Want Innovation? Get Out of the Way

cc image used courtesy of Vermin Inc on flickr

We hear a lot about innovation and change these days. Everyone is talking about it, every is doing it, or at least trying to. There’s a problem though, change and innovation require more than lip service. Declaring that you are innovative does not make it so.

You know what I’m talking about, someone reads an article, attends a presentation, has a conversation over coffee and comes back to work and says – we’re going to be innovative! Maybe there are even a few committees put together. But then what? Nothing. The committees quit meeting and things go back to the way they were. Maybe one or two people are still trying, but no one is listening.

You know why? Because innovation doesn’t happen by committee or decree.

Organizations do not innovate. People innovate. Inspired people. Fascinated people. Creative people. Committed people. That’s where innovation begins. On the inside.

The organization’s role — just like the individual manager’s role — is to get out of the way. And while this “getting out of the way” will undoubtedly include the effort to formulate supportive systems, processes, and protocols, it is important to remember that systems, processes, and protocols are never the answer. – Mitch Ditkoff

So how do you create a culture of innovation? You start with the people who think differently than you do.

Diversity is one of those sticky terms that people seem to boil down to creating a Benetton ad. Diversity isn’t about some magical collection of five differently colored skin tones. It’s about bringing different perspectives and backgrounds to the table and creating an environment that values what can be gained from different voices who’ve taken different paths. Skin color (or gender performance) is often interpreted as a reasonable substitute for this and, for many reasons, it has been historically. But bringing in a woman whose attitude and approach is just as masculine as the men isn’t going to help your team break outside of its current mindset. They key is to bring people who think differently than you – danah boyd*

Then get out of their way.

Once you’ve hired a good staff, you sit down, you formulate a plan and then you get out of their way. John Limbert

Let them do what you hired them to do.

The really good people want autonomy — you let me do it, and I’ll do it. So I told the people I recruited: “You come in here and you’ve got to keep me informed, but you’re the guy, and you’ll make these decisions. It won’t be me second-guessing you. But everybody’s going to win together. We’re part of a team, but you’re going to run your part.” That’s all they want. They want a chance to do it. – Gordon M. Bethune

You can not force innovation to happen. You can provide the autonomy, the trust to allow people to be innovative.

Read more:

*danah boyd’s post is about gender issues and being a woman in todays workforce. It’s worth a read (and mostly likely a blog post) in is own right.

15 thoughts on “Want Innovation? Get Out of the Way

  1. I saw Jim Collins speak at the Educause conference, and he offered a similar argument that the one of the keys to a great organization is to “get the right people on the bus”–getting the right people in key positions and letting them do their thing. See, for example, http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/first-who.html and http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html.

    It all sounds simple, but alas, it seems that real life is more difficult.


  2. Can I say that the statement “Let them do what you hired them to do.” applies to more than just innovation. I’ve had supervisers who micro-managed us to a stand still and my husband is the top front line superviser where he works because he thinks his job is about making it possible for his team to do their’s – ie he makes sure they have the tools they need and he runs interference with his superiors. His superiors are impressed by the amount of work his team does and his team is happy to be treated like adults. A bi-product of this is innovation – they always come up with unique and workable ways to solve the problems that arise.


  3. I really like the last quote by Gordon Bethune. “you’re the guy, and you’ll make these decisions.” I agree that managing people is not about controlling at all. It’s about trust and support. If you get the right people and trust and support them, great things will start happening and innovation will come.


  4. You know what a really smart person advised if you want to have a more innovative library. It’s easy – hire Steve Jobs (see http://bit.ly/cDuWep).

    I’ve written about this a few times. I think what you are suggesting is the “idea champion” – no idea moves forward unless someone is willing to be its champion and move it forward to the implementation stage. But who in your library will step up and be that idea champion?

    There are no good answers to the “how to move from innovation to implementation but I once had some inspiration from a school teacher who shared her ideas for how to do this (see http://bit.ly/aJfo1I)

    All this aside, the real problem with innovation – and librarians wanting to be innovative – is a dearth of good ideas. Where are the really good ideas – worth championing – coming from?


      1. Andy I don’t see any articles about an idea champion. But I would hope that in a place that truly encourages innovation the champion would be someone who is truly passionate about the idea, probably the person who’s idea it was. (who better really?) No matter what their level or position.


  5. Great insight and analysis. I agree with the comment that one reader made: often we’re too inbred as librarians to be truly innovative. We shouldn’t be attending library conferences eg. ALA and PLA…we need to attend the conferences of OTHER professions. Last year, I attended two such conferences due to my experience in other professions. I came back fully aware of just how behind my library workplace was…with no real zeal for staying on top of it. We’re satisfied with tiny baby steps. At a time of reduced headcounts, those libraries who invested in self-check and other things that help people help themselves are looking pretty smart! Thanks for a great post. Look forward to reading your tweets and posts.


  6. Superb post, Bobbi. Thanks. I honestly think “innovation” (a.k.a. change) only happens when:
    1. those accountable for approving change see what’s in it for them & honestly want it to happen.
    2. they are willing to question & re-think basic assumptions about how libraries function & what they do. People aren’t interested in “access”; there’s a basic assumption that simply is not true, yet it is the “frame” through which libraries try to view innovation. People are interested in doing what they WANT to do — whether that is finish a paper, plant their garden, find a job, whatever. They don’t want to “access” anything. They want to DO! They want to enjoy! Library staff need critical thinking & strategic thinking skills & support to do so.
    So, yes, “get out of the way” & provide food, coffee (please) & permission, skills & where-with-all.

    Thanks Bobbi!!!


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