Overhauling department operations? Here's how to engage staff and meet your goals

Input from all stakeholders makes innovation possible

Getting all members of a team to work toward a common goal is no easy task. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Bruce A. Strong and Mary Lee Kennedy discuss how so-called "innovation communities" helped New York Public Library (NYPL) staff improve operations across the board. 

One of the most revered public libraries in the world, the NYPL is an enormous institution tasked with serving 18 million visitors each year at its 93 branches. But to continue to accommodate so many people, NYPL had to adapt to changes in technology and the communities it served. 

What does the library of the 21st Century look like?

In 2014, Strong—an author, consultant, and founder of the Network Leadership Group—and Kennedy, former NYPL's former chief library officer, proposed an unusual solution: What if some of the institution's more than 2,500 staff members had a stake in working with senior leaders to improve the library? Staff members were invited to participate in planning, designing, and implementing improvements alongside senior leaders, who would provide resources and guidance and oversee projects.

To bring people from every corner of the NYPL together, Strong and Kennedy created innovation communities, which they describe as "diverse groups of volunteer employees [who] work across organizational boundaries and outside of their regular operational duties" and "are empowered by—and in frequent communication with—senior management."

NYPL's management team established three innovation communities responsible for three main library functions:

  • Circulation;
  • Collections; and
  • Reference.

Each innovation community encompassed three groups:

  • A small core team of staff members tasked with identifying, designing, and testing a new business model;
  • A larger team of testers who experimented with solutions; and
  • The entirety of staffers, who served as conversationalists, offering suggestions, criticism, insights, and encouragement.  

The innovation communities collaborated virtually and in-person to talk over solutions focused on NYPL's guiding principles. Services had to be:

  • Consistent;
  • Convenient;
  • Empowering; and
  • Inspiring. 

Modernize your library's space, staff, and services

Based on these principles, innovation communities came up with "options statements" that were strengthened with the help of senior management. Core teams then designed and tested solutions along with senior leaders, testers, and conversationalists. 

The innovation communities succeeded in their respective goals:

  • The circulation team found a way to cut down on wait times for reserved books while offering patrons better information about the status of materials;
  • The collections team developed solutions for providing more materials to younger patrons that will be implemented at all branches by the end of 2017; and
  • The reference team adopted reference receipts with further recommendations for patrons, signage to guide patrons to common services, and modular training sessions for staff.

"Strategy as currently practiced rarely emphasizes the importance of community," Strong and Kennedy conclude. "Our experience with the Library highlights it. The social bonds created by the innovation communities, we believe, will be integral to the Library's continued efforts to realize its strategic direction" (Strong/Kennedy, Harvard Business Review, 12/5). 


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