The New York Public Library is one of the largest public libraries in the world, with 18 million visitors yearly, a budget of nearly $300m, and 93 branches. It serves vastly diverse populations: toddlers and caregivers, new immigrants, lifelong learners, famous novelists, and scholars. Although based in New York City, it serves a global audience of researchers and tourists.
Library leaders knew that given the immense changes brought on by digital innovations, as well as shifts in the communities that the Library served, it would need to evolve. How to transform such a huge, iconic institution, wrapped in history, into a nimble player? How to provide hyper-local services tailored to the diverse needs of its patrons while also upholding a consistent and high standard of service?
In the spring of 2014, we proposed a radical approach: offer anyone on staff – over 2,500 individuals, many of them union members – the chance to shape the library through strategic conversations with senior leaders. We believed that if the Library was to be truly nimble, senior leaders couldn’t unilaterally come up with a plan. Involving staff in conceiving, designing, and implementing the change would result in a course of action that was more fit-to-purpose and more likely to be well executed. Staff would fully understand the changes and be accountable to each other for their implementation.
The conversation would be neither bottom-up nor top down. Staff would take a lead role in designing, testing, and advocating solutions. Leadership would shape the conversation to ensure proposals were strategically on-point. Senior leaders also would provide resources, guidance, and act as decision makers.
But would involving so many people work in practice? How to get them engaged? How to ensure that the conversations didn’t bog down or become chaotic?
Several organizations for whom we had worked or had researched used a technique we call “innovation communities” to structure strategic conversations so that they’re both efficient and effective. These diverse groups of volunteer employees work across organizational boundaries and outside of their regular operational duties. They are empowered by – and in frequent communication with – senior management. Innovation Communities had been used by Best Buy to grow its portion of the women’s consumer electronics market by $4.4b in less than five years. Boston Children’s Hospital used them to make advances in telemedicine. Japanese pharmaceutical Eisai used them to improve care for Alzheimer’s patients.
Convinced, the library’s management team created three innovation communities with each one focusing on a core library function: circulation, collections, and reference.
Each community was structured as three embedded circles. The smallest was the “core team” consisting of five to seven staff members from each of the three boroughs served (the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan). Their expectation was to spend about a day a week for the next six months on the identification, design, and testing of a business model innovation.
The next larger circle was made up of “testers,” approximately fifty staff members who piloted the solutions. Finally, all staff were invited to be “conversationalists” and participate by providing their ideas, critiques, expertise, and encouragement.
Internal experts helped innovation community members with unfamiliar tasks such as data collection and analysis, environmental scanning, and preparing and delivering management-level presentations.
The three innovation communities shared virtual, physical, and temporal spaces to promote cross-community exchanges. The virtual space was a social media platform open to all staff. This social network was designed to reduce the friction typically found in a hierarchical organization: we wanted staff from any branch to be able to communicate with each other and with senior managers, unmediated by reporting structures.
The physical space was a room in the Library’s Midtown Manhattan branch dedicated to the innovation communities where the core teams, and other interested parties, could work together. Painted on many of the walls were huge whiteboards, where the three teams worked on designs and exchanged ideas.
The temporal space was a day set aside each week: the three communities met on Wednesdays in order to reduce scheduling issues and allow support people – for instance the data and analytics experts — to meet with the three communities within a predictable block of time.
The three core teams were given a month to present to senior leaders options for their experiments, and the capabilities needed to try them. They were asked to describe their solutions, the benefits to the intended audiences, and to list up to five hypotheses that could be tested before the end of their six-month project. Built into the template were the library’s guiding principles: that its services had to be consistent, convenient, empowering, and inspiring. Each team came up with two to three of these “options statements.”
We knew from the start that coming up with all this in a month would be a challenge. But we anticipated that the very rawness of the presentations would create opportunities. Because the recommendations wouldn’t be fully baked, it would be easier for senior managers, and the rest of the community, to challenge assumptions and conclusions without seeming threatening. We wanted to create an environment where “thinking out loud” was encouraged.
The discussion around the options statements played out as we had hoped. In the crucible of these conversations, the library’s strategy was transformed from an impersonal statement into a living, internalized guide. Having to develop testable hypotheses forced the participants to think deeply about how to structure their work so that it was rigorous and data-driven.
In partnership with senior management, and with the support of the internal experts and the rest of the community, the options statements were strengthened and then approved. The core teams then moved to design and test their solutions with senior management, the testers, and the conversationalists. Nearly 250 staff members (almost 10% of Library staff) became involved in the process, providing their own input as they became familiar with the core teams’ work.
The Circulation team examined how books flow through the NYPL system. Of the total circulation of about 23 million, about two million items are reservations (called “holds” in library lingo) — typically items that the library needs to transfer from another location. The team discovered that the library was processing holds more slowly than its North American peers because of inefficiencies throughout the process. Implementing the team’s recommendations should result in at least a 20% reduction in wait times for books while providing patrons with better information about where they are in the queue. The changes will also reduce staff workloads.
The Collections team focused on improving the library’s ability to provide content to youth and young adults. They made a major discovery: this population was two and a half times more likely to use books and other materials in the library than check them out. NYPL librarians had long suspected that in-house use was substantial, but the magnitude was surprising and something for which the library’s business model had never accounted. Of course, more usage is good news. But given this evidence, the team concluded that the library could do much better at serving this population. More materials could be made available for in-house use (as opposed to expecting patrons to put them on hold from other branches). And the collections could be tailored to serve local needs though more interaction with local educators and schools. The team also believed that this solution would appeal to branch librarians’ professional pride by providing them more autonomy to shape their collections. The solutions, which required a radical rethinking of how materials circulate, are scheduled to be rolled out to all branches by the end of 2017.
The Reference team came to another startling–and in this case concerning– revelation. While NYPL’s online reference service was heavily used, and its research libraries conducted in-depth consultations on a regular basis, patrons almost never consulted with librarians at neighborhood branches. The team discovered that when general reference support was sought, staff often didn’t have the time or skills to meet patrons’ needs. Based on its analysis of the issues, the team piloted a “reference receipt” for patrons with recommendations for book titles and online resources to support research beyond the initial reference conversation. The teams also tested signage at the local branches to guide patrons to such common services as signing up for using computers so that staff would have more time to offer reference services. And finally, they recommended modular training sessions for staff on providing those services. All three recommendations were adopted.
Both staff and senior leaders were enthusiastic about these outcomes – in fact, the library already has launched the next set of experiments.
Staff was energized by the opportunity to shape how the library worked. As a core team member put it, “We entered the process with the perspective of employees and came out with the perspective of leaders.” They were deeply appreciative of the chance to interact with, and learn from, peers across NYPL, something that rarely happened otherwise. They were excited to master new skills and knowledge relevant to librarians such as sophisticated data collection and analysis.
The core team members turned out to be superb community organizers. They rallied their peers to take on significant testing tasks and to participate in the overall conversations. They also were the best advocates for their solutions. And they had an innate notion of the types of conversations that would generate real change.
The project expanded their sense of belonging. Many had felt isolated in their individual branches. Now they had a clear line of sight to the entire system through their interactions with colleagues from across the institution. This institution-wide connection went beyond the work per se; staffers also felt much more connected to the library than ever before. As one participant put it: “Doing Innovation Communities changed everything for me. I went from looking for jobs outside of NYPL to looking at this system and thinking, ‘Where do I want to be next?’ It helped me think about the NYPL system and where my career could go here.”
It wasn’t just staff who were transformed. Senior leaders better understood how the library operated “on the ground” and they began to see how employee involvement in strategic conversations opened up real possibilities for reducing managerial burden. Staff — when offered meaningful autonomy and real opportunities for mastering their professions — become problem-solving leaders in their own right. And the cost was marginal. The project released staff energy that was more than ready to be tapped.
This isn’t to say that everything went completely smoothly. We were initially overly enthusiastic about exposing staff to new management concepts and templates, unnecessarily overwhelming them. The Reference team’s pilots didn’t immediately produce the desired results. Not everyone in the hierarchy –top, mid or bottom – was comfortable with networked, open conversations that exposed problem areas for all to see. And two of the three teams went beyond their six-month mandate, over-burdening participating staff and the branches in which they worked.
Despite these difficulties, innovation community participants more than rose to the occasion. Staff cared deeply about the work and put in much more effort than anticipated.
What surprised us most was the importance of the social aspect of the innovation communities. Community members consciously forged new and strong bonds of comradery, commitment, and common purpose.
And that brings us to our concluding point: strategy as currently practiced rarely emphasizes the importance of community. 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. It will be up to leadership to continue to foster the social environment and the conversations in which strategic ideas are born, nurtured, and carried out.