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.