Not Building a Wall But Making a Brick

This week I really enjoyed R. Toby Greenwalt’s article called It’s All Around You: Creating a Culture of Innovation and his discussion of how we tend to mythologize the lone innovator at risk of ignoring the ideas that are springing from the trenches. Instead, we should strive to create a comprehensive culture of innovation in our organizations where everyone is worthy of having their ideas take up the same space at the table or on the whiteboard or on the WordPress blog. The inevitable difficulty I encounter is not reading and absorbing this argument, but how to turn it into something tangible on an organizational level. Yeah, that sounds good, but how do you do it? Does this need to come from the person at the top? An underdog at the bottom? A whole group of people that somehow come together and say “it’s time to make some changes, let’s go innovate!” How to these conversations get started? How do we, as Greenwalt suggests, “create a collective brain” when our brains don’t think in the same ways?

Well, that might be just the ticket…

For fun I went to the link that was posted in Greenwalt’s article notes to Oblique Strategies — the “creativity dilemma” prompt generator website. From the website, it says:
“Oblique strategies is a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt used to break deadlocks in creative situations. Each card contains a (sometimes cryptic) remark that can help you resolve a creative dilemma. Whenever you’re stuck you draw a card and ponder how it applies to your situation.”

I clicked the refresh button. “Cluster analysis”. Hmm. Clicked it again. “Think – think outside – think inside – the work.” Hmm. Clicked it again. “Trust in the you of now.” Hmm. “Tape your mouth.” Uh. What? “Question the heroic approach.” Oh, this is starting to get good. “How would you explain this to your parents?” “Look at the order in which you do things.” “Make a list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list.” “Do we need holes?”

It was an interesting exercise, to say the least.

But it did get me thinking about the point of doing it.

I kept clicking through the prompts, smiling at some, pondering others, until I stopped and stared.

The screen said simply: “Not building a wall but making a brick.”

I think that answers my previous question about how an organizations stumble and make mistakes because they think they have to suddenly become a gold-standard, innovation powerhouse overnight. They aren’t and they won’t and to think otherwise would be unrealistic. A library that has never built a wall before can’t build one without bricks. But it can make thoughtful, purposeful, small changes, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, each brick placed one on top of the next on top of the next and so on to create the wall. Simple, flexible, collaborative approaches help us to make bricks (for example, Greenwalt suggests doing little things like simply placing a whiteboard in a well-traveled staff space). Sharing the materials for mixing help us to make bricks. Creating organizational structure that provides strong and lasting mortar between bricks (and substances for removing it if a brick isn’t working) help us to make bricks. Trusting that, over time, our wall might change shape or design or height or length but that this is OKAY and may actually make our wall better, helps us to make bricks. Recognizing that someone may make a lot of bricks and someone might make one and that both people have unique value to your organization, helps us to make bricks.

Is there hidden danger in this building a wall vs. making bricks approach? Thinking “okay, so this huge change isn’t going to happen all today, it’s going to happen through lots of little changes”, does that make us complacent? Neglectful of real change, real innovation if we think that there’s so much to do so let’s put it off for tomorrow? Does it make it easier to procrastinate, make excuses, keep playing Devil’s Advocate? Maybe, maybe not. As long as we are able to somehow measure our progress, I say let’s just keep making bricks day by day by day. And before you know it, we’ll be viewing LibraryLand from the top of our wall.



Sometimes a Good Idea is Just a Good Idea, Period.

I’m going to start out by admitting that I’m sort of a business-averse person. Thinking about things like “how do we make more money by manipulating people through clever advertising schemes?!” give me the heebie-jeebies. So I was a bit hesitant, maybe likely biased, when approaching the readings for this week, thinking that they would be just polished, trendy, shiny “business-speak” all wrapped up with a bow that wouldn’t really have much of a lasting impact (in the long run) for those types of organizations that I care deeply about.

Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t think of innovation as trendy.

As Kelley and Littman, the authors of The Ten Faces of Innovation, contend: “all great movements are ultimately human-powered”. Yes, even multinational corporations are run by humans, right? After all, there must be a reason that the humans behind The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies are growing their businesses — and their bottom lines — by the day or even by the hour while 50 libraries on any given day are likely facing the chopping block. I’m not convinced that a business-oriented approach should always be lauded as the perfect ideal (e.g., “look at what this successful business has done — let’s just do exactly the same thing!”) but I’m willing to explore cases where a good idea is just a good idea, period. So what is the business world doing right? What can libraries learn about innovation from these examples? How can we reshape our action plans, our implementation strategies, our approaches to even thinking about our problems or goals (or both)?

This last one might be a good place to start.

How do we change our thinking unless we recognize when the opportunity arises to change our thinking? How do we create a culture where looking for opportunities to innovate is not only a goal, but it’s actually expected?

Kelley and Littman note the importance of “seizing innovation opportunities” and “‘being innovation’ rather than merely ‘doing innovation'”. This is all well and good. But how do I “be innovation”!? How do I “Vuja De”!? How do I “drop my skepticism and tap into a childlike curiosity and open-mindedness” everyday in a workplace that breeds skepticism and shuns curiosity and open-mindedness as things that “only you young people care about?” Cue a deep breath.

Maybe it’s the little things. Maybe it’s just starting with a few questions:

  • When we bend the rules, what has given us reason to bend them?
  • When we collect data, are we using it to learn or to check a box?
  • When we fail, do we embrace it and build upon it in the same way we do success?
  • When we share new visions, do we “see the idea inside” or get hung up on the details?
  • When we observe, do we realize what we haven’t been looking for?
  • When we connect, are we cross-pollinating?
  • When we listen, are we “assessing the present” or “foreseeing the future”?
  • When we say “well, that’s just the way things are”, who are we really saying it to: our patrons, our stakeholders, ourselves?

So. What do the answers to these questions mean for us?

What is a “Like” Worth, Anyway?

Blog post prompt: “We know that technology and culture is changing faster than the current workplace model can keep up supporting. Have you ever experienced this in work or school?”

I work in a fairly large academic library at a medium sized public university (enrollment is at a little over 24,000 students). There are eight libraries total, six located on campus and two spread out in different cities as part of our satellite programs. Recently Communications and Marketing library staff have begun to make a bigger push for increasing the library’s digital visibility on social media platforms as well as increasing the number of printed handouts and flyers (to be placed at various help desks in the dorms, other buildings on campus, etc). Perhaps not surprisingly, the new dean of the libraries requested a stronger push for marketing the library’s “brand” and support services along with the recent re-branding of the university. Very surprisingly—at least to me—this push is supposed to take place mostly on paper. Meaning through the use of a print campaign. Meaning printed flyers and handouts. Meaning, for example, the stack of handouts on the corner of the reference desk that I’m looking at right now, of which I have not witnessed a single student grab a single one of since they were placed here a few weeks ago.

Additionally, the library has a renewed presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Often featuring photos/videos taken by library staff or guest posts by students, social media campaigns have involved things like “Tell us what your favorite study spot is!” or “Did you know we are open 24 hours from the third week of the term through finals week?” A recent series of short videos features various students who work at the library while also attending classes. These posts get pretty low-to-moderate responses (seems like most posts get about 40 “likes”). While browsing through the Instagram feed, I noticed that other public or academic libraries were liking, commenting, and sharing the pictures just as much or more often than students were.

Is it that not enough students are following the library on these various platforms? Or is it that we’re posting the wrong things?

Why do students need to see the library’s stuff while they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed anyway? Especially if it’s just one more glamour shot of some pretty bookshelves from cool angle with the hashtag #library? Does it remind them “oh yeah, I should probably go write that paper at the library” or do they think “oh pretty” and scroll past?

I would argue that the thinking on the library’s end is “We want to be where the students are—where they hang out online—and this is where students hang out”. But do they? How many people are slowly moving off of Facebook because everyone from their mom to the kids they used to babysit for to their grandma has set up an account? (True story: my grandma is on Facebook.)

I definitely agree with Monica’s assertion that technology and culture is changing more rapidly than our workplaces can keep up with. Our library communications staff are awesome, hip people who are very familiar with social media, but none of them are college students and none of them (probably) think like a college student—they think like librarians. They think like librarians likely think about how college students think. Which is great! But I think sometimes it misses the mark.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes this may be within parameters we can control, but sometimes it’s well outside our control.

For example, about eight months ago, we moved to a new ILS platform which totally changed the look and functionality of the catalog. In our old catalog, students were able to have a call number of an item they just looked up saved or even texted to their phone. In the new catalog, we can no longer do this; instead, students can add “tags” to items that they mark and save online to their library account.

Cool, right?

Nobody does it.

Every day at least one student approaches me at the desk, phone in hand, wondering where the heck they can find a particular call number, on which floor, this is so confusing, etc. If I had a nickel for every time a student asked, “It’d be great if I could just get the call number sent to my phone,” I would be a very rich lady. If I had a nickel for every time a student said, “Wow, I loved that Instagram post,” I would have no nickels.

Yes, students use their phones constantly. Yes, the library needs to have a presence in that phone. But I think we’re doing it wrong when we just offer them pretty pictures of sun-lit bookshelves and not functionality that actually helps people get work done. Is there a way to make a social media campaign functional? Or perhaps even teach someone something? YES!

A recent Facebook post included a picture of one of our subject specialists with a line that said something like “She’ll help you at the reference desk!” and a series of very creative hashtags. However, the post did not include 1) any contact information for the librarian, 2) the hours during which librarians actually staff the reference desk, or 3) where exactly the reference desk is (other than “on the 1st floor”). Simply adding in these extra (read: necessary!) bits of information could have hit two birds with one stone, combining an effective and “cool” social media re-branding campaign with actual information that is actually helpful.

I’m reminded of a few of the articles we read for this week: “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” by Paul Tough and “The Tricky Task of Figuring Out What Makes a MOOC Successful” by Justin Reich & Andrew Ho. Both articles explore ideas related to figuring how to evaluate and assess things (e.g., new technology, new approaches to teaching and learning) that are constantly changing, often having to use methods that don’t actually change so quickly. How do we determine whether or not our bookshelf-riddled Instagram account is actually effective or that our outreach is successful? How do we know if we are meeting the “needs of the collective”, as Thomas and Brown discuss in A New Culture of Learning? Or supporting the “virtual learning” that is happening outside of the physical classroom through our targeted and considered use of social media?

Are we solving our students’ problems in ways that are innovative and responsive to the rapidly changing environment?

How do we know? Do we conduct a survey? Count the “likes”? What is a “like” worth, anyway?

The Audience Claps… and Creates

“The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think. Just as we now live in public, so do we think in public…[…]…Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.” — Clive Thompson, How Successful Networks Nurture Good Ideas

Last week Thursday I gave a presentation to about 25 subject specialist librarians at my library. I’m working on a serials collection assessment project that is going to involve considerable input from each of them (won’t go into details here but suffice it to say it is a multi-month project with lots of potentially-headache-inducing logistics involved…) A few of the librarians who I knew would be attending the meeting typically get very engaged and ask lots of specific and pointed questions — questions not necessarily without merit, of course, but ones that sometimes tend to put you on the spot a bit. I was so worried about getting lots of tough questions from these folks that I worked and re-worked on my presentation to the point where I thought I had anticipated any potential curve balls they might throw at me. Turns out that on the day of the presentation none of those few specific librarians I had been so wary of even asked questions. Which then kinda freaked me out just as much… ?

The point I’m trying to make: the audience for my presentation completely shaped my presentation. To be more precise, my perception of my target audience influenced the way I thought about my argument, the way I crafted and constructed the presentation, the content I ultimately decided to include or omit, and the questions I had prepared for in advance.

However, this is different than an audience influencing creation from a more collaborative or interactive standpoint, where the audience itself may play a direct role in the formulation of the content. I’m reminded of some examples in the first few chapters of the Thomas and Brown text: the nine-year-old boy who created online games with/for his peers while “accidentally” learning programming skills, all the while really loving the other kids’ feedback; the college course about MMOGs where the students ended up learning more from each other and essentially re-creating and re-directing the content of the entire class.

We collaborate for creation (but actually for the comments, right?). We get feedback and persuasion in the form of “Perfectly said! But…” The Internet never closes for business. Now — often in real time — we think in public, we write in public, we make mistakes in public, we create in public, we are counted in both an audience of millions and of one. Now we can be — and we are — both the spectator and the spectacle.

This loop between audience and creator influencing creation can get kind of meta sometimes. I shared in last week’s discussion that I’m working on a piece of writing that’s been getting really supportive feedback; however, one reader made it clear she wants something specific to happen next in the plot. I’ve been hyper-aware lately of the fact that just knowing my audience might expect the story to go in a particular way may somehow influence my writing, whether this is happening consciously or not. To what degree are the readers really “writing” the story based on a) my assumptions of what kind of story I think they would be interested in and b) the information (and omitted information) they provide for me in terms of feedback?

How does the fact that my writing is published online for anyone to read impact the decisions I make about what to write to be published online for anyone to read?

It seems there are various versions of the idea that as we use technology (and particularly social media) to connect in this way with others, we construct an identity that we sort of “perform” publicly online for all to see. We are the constant curators of our digital lives, for better or for worse. Our perception of our audience for this performance greatly influences what we create and how we create it.

Please Excuse Me While I Fangirl

Katie Behrens writes in “Why You Should Pay Attention to Fandoms” that “the thought process behind participatory fandom is simple: “I really like X, I want more of X, I will create more stuff about X!” At its core, fandom is creative.”

I never thought of myself as a creative person. My best attempts at drawing involve sad looking stick people. Other people are creative, not me, I always thought. Yes, I did think: “I really like X, I want more of X” but then that was it. An avid reader growing up, I would occasionally write a story or two for fun, but wouldn’t say I was ever part of a fandom. But now, how the tables have turned. I’m not just a devoted fanfic reader, I’m a fanfic writer as well. Never ever did I think I would be — but there it is! And. I. Love. It. I love thinking of ideas, of editing and rewriting, of offering feedback to other writers and reading feedback on my work. Some of the best — and the worst, to be honest — fiction I’ve read has been published online, often anonymously or under a pseudonym, for free. “Anyone” wrote it and anyone can read it.

And actually, do more than read it:

A few weeks ago, I came across a fic where the author had written the two main characters corresponding back and forth with each other online. She updated the story in real time over the course of several months, letting readers who had subscribed to updates “listen in” on the characters’ communications “immediately” when they occurred. Hundreds of people (literally) left comments on each chapter, letting the author know what they liked, how they loved the suspense of not knowing when another update would come, what they wished would happen next, etc. The response was huge (a quick check shows that currently the fic has 6,510 comments). People commented that they felt like the fic was becoming a shared experience, something we were all contributing to together. The author added a note that the end of the fic to explain that, while writing, she had taken into account several of the points made in the comments when deciding which direction the plot should take. It was so popular that she recently expanded it into another story. This story, however, seemed to take the characters and the plot in a direction in which many readers had not anticipated or “wanted”. Some readers commented that they felt weirdly conflicted: on one hand, they absolutely respected and reserved the right of the author to do whatever she pleased with her own story; on the other hand, they felt as though they had contributed to the creation of the story too, and felt somewhat confused by the direction the story went.

This was a very timely case study for me in the participatory and transformative nature of creation in fandoms! And one, of course, that aligned perfectly with what Petra Mayer discusses in the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, The Rise of Fan Fiction. She talks about the collaborative nature of writing fic that essentially allows for writers to “workshop” their pieces and improve their writing amongst a supportive community of like-minded people. Readers get to read more of what they like, writers get to write more of what they like. Everyone’s happy. This works, Behrens argues, because “fandoms are creative, supportive, inspiring, [and] instructive”. I couldn’t agree more and have really felt each of those elements as I’ve fallen deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, so to speak. Lange and Ito also acknowledge the “more socially embedded and relational dimensions of creative production” (p. 248) that are alive and well in fandoms today. The fic that I described above embodies these dimensions perfectly. While it may be somewhat unique in terms of the huge fan response, the behavior and mechanisms behind it are not. Even better, new digital tools and social media platforms — many of which you can access through your local library! — are allowing for people to engage with, remix, and reconsider “cultural texts” in ways that we just weren’t able to before. What an awesome time to be a fangirl.


Not Copying But Conversing, Happily

Adam Savage said something in the Maker Faire video that really stuck with me. He was commenting on the criticism that makers sometimes get from people who don’t quite understand or maybe misunderstand the movement, something to the effect of “you’re just spitting back out what pop culture feeds you.” And he argued that engaging in the act of making/creating — even if it’s building two different replicas of Iron Man suits — we are actually talking back to the culture, conversing with it. Taking what it’s offered and offering something back. Not a mirror image, but something that’s been processed through our sensibilities, our ideas, our creative processes, our selves.

We might spit pop culture back out, but we’ve made sure to chew it first.

He went on to note how happy he has felt when making/creating. Yes, it’s transitory and yes, it comes and goes as frustration ebbs and flows. But there’s truly a giddy, weird joy (at least for me!) that comes with making. He touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while: why do we do any of this anyway?

What motivates us to the point were we are willing to spend hours and hours of our precious free time doing something that other people may or may not ever see, something that we are probably not (although maybe we are) getting any financial compensation for, something that takes a lot of brain work and personal energy?

I think it’s exactly because it takes a lot of brain work and personal energy.

It makes my brain feel good to make something. It makes me feel good to write something or build something or level up in a game or collaborate on a project or build something…maybe based on what someone else has built.

James Gee touches on these aspects as well in Good Video Games and Good Learning. We explore, we take risks, we interact, we converse, we think differently, we act with agency, we produce, we get pleasantly frustrated – and in many cases, there’s something inherently, intrinsically rewarding about that. It makes our brains happy.

I connected to Adam’s story about getting frustrated with a creative project about 70% of the way in. I’m about 70% of the way into a creative project right now and yesterday felt like throwing in the towel. But I know that pushing past that point of self-doubt will feel great. Just trust the process, right?

doing some Thinking Out Loud over here…

I started reading Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out and was struck by this early passage on pages xviii-xix:

“We have used pseudonyms in most cases when referring to our research participants. In many, but not all, cases our participants chose these pseudonyms. In the case of some media producers, these names correspond with their creator identities or screen names in their respective interest groups, an approach that we think honors the reputations and investments of time that many of our participants work very hard to develop. When participants specifically requested it, we have used their screen names or their real-life names. When real names or screen names are used, we indicate this by a footnote in the text.”

I love the terminology of “creator identities” when referring to producer personae or screen names–which may or may not be pseudonyms–as that term does seem to pay homage to the carefully cultivated reputations and investment of time that people put into their creative expressions.

The choice to use the term “real-life names” seemed interesting because, at first-pass, that language seems rather dichotomous: it seems to imply that whatever you’re doing under your online screen name/creator identity–if it’s a pseudonym–is inherently not a part of your “real life”.

I don’t know about you, but often I feel like the various things I make/create/produce under online pseudonyms seem to be more authentic expressions of my “real” identity compared to things I make/create/produce under my “real name” in my “real life”.

I guess the next question becomes: then why use a pseudonym in the first place? To protect myself from criticism of my real self, at least as it’s attached to my real life identity? To allow an unguarded freedom of expression that I would otherwise deny? To experiment with and investigate new media ecologies that I would otherwise be hesitant to explore? Is it because, as suggested in Ch. 2, I may be able to show “new dimensions” of myself or re-frame my self-representation?

So how then do these choices influence my making/creating/producing? Would I do what I do if I had to use my “real life” name? Probably not. Why?

I have learned more–about myself, about other people, about what we’re all trying to do with each other, together–from my experiences as a member of Jenkins’ participatory media culture than I ever would have anticipated. As we work to, as Ito says on page 15, “disrupt the culturally dominant distinctions between production and consumption” with what we think and do and create, what are we really doing? There’s something incredibly awesome and powerful tucked in there.

E.g., right now I’m listening to a playlist created by a person who was inspired by someone else’s art, and that person created the artwork after they were inspired by someone else’s writing, and that writer was inspired by someone else’s writing.

The chain of inspiration is made visible through creation!