Three years ago I published a white paper: Think Like A Startup. A lot of people downloaded it.
Over the weekend I reflected on the essay and I’d like to share a few thoughts:
“Thinking like a startup” is meant to be a mental model, not a business model. This confuses people who didn’t read the paper. I had been hearing from administrators around the county who were frustrated because they could not motivate their employees to embrace new directions. I wanted my paper to help with strategic planning and related conversations. It’s a chance to say—ok, for this afternoon let’s change our lens. Instead of thinking like a library, let’s consider how a startup might approach this service. What are we not doing? How would they operate? I viewed the paper as an invitation to brainstorm and a process that provides safety while encouraging experimentation and team building.
Just Get Started
While the paper is directed at library leaders, it was meant to help others as well. I’ve encountered many librarians and staff who “want to try new things” but are stifled by bosses who just want to maintain the status quo. I use to tell people to “just do it” – but this essay was an attempt to provide a little more structure.
My basic advice is to find something small that no one cares about. Spend time learning about whatever that thing is and improve it. Low cost. Low risk. Low political value. Minimal time commitment. That’s what you want.
Do this a few times and you will start gaining momentum. Your colleagues will take notice. You’ll build a reputation as someone who can get things done. With that comes more opportunities. Also, volunteer for projects outside of the library. Find a faculty group or student organization trying to do something (host a program, conduct an environmental audit, dabble with new technology or pedagogy, whatever) – gather experience working collaboratively on problems and implementing solutions.
I didn’t use the phrase value proposition in the paper, but that’s what we need. If I wrote the startup piece today, I would include a section on this theme. (Start here.) We’re in an era of accountability and library leaders need to be able to articulate how our organizations deliver value. Not just in the annual report or with some ROI spreadsheets. It’s something we need to constantly express and translate in many formats to different audiences.
Some people resist this because they feel library value is inherent or that it is an unmeasurable public good. Funders don’t always agree. It’s on us to provide evidence and to connect the dots. We can learn a lot from the startup community in how we position ourselves as essential partners and service-providers.
I’ve learned that not everyone likes to “explore new opportunities.” Some people are really good at implementing changes while others are great at managing workflows. It took me a few years to fully appreciate the wide range of skills necessary for large organizations to thrive.
Personally, I’m very comfortable living in the gray space of innovation, but many people are not. I’ve learned that I need to clarify my expectations and intentions as much as possible. I also need to ask a lot of questions. People want to do good work, but they need help understanding “what does success look like?” The problem with innovation is that you often don’t know. Success is something you discover along the way. I tried to address that better with the follow-up papers. (see below)
Get out of the building
Steven Blank urges us to get out of the building. I suggest taking that further—get outside of the “librarian frame” and connect with people in different ways. It was transformative for me to spend hours in labs and studios listening to people talk and watching them work. When I approached this without a library-centered agenda (i.e. promoting our services or collections) I learned a lot. Conversations were more genuine because I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. I discovered questions I never would have thought to ask, and likewise, they reflected on problems they didn’t realize they had.
I recommend that everyone working in a library team up with someone from Student Affairs, the Office of Research, or somewhere similar. Shadow them for an afternoon. See the campus through their eyes. What do they do? What is their role? What barriers do they encounter? What does their work environment look like? What tools do they use? Who do they communicate with? How do they define success?
If you want to think like a startup-- if you want to be creative and innovative-- you need to build your capacity for empathy. When we appreciate and participate in our communities outside of a pre-defined role, that’s when we become partners, advisors, and consultants. It’s there that transformative and entrepreneurial opportunities emerge.
Thanks to everyone who reached out to me over the years. I’m glad that this paper resonated with you. Here are a few follow-up papers that extend the theme a bit further:
- Too Much Assessment Not Enough Innovation: R&D Models and Mindsets for Academic Libraries
- The Art Of Problem Discovery: Adaptive Thinking for Innovation and Growth
- FLIP THE MODEL: Strategies for Creating and Delivering Value