Becoming a Change-Ready Academic Library Leader | Leading from the Library

If the prospect of going through another change management exercise leaves you groaning and wishing for a better way to adapt to change, you may be ready for change readiness.

Steven Bell head shotIf the prospect of going through another change management exercise leaves you groaning and wishing for a better way to adapt to change, you may be ready for change readiness.

In a prior leadership column I suggested that library leaders could improve their organization’s ability to adapt to change by adopting a change readiness mindset. Those leaders would then seek to shift their change culture to one of change readiness. Based on my observations of conference programming, listserv discussions, and twitter exchanges, our change culture remains solidly in the management camp. That’s hardly surprising because most of what we think, say, and do when it comes to change focuses on how to manage it. Wherever you lead from in a library, it’s likely you wanted to create change and concluded that your colleagues resisted it. It’s equally likely that your colleagues wanted to create change and observed your resistance. After questioning the need for change but ultimately accepting its inevitability, both leaders and followers engage in a change management process, with all of its inherent challenges. Perhaps leaders can do better.



Whether it was the Symposium on the Future of Libraries at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting or the Association of College & Research Libraries Conference, I discovered a consistent takeaway. As a profession facing considerable change, we tend to express a good deal of angst about it. That’s an observation, not a critique. Change is scary. We’ve all experienced some change management process that went poorly, leaving us more wary and worried that another change process will go equally badly. I understand why the status quo is attractive. Unfortunately, in our current volatile world, maintaining the status quo is often impossible and undesirable. Those Gen-Z community members want mobile apps. Decreasing demand for traditional library services in favor of new community-responsive ones—think social services—can require changes to organizational structure. Given the rapid and ongoing pace of change, especially demographic, technological, and social change, is there a better way to make our libraries change adaptable?



What I propose is a change. Instead of looking at every change we encounter in our libraries as a static event requiring its own management process, what if we approached it with an entirely different perspective? Consider the growth mindset, which is a change from the fixed mindset. The goal is to change the way learners approach new subject matter. Instead of telling themselves they are incapable of learning (e.g., “Some people are good at learning languages and I’m not one of them”), students are coached on developing the growth mindset, in which they completely change their thought process for learning new material. Similarly, instead of a change management mindset, why not a change ready mindset? To change the culture to change readiness, library leaders would take the lead in adopting the change readiness mindset. Here’s what that would look like.



Discussions about change management models dominate the literature about how to go about creating change in organizations. Change readiness literature? Not so much. That’s hardly because it’s a relatively new subject. Musslewhite and Plouffe shared ideas for shifting to a change ready culture back in 2010. This lack of change readiness literature more likely reflects the difficulty in shifting the organizational mindset. I look for change readiness ideas wherever I can find them. For example, in her TED Talk on how to become more adaptable and measure it in organizations, Natalie Fratto recommends three strategies that would support the development of a change readiness mindset. Change readiness requires high levels of adaptability.

  • First, ask “what if” questions. This gets us thinking more routinely about future possibilities rather than how the past has to shift to accommodate some new development. What if a giant publishing company acquires a smaller company whose services we depend on? What if we can utilize artificial intelligence to help library users make better resource choices? Thinking about multiple scenarios for the future enables us to be better prepared for the possibilities rather than being blindsided by them.
  • Second, be an unlearner. Leaders are more apt make poor decisions if they fail to question their assumptions, allowing their cognitive biases to convince themselves that they are always right. That mindset is less likely to adapt to the constant change that makes our current practices questionable or outright irrelevant. Unlearners are willing to override what they know with new information and ideas. They’re not changing for change’s sake but because they are constantly in a mindset to learn again and try something new.
  • Third, explore new mysteries. Roger Martin, in his book on design thinking, uses the Knowledge Funnel to explain the importance of avoiding acquiescence to accepted algorithms. When we do things in formulaic ways, failing to question the status quo, we are subject to irrelevance. It’s easy to become comfortable with things as they are. Leaders need to keep exploring new mysteries, challenging themselves to question how to do things better by questioning if the algorithms still serve us well. Adaptable leaders’ change ready mindset pushes them to search for the new mysteries to explore.



To recommend a change readiness mindset is not to suggest that change management is without value and therefore obsolete. There is still a place in the leader’s toolkit for change management strategy. Whether its Kotter’s 8-Step Model, the Heath Brothers’ Switch Model, or your own preferred model, readiness and change management need not be mutually exclusive. Where change readiness differs is that developing a new mindset

takes time, as does organizational culture change. Unlike change management, it’s not as straightforward as following a set of predetermined steps. Change ready leaders think like futurists, looking for trends and patterns which signal that change is coming or already happening. They perceive change as a constant flow in a volatile and ambiguous landscape, not a single static event to manage just prior to or immediately after a change event. In the article “Managing Change: A Mindset of Continuous Evolution,” Camille Nicita writes:

Some leaders view change as having a start and an end point. They hope that they will reach a "we did it" moment. But in reality, one of the only things leaders can count on is change, and the goal is to get the organization comfortable with it. To do this, you should create an environment that’s flexible and constantly evolving.

Not unlike a student moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, achieving the change readiness mindset will take time. As with becoming a leader, viewing it as a process of evolution, experimentation, and learning from missteps will facilitate the transition to change readiness.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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