Ten Ways to Foster a Culture of Innovation

Is your library considered an innovation leader? By the staff? By your community? By others in the library world? If not, what would it take to shift to a culture that emphasizes and prioritizes innovation? What can library leaders do to foster an organizational culture of innovation? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Include innovation in planning documents.Outside the Box Words on Product Package Innovation

A meaningful vision and mission statement and a strategic plan are at the center of what the organization does. Make sure innovation is included. The New York Public Library’s mission statement, for example, includes “Support creativity, research, and problem-solving” and “Bring people together to spark creative synergies and learn from each other.” The Aarhus Library in Denmark has an Innovation Strategy. The vision should be inspiring and motivational. Plans should make the vision real. Leaders translate the vision and plans into something meaningful for everyone. All staff need to see how they fit in. Ongoing communication is needed to reinforce these connections.

  • Hire people who are innovators.

A library is only as good as its team, which is why hiring staff members who embrace innovation is so critical. Creative ideas are worthless without people to execute them.

  • Include innovation goals and actions in new employee orientation.

Employees should be introduced to the innovation plans right from the start. Understanding the big picture and larger purpose is a key step to initiating staff to the expectations and opportunities.

  • Include innovation goals and actions in performance evaluations.

Performance evaluations are another opportunity to talk about the organization’s vision, plans, and goals and the employee’s individual contributions. What have they done? What would they like to do?

  • Provide creativity and innovation time and training.

In an innovative organization, employees are given support and the resources needed for learning. The access services staff at the Yale University law library decided to try the well-known Google 80/20 Innovation Model, which encourages Google employees to spend 80 percent of their time on core projects and roughly 20 percent (or one day per week) on “innovation” activities that speak to their personal interests and passions. Ideally, training that explicitly focuses on creativity techniques and innovation strategies should be provided by an organization, too.

  • Invest in hands-on learning.

Resources and support need to be given to efforts that involve hands-on learning. Sandboxes, beta tests, and pilot projects are all ways to help the organizational structure be more nimble and adaptable, with staff who are ready to try new things. The Harris County Public Library, for example, offered innovation grants to library branches that had creative plans for iPad use, including everything from supply inventories to app classes to patron check-out for use in the library. These grants encouraged staff to use their creativity and imagination to improve traditional library services in unexpected ways.

  • Find ways to support collaboration.

Create spaces that encourage people from different departments to interact regularly. Make sure whiteboards, flipcharts, markers, Post-it Notes, etc. are available for capturing and extending interactions. Create an innovation team, which includes people with diverse experiences and perspectives. Partnerships fuel collaboration that can lead to innovation in many ways. The Madison Public Library (WI) Bubbler project includes making, lectures, performances, and more. The library credits their partners with keeping the experience current and dynamic.

  • Engage in ongoing conversations with library users and community members.

Whether they are using social media, focus groups, or informal conversations inside the library, staff should regularly be engaging in conversations with library users and community members.

  • Encourage play, experimentation, and risk taking.

An innovative organization will provide genuine support for play and experimentation, both with resources and time. Creating an environment that allows and even encourages failure is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that is necessary to meet.

  • Encourage and capture innovative ideas.

Aspiring writers are often encouraged to carry a notebook so they can jot down ideas as they have them. Later, when they are ready to write, they have ready access to these ideas to spur their creative processes. In a similar way, it is important for organizations to track and manage ideas.

Beyond the Library Staff

1-communityA key to successful ongoing innovation is nurturing an overall environment that promotes innovation. This extends beyond the innovation of library staff and is connected to the innovations of library users and in the community. A public library may be located in a city or town that is also focused on innovation. Academic library innovation is tied to innovations in the university community and the scholarly community. School libraries are not only connected to curriculum in school but also to national initiatives like STEM education. A thriving culture of innovation is fluid and evolving and is unique to each organization. What has worked for your organization? Are there things you are planning to try?

Interested in more innovation tips, practical techniques, resources, and discussion? Spaces are available in the upcoming Infopeople course “Igniting Innovation”. Consider registering!


  • Julian Aiken, Using and Abusing the Google Model for Innovation in the Law Library, AALL Spectrum, July, 2011.
  • Lisa Kurt, William Kurt, and Ann Medaille, The Power of Play: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in Libraries, Journal of Library Innovation, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2010.

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