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Innovation: No Excuses

Posted by Stephen Abram on 1/9/2018
Stephen Abram
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innovate.jpgI have been asked to speak on innovation many times. I've also led the innovation teams at a few major library corporations, which is fun, frustrating and rewarding. I've thought about the topic a lot and I've come to a couple of conclusions which I'll share here.

Mitch Ditkoff in The Heart of Innovation Blog writes a post entitled: "The Top 10 Reasons Why Your CEO Sabotages Innovation."

  • "10. Innovation sparks dissonance and discomfort.
  • 9. Innovation increases the amount of seeming failures.
  • 8. Results only show up long-term.
  • 7. More meetings.
  • 6. CEOs conserve resources. Innovation requires more resources.
  • 5. Innovation flies in the face of analysis.
  • 4. The perceived absence of time.
  • 3. Over-reliance on cost-cutting and incremental improvement.
  • 2. Inability to enroll a committed team of champions.
  • 1. Insufficient conviction that innovation will make a difference."

You see these are phrased as reasons and not as excuses. When you phrase the issues as reasons you can deal with them. When they're excuses, I find that you can just get blue and unmotivated. For example, when I see the reasons above I can reframe them as:

  • 10. Learn to understand that discomfort comes from ambiguity and seek to resolve that rather than avoid it. Avoiding change doesn't work.
  • 9. Understand failure as a learning experience and, as a team and individual, celebrate and learn from failures rather repeating them.
  • 8. Be thrilled that you are a long-term rather than a short-term thinker. There are too few of us in the western world!
  • 7. Run good meetings, and only when necessary. Duh!
  • 6. Be resourceful! It's an act of creativity and imagination to turn lemons into lemonade.
  • 5. I can encourage working in teams where we are diverse in many ways and respect everyone's diversity of contribution.
  • 4. Time is the one immutable in our lives. I am amazed at the number of people who seriously worry about time like they can change it. If you must worry, worry about something you can have an effect on.
  • 3. Cost cutting and small improvements are about management. There is some research that teams are more creative and innovative when they are (slightly) under-resourced. In many ways they create a culture of fault finding that is negative. Innovation requires leadership and most organizations in turbulent times tend towards being over-managed and under led. So, lead.
  • 2. Enrolling the champions is a process not an event. Recognize that it takes time, trust and excitement to gain commitment. You only need a few angels, not the whole choir. It can also be quite opportunistic. Being refused once is like dating, another prince or princess will come along. It just takes time and commitment to the long view.
  • 1. Commitment is a process. No one commits right from the start wholly and fully. Trust the process and bring people along. Stand back from the steps and see the whole staircase.

What are the excuses? Here are just a few I hear too often:

Excuse Numero Uno:

"I can't be innovative because my employer doesn't give me enough money and staff. And, oh yeah, they block all technology so I can't even learn it. End of story!"

Innovation is not so much about resources as it is about resourcefulness. As a matter of fact, there are a number of management strategies that include under-resourcing a project in order to drive more innovation and tighter thinking. It might even drive some imagination and creativity as well. Too much money or too many resources don't drive more innovation, they can lead to less. Oh yeah. No employer should trap you by reducing your value to your next employer.

Excuse Number Two:

"I just can't make up my mind what to innovate that will be successful right away."

This one is easy. Don't go BIG right away. Try a few innovations that are smaller but polish them up whether it's just doing a meeting in a better way or improving a memo or e-mail. Build up to bigger projects but try the safe ways to proceed: pilots, trials, small projects, experiments. Sometimes, even the big stuff is positioned this way to get folks to engage without being frightened. There isn't a big 100% guaranteed win out there. Every innovation has some amount of risk in it—personal, professional, institutional. Of course, the biggest risk is not innovating at all.

Excuse Number Three:

"Maybe Librarians (or I) don't have the personality for innovation."

Everyone, and especially us BTW, has the personality to be innovative and creative. It would be so much easier to believe otherwise in a culture of 'can't'.

I shared my opinion on this excuse with SLA LMD by describing my daughter, Sydney. She's the most creative and innovative person I know. She wants to be different and creative. I observe that she plays at everything and everything is an opportunity for change and being different. She practices it. (She once wanted to sign her tax form in graffiti calligraphy. I still regret talking her out of it.) She throws things out a lot. Sometimes she grates on people (including her parents) because she wants so completely to be creative. She takes risks. She has a huge network. She learns from everyone. She avoids cliques so that she learns from everyone. She never makes excuses although she tries to learn from failures. She rarely feels anything is impossible and if she doesn't like the answer, she tries to change the system, or at least game it a little. She is committed in her soul to innovation. She now controls dozens of 3D printers making $15,000+ rings. She built those skills step-by step fearlessly.

Despite outward appearances I am not at all like my daughter. I am fearful. I don't like failing and I'd really rather know the right way to do something than walk out in front. I like an organized, predictable world. Well! I'm a librarian after all. I learned a lot from Sydney though. When we had kids, I learned to play again. When we were surrounded in music that I didn't understand, I learned to appreciate all music again. When I saw her fashion, jewelry, art, photography, movies, choreography, gym routines, that I didn't know anything about but feared were fraught with risk, I remembered Sydney's mantra, just practice the skills and try again and enjoy the journey. Now I feel that I am better person for learning from my kids. Sydney still challenges the world and always will. I try to emulate her example.

"No one person can be good at everything. The really good artists, the really successful entrepreneurs figure out how to circumvent their limitations".
(From the book, Ignore Everybody, by Hugh Macleod)


Commit to finding the reasons behind the issues and then try to address them. Remember that these may not be easy and might take some time. So, what have I learned about commitment? I think that Paul Williams at the Think for A Change innovation blog gets it right when he asserts that a commitment to innovation requires that you must be:

  • 1. "Willing to view innovation as a continuous process, not a one-time act
  • 2. Willing to provide adequate resources to innovation initiatives:
    1. Time to think, create, play, collaborate, and innovate
    2. Money to experiment and build
    3. People to devote thought, time and money to new ideas
  • 3. Willing to tolerate ambiguity, risk and learned failures
  • 4. Willing to provide cover for ideas and the people who create them
  • 5. Willing to commit to innovation even during tough financial times
  • 6. Willing to create a culture of creativity, new ideas and collaboration
  • 7. Willing to define and share corporate problems / challenges / opportunities
  • 8. Willing to define and share a growth strategy and vision of the future
  • 9. Willing to reward and recognize people for being creative and innovative
  • 10. Willing to establish metrics for innovation
  • 11. Willing to evaluate projects / portfolios for innovation strategy
  • 12. Willing to challenge the status quo
  • 13. Willing to champion new ideas
  • 14. Willing to set meaningful goals
  • 15. Willing to search the horizon
  • 16. Willing to solve problems
  • 17. Willing to exceed customer expectations."

NO EXCUSES—Find the reason

I will always worry that some colleagues are letting the daunting challenges facing us scare them—and worry that these challenges are insurmountable. I've heard their excuses. To move forward we must encourage ourselves and our peers to take a stronger step into the future. Encourage the heart by remembering that we must have the courage to act. We must also regain our sense of play to re-create our future. Recreation will get us there. We have no excuse for not proceeding to make our lives and those of our peers, clients, and colleagues better and more impactful.


Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming in autumn 2017!



Topics: Professional Development, Innovation