Increasingly I see more people, organisations or ideas struggling with the transition between adolescence and adulthood. There is something brilliant about them in the first place – something which means they become successful enough to need to grow up at all. Then the process of growing up either dilutes, or sometimes eliminates entirely, the very factor that brought them success.
We all know it happens with consumer products, where two guys in a basement somewhere set out to change the world with an ethical product, and then it becomes so huge they get bought up by the very corporations they set out to provide an alternative to.
It appears to be happening with Twitter - to quote Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review: “When Twitter burst on the scene, it was on the strength of an API (application programming interface) that made it extremely easy for developers to create a wide range of user experiences and tools. Twitter was lego rather than destination: a way for people to build something expansive rather than color within the lines.” But last friday they announced they were ending all that (or most of it), instructing developers to stop building new consumer-oriented Twitter client applications. They got too big to be open. They had to formalise things to ensure control of something that had become too valuable to be casual about.
It happens locally all the time, too, in our work places. The really bright, switched on, enthusiastic library staff – the ones who absolutely LOVE libraries, who really GET what the mission is whilst accepting that the way we implement this is changing all the time; the ones who are amazing with the patrons – pretty soon get promoted away from the front-line, so end up spending far less time (or no time at all) dealing with the people (for whom libraries exist, after all).
What I’m really interested in, is the grass roots movements in libraries, and how they can cling on to what makes them great when they grow up into fully fledged library services. It seems there’s a lot of individuals or groups who are making things happen on their own, rather than waiting for the Great Library Machine to lumber in to action and give them top-down instructions and go-ahead.
When I was in Cambridge for the #LAC11 conference, the whole afternoon was given over to presentations on these kinds of initiatives – 23 things programmes, teach-meets, library presence at the fresher’s fair, Open Libraries. Projects which people decided to get done, and which were run (to a greater or lesser extent) informally, without people having big meetings with minute-takers, often without budgets being involved – in short, without all the trappings of micro-managed organisation that prevent an idea from being dynamic and agile. A lot of these initiatives went really well, which means they’ll be repeated, and expanded, and officially sanctioned – which means there’ll be minutes, maybe some money involved, and basically they will be held to account a lot more. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prevent the kind of innovation and quick-response to new ideas which made them work the first time around.
the shining example
The shining example of what can be achieved when you decide to take some action is surely Voices for the Library. The majority of people reading this will know who they are already, but for those who don’t: this is a campaign group made up of librarians all of whom have proper jobs, but who come together in their own time (often via social media) and have achieved extraordinary success in a very short space of time. If you’ve read a newspaper article about libraries, chances are you may have seen a quote from at least once VftL member. You may even have seen them on the 10 o’clock news. They’ve muscled their way in to the library narrative, and speak for us where previously we weremute and unrepresented, like a someone standing trial without a lawyer.
They have done this by being flexible, proactive, dynamic, and aggressive. But of course, the whole point is they had to come together and form something new, because the existing channels weren’t getting the job done. They had to move outside the usual library environment and set up their own suburb to achieve, because only then were they unburdened by the usual restraints. Even now, their success has led to some compromise – they have sponsorship and plenty of celebrity support, which means they can’t say anything completely outrageous (not that they’d necessarily want to) and their members probably have to self-censor a little more even when they’re ‘off duty’ as VftL and just speaking for themselves – plus Phil Bradley has had to stop being involved because of a potential conflict of interests with his CILIP Vice-Presidency. The great thing about that, of course, is that he’s bringing some of the forward-thinking dynamism that VftL have thrived on, to the massive, multi-million pound operation that is the Chartered Institute.
the big question
The big question is, how do we combine power and authority, with agility and malleability? How do we become more like a flock of birds, who are capable of the same dynamism and adaptability when they are flying with 3000 of their peers, as they are when flying solo? How do we become adults without losing the ideals, ideas, and rebellion of our adolescence?
so what’s the big answer?
I really wish I knew – I suspect it has a lot to do with bravery, being willing to try something and fail, and being able to listen and understand really well. Being brave – doing something you know might not work – gets harder and harder the bigger the organisation, because more and more people are stakeholders in your success, and more and more people will know about your failures. But there’s evidence that bravery and innovation can work – CILIP seem much more gutsy and more responsive under the current regime, and it’s working so far; Andy Priestner is in a position to implement new and intimidating (to some) ideas at Cambridge, and does so, successfully. People like Buffy Hamilton and David Lee King seem to be getting it done on their own terms in the US, which is inspiring.
I suspect a lot of library-innovation success is about empowerment – librarians empowered to make decisions without endless checking for approval, and in turn empowering their staff to take control of their own area and revel in autonomy.
Anyone else have a big answer to the big question?
a new bit added later
I wrote this post a while ago and haven’t had time to proof it, add the links etc so only got around to publishing it today. I’ve been thinking about it since, and the more I consider it the more I think a horizontal hierarchy is the key to this issue. If you have a traditional pyramid structure there are just too many levels of seniority to escalate issues to, to ever really get anything done. A flatter system allows for more people to share more of the power – and because no one person (even a genius, visionary leader) can expect to know about or to be able to facilitate EVERYTHING, perhaps that’s the key. Distributed power equals agility?
One of the main strengths of LISNPN (already, and even more so if and when it realises its potential) is that the face-to-face meet-up events are run by people from the regions in which they take place – there is no top-down instruction or go-ahead happening there, people just do stuff under the LISNPN umbrella. That’s easy for the network because it’s an informal network, there’s not a lot of money involved in it, the stakes are low. But maybe big organisations need to try and have that aspect of self-organising cells that work independently towards the same ideals, in order to be able to incorporate all the great new ideas and initiatives which library staff are capable of.
Also, make sure you read Andy’s comment below, it’s ace.