Want To Be An Innovator? Put Up Your Antennae!

Continuous improvement is an often sought after goal in libraries. We may be doing good things for our community but resting on our laurels is no formula for future success. It’s important to keep exploring for new ways to enhance the library experience for the end user. A simple way to do that is by making sure we are skilled practitioners of listening and observing. When we do this well we may be amazed at the many great ideas for innovative services that are rooted in what we hear from the library users (and non-users) and in the ways we observe their use of our facilities, collections and services.

In user experience presentations I often mention this simple idea of “listen and observe” , but I was reminded of it by this blog post by Jeffrey Phillips over at Innovate on Purpose. In discussing “How Customer Insights Lead to Innovations” Phillips offers some good examples of how this practice can make a difference. Take the Crayola “Crayon Maker”. Phillips points out that for many years parents and children melted down broken crayons at home so they could shape them into new ones. Crayola picked up on this activity and developed a product that offers the same capability but makes it easier to do.

Here’s another anecdote I came across. Makers of body shampoo wanted to learn more about how men use the product. When they just asked questions in focus groups they heard the attendees answer without thinking much about how they really use the products. But in a study where men were observed using the product the market research folks discovered most men used the body shampoo to shampoo their hair. In the focus groups, no one said anything about this. Now when you go to the supermarket you see body shampoo for men that is also marketed as hair shampoo in one bottle. It’s probably the same shampoo it was before, but this innovation based on observation has increased the market share of these all-in-one products.

listen and observe for innovation inspiration
listen and observe for innovation inspiration

While “listen and observe” is easy advice to give, it is a challenge to implement as a regular practice. We are often so used to being in our own little world that it is hard to notice when something different happens that should signal to us that we’ve just seen or heard something worthy of our attention. It is, I think, a personal behavioral trait that makes innovators who they are. They are the folks who have their antennae up, ready to pick up the signals that communicate something important is happening. They are listening and observing. It’s no different with individuals who have a talent for identifying totally unrelated events or trends, and who have the ability to connect them – to put the puzzle pieces together – in predicting new expectations and trends – before people even realize it’s something they want or need.

How to get started? Visualize yourself as that person who has the antennae up and ready to gather the signals. Practice your listening and observing when you are outside the library. Be a people watcher when you go to stores and restaurants. Look for unusual or odd behaviors that indicate people want something that isn’t readily available. When people complain or whine about something, don’t just ignore them or take the fastest, shortest route to making them go away. Instead think about why they are complaining or whining – or simply asking why they can’t do something they want to do at your library. Watch how your library users make use of the facility, the equipment or the technology. It may be only one time out of a hundred or a thousand that you will notice something unusual, but it’s that one time that could make all the difference in the world to you, your colleagues and the members of your library community. So get those antennae up and get out there!

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