How to Stay Ahead of the Curve | Future Proof

As librarians are aware, today’s cultural and business environments are rapidly shifting—often in highly unpredictable and disruptive ways. In the past few years alone, physical has quickly given way to digital (including cloud and app-based solutions), classroom-based education to distance learning, and community development efforts targeted at engaging Millennials into initiatives aimed at connecting with Generation Z and beyond.Researchers at IBM have uncovered a telling reason why: In their words, continuous change is the new normal. (Having published these findings roughly half a decade ago, it’s now more normal than new.)
This is the first in a series of articles by leadership and innovation expert Scott Steinberg, who will deliver a keynote address at the 2015 Library Journal Directors’ Summit, Brand Challenge: Communicating the New Library to Build New Brand Equity, held Nov. 12–13 in Washington, DC.
Scott SteinbergAs librarians are aware, today’s cultural and business environments are rapidly shifting—often in highly unpredictable and disruptive ways. In the past few years alone, physical has quickly given way to digital (including cloud and app-based solutions), classroom-based education to distance learning, and community development efforts targeted at engaging Millennials into initiatives aimed at connecting with Generation Z and beyond. Researchers at IBM have uncovered a telling reason why: In their words, continuous change is the new normal. (Having published these findings roughly half a decade ago, it’s now more normal than new.)

Keys to success

But while many familiar operating models continue to break down in the face of new developments, it may help to note that IBM has also discovered that many organizations are able to consistently survive and thrive in these volatile and frequently unpredictable times, up to ten times more often than less adaptable peers. Clearly, successfully acclimating to unforeseen events is possible and has a pronounced impact on our ability to succeed, as both individuals and organizations. As IBM itself notes and many of the world’s leading consulting firms second, such success chiefly hinges on people, not processes or procedures. Those organizations that most effectively innovate and manage change boast four simple characteristics, which can greatly magnify their odds of successfully adapting to new and unexpected developments when used in combination with one another.
  • Real insights and actions—Realistic awareness of the challenges and complexities faced (often gained through basic research and business intelligence activities), and a practical understanding of their ability to effectively address these scenarios.
  • Sound methodologies—A practical, systematic approach to problem-solving that's tied to measurable milestones and tangible outcomes, and aligned with formal project management methods.
  • Better skills and strategies—Effective deployment of resources and dedicated leaders to manage these efforts and empower employees to enact change.
  • Smart investments—Proper understanding of risk-reward scenarios and the ability to allocate efforts, energy, and resources to minimize risk and maximize return.
Noticeably not listed among these categories are factors like more money, better ideas, or additional time. Case in point: consulting firm PwC’s Strategy& division has had several occasions in recent years to study 1,000 of the world’s leading innovators—in every field from consumer products to technology and telecommunications—to see what gives them a competitive advantage. The answer is shockingly simple: they provide better support and communications frameworks that make it easier for working professionals to share insights, brainstorm new ideas, and bring these concepts to life. Likewise, leading innovators’ most reliable source when it comes to cooking up successful and innovative new concepts, studies show, is taking the time to talk to customers and end-users and listen to the insights they provide. (An area where frontline workers out there, engaging with members of your community on a daily basis, are best equipped to spot rising areas of opportunity or concern.) As interviews with scores of leading business researchers, academics, and senior leaders at market-leading enterprises such as Merck, FedEx, and EMC for my recent book Make Change Work for You (Perigee Books) reveal, laying the groundwork for successful (and sustainable) innovation starts by changing organizational culture. As the case of the Netherlands’ NieuweBibliotheek, which installed a café, co-working center, gaming area, and event space in its facility, and went from struggling to surviving to breaking attendance records in less than two months reminds us—evolutions (slight shifts in strategy or positioning) can often be every bit as powerful as revolutions (breakthrough new technologies or approaches) when it comes to overcoming any challenge.

Habits that help

Following, you’ll find several new habits to embrace that leading innovators say can help you better future-proof your organization, stay ahead of the curve, and keep in tune with changing times on a running basis…all of which libraries of any size or scale have the power to successfully embrace and implement.
  • Create a culture of trust and empowerment where staff feels comfortable speaking up and taking action. Today’s most successful organizations encourage employees to proactively experiment with new strategies and solutions and disrupt the organization and its operating models before competitors or outside factors do—and encourage working professionals to speak up and bring potential opportunities or concerns to management’s attention. As noted above, librarians and other frontline workers are often those in the organization with the greatest insight into what’s happening in the field, and how readers’ and consumers’ habits are changing. To successfully adapt and innovate on an ongoing basis, give your staff members the platforms and tools that they need to bring key insights to your attention, then consistently take action and respond in a positive way to the feedback provided.
  • Systemize where possible, but don’t let that stop you from constantly experimenting and doing things differently. Market leaders constantly rethink problems, perspectives, and the way in which they do business. More to the point, they also expect their people to constantly reconsider whether “the way things have always been done” is still the best way to do so—especially in light of ever-changing market and audience trends.
  • Promote teamwork, collaboration, and the free sharing of ideas and resources throughout the organization. To function at peak performance, it’s vital to allow insights, ideas, and information to flow freely throughout every department. The more you can train your staff’s sights on a common goal, and more effectively you can combine talent and resources toward achieving this goal, the faster and more successfully you can achieve your objective and more readily you can adapt and bring new innovations to bear. Market-leading innovators consistently work to break down the walls that silo information, money, manpower, resources, teams, and internal change agents, and free staffers and departments at every level to work together to make positive change happen.
  • Look several steps ahead—then plan for the future. Top innovators don’t just try to keep up with rivals.They’re constantly predicting where the future is headed and deploying strategies and solutions designed to cut it off at the pass before it arrives. The goal: To have the people, solutions, tools and capabilities in place today that tomorrow’s audiences will demand. Consider the activities that your organization is engaging in: How many are designed to upkeep current systems or sustain key performance indicators vs. plan for tomorrow, expand your capabilities, and promote long-term evolution and growth? Once you’ve done so, readjust, realign, and redistribute your portfolio of time, money, manpower, and effort accordingly to address any outstanding issues.
  • Embrace change, and be open-minded, flexible, and creative about how you respond to it. Encourage colleagues to take intelligent, affordable, cost-productive risks and experiment with new processes, procedures, and initiatives that have the potential to pay off for the organization. Then systematically capture the feedback and insights gained from these efforts and apply them to future efforts to be more informed, more effective, and more consistently successful.
  • Play a portfolio of strategic bets. Recognizing that change is inevitable in the face of growing unpredictability and uncertainty, leading organizations try to be risk-averse, not risk-free. In the same way that you’d manage a financial portfolio, they’re constantly making business wagers by experimenting with a mix of new strategic initiatives. Some of these ventures may succeed, others fail, but in the aggregate, all can help the organization learn, grow, and stay ahead of the curve. For market leaders, failure is simply viewed as a stepping stone to success, and a learning opportunity—and, as with many learning opportunities, you have the ability to control the cost and extent of your education.
  • Plan for bad times in good. Certainly, it’s important to have contingency plans in place—the best time to stock a fire extinguisher is before the house starts burning down. But rather than dwell on what can go wrong, also consider what might go right if you tried something new: Market leaders are constantly deploying new solutions, looking for ways to innovate (even if simply by repositioning or repackaging the services or solutions they provide to better serve new audiences/markets), and seeking opportunities to reinvest in themselves. By constantly experimenting with new ideas and innovations, and growing their capabilities and comfort zones, they provide themselves the additional flexibility that they need to successfully adapt, even in the face of unexpected events or developments.With a little planning and forethought, there’s nothing stopping your organization from doing the same.
Award-winning professional speaker Scott Steinberg is a bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, a provider of keynote speeches, workshops, and seminars for Fortune 500 firms, and the author of Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty. His website is www.AKeynoteSpeaker.com.

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