- Innovation can be intimidating, but don’t conflate fear with not being up for the task.
- Deeply entrenched cultures need help understanding the new tools and tactics to address the ongoing mission.
- Growth through innovation is a journey not a state of being.
Back in 2013, I was asked to deliver the first ever keynote address for an all-staff institution day for the Chicago Public Library. The original speaker was someone noteworthy in the local tech scene, and canceled a week before the event. I was recommended by a friend, because I had worked at Apple and startups in the past and seemed like a reasonable replacement.
The Monday before the event I met with Andrea, the Library’s Chief Strategy Officer. She briefed me on the day’s events. Every branch was closed so all 1000 employees could attend. The theme was innovation and creativity. The agenda included activities like ideation workshops, lectures from IDEO, even hands-on demonstrations with 3-D printers. It sounded pretty awesome.
Innovation Can Be Intimidating
Andrea shared that many of the attendees were not looking forward to the event. Innovation was part of a broader initiative from their new CEO, Brian Bannon. Brian was appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel to turn things around at the 140 year old institution. It was no secret people were reading less, and libraries were struggling to survive, let alone remain relevant. Andrea thought it might allay people’s concerns to hear what it was like to work in an innovative organization.
The morning before the event, I did a dry run for Andrea and Brian in the auditorium. I talked about Apple, and how Steve Jobs shaped the culture, and shared a few anecdotes of what it was like to be in meetings with him. I even mentioned how we used the same techniques they were going to learn about later.
As far as speeches go, it was technically what they asked for. It just wasn’t what any of us had hoped for. Andrea and Brian were way too polite to say it. I explained how I imagined it going, but instead delivered a boring lecture. Andrea suggested reminding everyone the mission is still promoting literacy and supporting lifelong learning. Brian said style wasn’t the problem. His challenge wasn’t selling the staff on the day’s activities. It was reassuring them they’re still essential, and so are libraries to the mission, regardless of what becomes of books.
New Tools, Same Old Mission
Since literacy in the digital age means more than reading, librarians and patrons need to adopt new tools and tactics if the Library’s mission is to continue in a world that changes so fast.
That’s when it clicked. A world without books sounds pretty grim, but one without Libraries is even worse. The audience wasn’t intimidated by the call to innovate, they were scared of no longer being needed if they didn’t. As CEO, Brian had the authority to make big changes, including replacing staff. Instead, he was chosing to keep the people and institutional knowledge. He just wanted to change the culture so people felt empowered to be creative.
When the employees were being told about the day’s theme, what they were expecting to hear was, “The Library needs you to be more innovative.” But what they had to believe was, “The Library – needs you – to be more innovative.” Innovation is not a state of being, but an ongoing journey.
Growth Through Innovation is a Journey
So I went back to drawing board, and rewrote my address. Instead of talking about my days at the innovative Apple everyone currently knew, I talked about my time at the Apple that was going down the tubes. Despite having other opportunities, people like me stayed because we enjoyed and believed in that mission.
Similar to public libraries, Apple had a lot of people depending on us to survive. Our job and culture had more purpose than just meeting goals and objectives. Layoffs and attrition had significantly reduced the size of the company. Those of us remaining had to be good at thinking on our feet. As Steve Jobs put it, we’re not in this just to survive, but to thrive.
Instead of a lecture, my keynote became an appeal. As someone who has a lifelong love of learning, I was depending on them. I knew first hand how being empowering creativity in people works. I just had one thing to ask of them. So I closed my speech paraphrasing one of my favorite Cheap Trick songs by saying, “I want you, to want to be creative.” I was not asking them to be something they weren’t. I was asking them to become something. To grow.
With that in mind, the day’s activities were simply a roadmap on their journey to make the Library more innovative.