laughing stock of the college?   If you are in denial about the relationship between your library and its user community things will never improve.  The only way to get out of whatever uncomfortable situation the library is in is to fully accept it and commit to improving it.  Or maybe you don’t even know what your user community thinks of you, in which case it is time to find out.

Ever shop at Whole Foods?  Every Whole Foods I have been in posts comments and questions from their suggestion box on a public bulletin board with responses from the manager.  This would be a great approach for a library.  Done a large scale user survey with scary results?  Make the results public, along with the improvement plan.  Launch a service that missed the mark?  Own it.  And either scrap it or improve it so it does help your users.

I hope this series was helpful not only helping you to see how libraries can be disrupted–radically transformed into better service outlets–but also in showing you that the breadth of business literature can be applied to improving libraries and other mission driven organizations.

 

This is the final installment of a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry.

 

 

Disrupting the Library, part 6

Disruptive Suggestion #5:  Find Smarter Ways to Serve Your Customers

Are you sure you are giving your users what they need?  The example the article gives is Siri, the voice interaction service offered on Apple products.  Library users may not require or even desire voice command services, but what is it they do want?  Not what they are asking for, but where is the need?  Maybe users need library materials delivered to their home or office? Maybe faculty on the tenure track need communities of practice to support them?

The point is to listen to your users and find out what their needs are.  Then think, “how can these needs be met?” Then think some more.  Then plan, all the while talking to users and thinking.

This is the sixth in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry.

Read Disrupting the Library, part 7.

 

 

Disrupting the Library, part 5

Disruptive Suggestion #4:  Make Stupid Objects Smart

The Forbes.com article explains, “A dumb product just sits there. It doesn’t talk to the network, doesn’t have a memory, doesn’t react to changing events around it. In contrast, a smart product acts intelligently.”  It goes on to describe several examples of “smart” objects:  The dumpster that alerts when it needs to be emptied; the light bulb that flashes before it burns out; the dog collar that monitors dog behavior.

Because of privacy concerns the notion of objects with a “memory” might not be the right fit at a library, but there are ways to “smarten-up” the library.  What about a system that tells users where the unoccupied study carrels are?  What about a circulation system that texts users when the material they have requested is available or warns of an approaching due date? And what if you could reply to the text to renew the items?

Be open to the idea of smart objects and aware of how this is being used both inside and beyond libraries.  Sure, some smart technologies are prohibitively expensive to most libraries but this will not always be the case, and even small, inexpensive changes can be transformative.

This is the fifth in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry.

Read Disrupting the Library, part 6.

 

 

 

Disrupting the Library, part 4

Disruptive Suggestion #3: Cut Prices Dramatically

Prices? What could this possibly have to do with library services? Actually quite a bit.  Most libraries charge for value-added services. Perhaps interlibrary borrowing, printing, or borrowing an iPad costs the user a little extra.  Here in Europe where I currently live my public library not only charges for library membership, but also checking out DVDs and requesting books from other branches are also associated with a small transaction cost.  

But what about the most sacrosanct of all library prices, the overdue fine?  [Note to self:  anything described as “sacrosanct” is a potential area for disruptive improvements.] A few years back, while running the Access Services department of a large North American research library, I adjusted circulation policies including eliminating routine overdue fines on non-recalled general collection materials.  There is no question that this was a  disruptive change, but because of the careful study and planning that went into it, it was a change that was embraced by the library administration as well as library staff and users.  As a result these changes–including lengthening circulation periods and eliminating fines on routine overdues, interactions with library users were much more positive.  And while we did experience a drop in fine revenue income (which at that library was deposited directly into the collections budget) the loss was partially offset by increases of other overdue fines and fees which could be tweaked to fully offset the loss.

I am certainly not saying that every library needs to eliminate fines.  Rather, I’m inviting you to take a look at the sacred cows in your own workplace.  After some careful study and thinking, you may see some ways to improve the functioning of your library for users and staff alike.

This is the fourth in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry.

Read Disrupting the Library, part 5.

Disrupting the Library, part 3

Disruptive Suggestion #2:  Dramatically Reduce Complexity

This suggestion challenges us by asking what your library does that could be streamlined from your users’ perspective?  Think of common transactions and services.  How many steps must a user take to complete a transaction?

Sometimes it’s really difficult to simplify processes that have grown increasingly complex over time.  Sometimes library processes are complex for the users to save staff time.  Regardless of the reason for the complexity, often with a little thought and effort (and not necessarily a lot of money) unnecessarily complex user processes can be streamlined.

For example, I once worked with a library on a project to eliminate manual staff checks of user bags upon exit.  The reason for the bag checks was that the radio-frequency security system installed at the exit was unreliable because over the course of its existence the company had changed the frequency used for library books.  The antennae at the exit therefore had to cycle through two frequencies and in this slow process anyone exiting at a steady clip could easily remove a book undetected.  The manual bag inspections served two purposes to defend against loss:  rechecking the work of the security gates and slowing down users.  Imagine that, DELIBERATELY SLOWING DOWN USERS.  Ranganathan must have been rolling over in his grave.

With the help of their users, the library identified this as a cumbersome process that they would like to improve (cough-usercomplaints-cough).  For years this problem existed and a few corrections were investigated that were determined to be too costly or too risky.  So, what to do?  First off, it is really difficult to change something that’s always been the case, especially when the reasoning behind it is protecting the collection, so we started to think of how there could be a better way.  Knowing the date of the frequency change we ran a report against the ILS and identified the books that were mostly likely to have the old style radio-frequency emitter.  We planned a summer project for tagging these books with the new frequency (after we tested that the tags would not interfere with each other) and by the start of the next school year the antennae were set to only pick up a single frequency, enabling library staff to only conduct a bag check if the alarm sounded.

What are the processes that your library users find complex and what could you do to improve them? The solution may not happen right away but unless you begin to think it through, the solution will never happen.

This is the third in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry. 

Read Disrupting the Library, part 4.

Disrupting the Library, part 2

Disruptive Suggestion #1:  Eliminate Persistent Customer Pain Points

This is a great place to start because the very suggestion gets at one of the biggest controversies among librarians:  what do we call the public we serve?  Lots of librarians shy away from using the term customers because they feel the people they serve differ from the customers in a store or other business.  But how?  Because no money changes hands? Actually, money does change hands–taxpayers fund public and school libraries, university students pay for library services through their fees, and library users often pay for value added services like printing or interlibrary borrowing.  Some librarians perceive that library users differ from customers because they don’t see the competition in our “marketplace”–but what about Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia?  Perhaps the objection comes from an association with having to “do things” for customers, while the library model has always had a self-empowerment vibe to it.

My opinion is if we don’t think of library users as customers we are giving ourselves permission to provide them with less-than-excellent service.  But that said, I respect the other arguments my colleagues make to call our public “users,” or “patrons.” I certainly don’t want to offend anyone with the suggestion to think of library users as customers and really, the semantics doesn’t much matter.  What matters is how we treat them, and as my library hero S. R. Ranganathan said, it’s our job to “save the time of the reader.”

The article very rightly states that every industry–libraries included–has practices that drive customers crazy.  I would argue that every library probably has practices that drive its user community crazy.  The article asks, “What practices exist in your industry that drive customers crazy? How do all companies in your industry behave stupidly? Identify these types of practices, and wipe them out.”

So how do we do this in a library?  First think locally about your own policies, procedures and services.  Ask yourself what policies are simply outdated? What do you receive complaints or suggestions about?  What has your data told you?  When you (or your friends or colleagues) use your library, what seems amiss? Maybe it is providing more assistance in the stacks?  Maybe you have restrictions on the number of items users can charge out or the number of times items may be renewed? Do these restrictions still make sense? Perhaps it’s a more seamless library instruction class request system?  Maybe it’s a better way to manage rush processing requests (or better yet, eliminating that backlog in the first place)? Maybe it’s a space reservation system?  Instead of the knee-jerk, “we couldn’t do that,” start to ask yourself how you could do that.  How can you save the time of the user?  Research what other libraries are doing. Be open to the possibility and you will be open to true transformation.

This is the second in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry

Read Disrupting the Library, part 3.

Disrupting the Library, part 1

I just read a great article with tremendous application to library services.  The trouble is that the title is 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Own Industry.  Come on, an article from Forbes, applicable to a library? Profit? Industry? Disruption?  How do these concepts fit with what we do?  Are they even applicable to those of us who work in the mission-driven sector?

ABSOLUTELY!  Libraries specifically and mission-driven organizations generally have a lot to learn from business practices. There, I said it.  But we can’t just take business advice wholesale any more than we should dismiss it all together.  It’s important to think about what is being offered and consider the ways in which it can be applied to our industry.

Over the next few weeks this blog will focus on the concepts presented in this article and how, with a little thought and translation, they can greatly improve library service.  Don’t believe me?  Stay tuned for Disrupting the Library, part 2.