Get Things Off The Shelf – A Ten Point Checklist For Moving From Idea To Implementation

One thing we’ve got plenty of in our libraries is shelves. We use them to store our books and any other materials you might fit on them. When we refer to getting something off the shelf, it is really all about discovery. Every time one of our community members opens a book it’s an opportunity to learn something new and to generate unique ideas.

There’s another type of shelf we all have in our libraries. It’s the imaginary shelf where we store our ideas and our innovation plans. Many of us have no trouble coming up with ideas, sometimes too many of them. Too often these ideas just end up sitting on the shelf. For one reason or another, whether it’s a lack of resources, reaching for too much too soon, allowing critics to create roadblocks or simply failing to obtain the needed resources, many of our ideas whither and fade away. That’s why we put them on that shelf, hoping that we’ll eventually have the time to take them off, give them a dusting and put them to good use. That’s the hard part. Too often our ideas never make it off the shelf.

That’s where strategies for “getting things off the shelf” may be of help. It refers to a set of strategies created by Ellison “Dick” Urban, formerly of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and now the Director of Washington Operations at Draper Laboratory. In the course of his work, he frequently was responsible for shepherding technology projects from the idea to implementation stages. Urban says that he “always had great interest in the entire chain of events from new concept formulation to customer adoption but have sometimes been frustrated by the inability of great ideas and creative prototype artifacts to reach the desired end state”. In an interview at Ubiqity, Urban shares the 10 point checklist he developed to get things off the shelf. I’ll share them here and attempt to put them into a library context.

#1 – Own a discriminating technology: Ideas for new library projects should clearly articulate how they differ from existing approaches. Developers should be able to identify what makes the idea unique. With multiple ideas from which to choose, those that are truly unique will deliver the greatest value and are therefor worthwhile of having resources allocated to their development. This step helps to insure that the idea get the necessary resources to see it through to implementation.

#2 – Walk a mile in a warrior’s boots: Ideas may sound great in the library conference room, but it’s important to get a sense of how they would work in the field. So get out of the office and get out into the community. Urban says that decision makers need to the people who could provide critical feedback on the idea, and share suggestions for what might improve the idea or confirm that it’s not ready for further development.

#3 – Have a plan but don’t stick to it: Ideas have a better chance of success if they start with an operational plan for implementation. Urban’s advice is to “make “value added to the user” a key parameter for periodic evaluation of progress. Constantly evaluate your plan against your goals and objectives and be prepared to change everything”. Be flexible about needing to change during the process, and keep asking if the plan still makes sense.

#4 – Make a commitment: It’s a good idea, once a plan is in place, to share it some community members, perhaps a faculty or student library advisory group. Once ideas are shared with members of the library community, it creates a greater commitment to bring the idea to fruition. Consider making them part of the development team, as it will add momentum to the process, but be careful about raising expectations too high.

#5 – Lead your contractors: This is Urban’s military language for simply being a good team leader. Inspire them. Make sure they know they’re developing the idea for the community members, not the idea champion. Urban says “It’s ok to fail. Build concept and design iterations into the process. Review frequently. Learn from mistakes. Change course as often as necessary.” Good advice.

#6 – Build a constituency: This is a simple one and easy to do in most libraries – make it about the team. Your idea will have a better chance for success if you involve others and avoid trying to be the hero. If it’s your idea, be the idea champion. Help make it happen by empowering others to turn your vision into something concrete.

#7 – Work the acquisition system: Every organization has a system for acquiring the resources needed to accomplish a project. Knowing as much as you can about how the system works and who are the key people to support the project increases the odds the idea will make it to the finish line.

#8 – Look for windows of opportunity: Right now your idea may be premature for moving to the next stage. It may be best to wait until a situation arises where this idea can emerge as a viable solution or when the resource and support system may be better capable of helping the idea achieve implementation. A key to success in higher education is persistence. Keep believing in your idea and others will join the effort when window of opportunity opens. I have always found that a key to success in higher education is persistence. Keep believing in your idea and others will join the effort when window of opportunity opens.

#9 – Be conscious of “dollars and sense”: Stay focused on the affordability of your project, and the value that it’s going to bring to your community. Make sure you have a consistent message that communicates the value that the project will deliver.

#10 – Don’t forget the little things: Be nice to all the people upon whom the success of your project depends. Treat them with respect, and be honest in your dealings with them. Make sure you thank them.

If you read the original article you’ll see that most of the ten points on this checklist refer heavily to military situations. That’s where Urban did most of his work, but at the end of the article he acknowledges these ten can be applied to any field – including higher education. Keep in mind that the checklist only helps to see ideas through to the end. It may improve the odds of success but there’s no guarantee the idea won’t fail. You still have to take the risks. Creating a better library experience with the ideas you and your colleagues generate all begins with getting them off the shelf.

Exceeding Expectations Depends On What They Are

Have you ever publicly stated or even thought that part of what we should try to accomplish in our libraries is to exceed the expectations of community members? I know I have. I did a search of all my past posts here at DBL and discovered a number of them in which I either directly said something about designing an experience that exceeds expectations or shared information from some other source about ways to do so. I’m sure I’ve also said something about exceeding expectations during presentations. And why not? So much of what I’ve read about great user experiences is focused on doing something that gives the community member more than he or she expected to get. Whether you want to call that a wow experience is up to you (although I think there’s more to it than just expectation exceeding), but we know that when delivering services or building relationships librarians should seek to exceed the expectations of our community members.

Not everyone feels the way I do about exceeding customer expectations, and I think we should be challenged to offer a better explanation of what that means. In one of the most popular posts last year at the Harvard Business Review blog network, Dan Pallotta’s “I Don’t Understand What Anyone is Saying Anymore” took issue with the phrase “Let’s exceed the customer’s expecations” which he referred to as another meaningless piece of business jargon:

Another term that has lost its meaning is “Let’s exceed the customer’s expectations.” Employees who hear it just leave the pep rally, inhabit some kind of temporary dazed intensity, and then go back to doing things exactly the way they did before the speech. Customers almost universally never experience their expectations being met, much less exceeded. How can you exceed the customer’s expectations if you have no idea what those expectations are? I was at a Hilton a few weeks ago. They had taken this absurdity to its logical end. There was a huge sign in the lobby that said, “Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation.” The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do. My expectation is not to have signs around that tell me you want to exceed my expectations.

If you’ve spent anytime interacting with your community members, if you’ve conducted surveys or focus groups, or made any effort to learn more about what they want from the library, then you may indeed know something about their expectations. Even if you haven’t done any of these things, or there are far more community members than you could personally engage, the research about library users, be it the OCLC surveys, the PIL research or user study research discussed in the literature, does provide a fairly consistent message about user expectations when it comes to libraries. In general, they have low expectations. They tend to perceive the library as a place to get books and not much else. Little is said about expectations for great service and personalized attention from library staff.

Even worse, college students, in particular, when faced with a research project perceive the library as an unpleasant place that’s sure to be a bad experience. According to the first report from PIL, when faced with a project that requires library research students report they experience anxiety, sadness, other negative emotions and even physical symptoms such as nausea. That may explain, in part, why they’ll do almost anything to avoid interacting with the library, even if it means settling for inferior resources and no help at all. With expectations so low, how can we fail to exceed them? Knowing the expectations are low doesn’t automatically suggest we can always exceed them. It still requires us to design an experience that will make it possible. Our goal should be to raise these expectations from something community members dread to something they desire. Creating the opportunities to raise, and then exceed, those expectations is part of the user experience challenge.

Another thing we should be mindful of, when it comes to gauging our community members’ expectations, is that in economic downturns expectations generally are lower than normal. According to Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, one of the positives of the recession is that it lowers expectations. In a recent essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education Schwartz wrote that “By lowering expectations and keeping expectations modest, the downturn may actually enable people to derive satisfaction from activities and possessions that would previously have been disappointing.” Of college students in particular he writes, “Lowered expectations may also lead college students to feel less entitled than they have in recent years. They may seek what is good about their institution, and be grateful for it, instead of noticing the ways their institution falls short, and resenting it.”

With students having already low expectations for their library experience, it’s hard to imagine they could get even lower – if what Schwartz has to say is true. If it’s likely that students will lower their expectations in these difficult economic times that may bode well for library facilities that are showing their age. Now may be the perfect time, when expectations are generally lower, to make an all out effort in the library to give community members much more than what they expected when they walked through our doors. I believe that librarians should always seek to exceed expectations – whatever that means in your community – in order to achieve the best user experience. It would be easy enough to take the position that because the expectations of library community members are low there’s not much point in bothering to work at exceeding them. Heck, any minimal level of service might be appreciated. To my way of thinking that’s not an acceptable attitude. It’s up to us to gauge what the level of expectations is in our community, to raise it and to keep improving on it. That’s how you create a better library experience.