Organizational Tension Between Innovation And Control

There is an inherent dualism within most organizations between the desire for innovative workers and the desire to control those same workers. Afterall, if everyone is off being innovative who’s going to be getting the work done? This seems to be a problem in the library world. I am reminded of a rant by David Lee King in which he claims that his presentation attendees almost unanimously agreed that if they tried to implement innovative Web 2.0 technologies in their libraries they’d hit a brick wall with their supervisors and library directors. Is it that some library directors are simply resistant to change or do they fear that their organization will suffer if workers spend a few hours here and there experimenting with new technology – the result of which could be an innovative service enhancement?

This problem is by no means unique to libraries. It’s a challenge for all types of organizations, and it’s a conundrum that must be addressed by the organizational leadership. The problem and potential solutions are explored in a new book by Gary Hamel titled “The Future of Management“. I recently read an excerpt in Fortune magazine. Though the book received just a fair review over at BusinessWeek, I think the excerpt offers some stimulating ideas, and I’ll want to see more of what it has to say about innovation. For example, Hamel writes:

When talking to senior executives about the need to encourage innovation, I often get the sense they’d like their employees to loosen up a bit, to think more radically and be more experimental, but they’re worried this might distract them from a laserlike focus on efficiency and execution…I’ve heard this concern expressed in a variety of ways: “Yeah, we want people to innovate, but we have to stay focused.” “Innovation’s well and good, but at the end of the day, we have to deliver.” “If everybody’s off innovating, who’s going to mind the store?” These sentiments reveal a persistent management orthodoxy: If you allow people the freedom to innovate, discipline will take a beating.

In other words, having more of one means less of the other. So what advice does Hamel have for organizations that would like to have their cake and eat it too? Hamel’s approach is to provide examples of companies that, in his words, have learned to “double dip” and have both innovation and worker discipline in the same setting (not just a separate innovation or design lab). His examples are Whole Foods Market, W.L. Gore and Google. One problem that most library managers might have with these examples is that they use some fairly radical organizational structures. This can include the use of small teams with with the power to make key decisions, highly flat structures where there are no titles and no supervisors, half-days off for “dabble time”, financial rewards for innovation and a host of other practices that may be indeed difficult to implement in traditional library hierarchies. In fact, this is a problem that the BusinessWeek reviewer had with the book. How many organizations can structure themselves like these three companies? Even Hamel acknowledges that there have to be mechanisms to “keep things in check.”

So while it’s unlikely library organizations are suddenly going to re-structure themselves to resemble Google, there are some libraries that have organized workers into teams, others that are allowing for more experimentation time and others yet may be trying techniques that allow workers a bit more freedom and a little less control. If you know of some good examples or you are making progress in this area at your library, please leave a comment to share your insights.

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