Is your org changing? Two book recommendations (and some new directions at Virginia Tech)

August 7, 2014, 2:14 pm

This summer my library went through a strategic realignment. We had the convergence of numerous retirements and other departures that presented us with an opportunity to look across the entire organization and consider some adjustments.

The driving factor behind this effort was to better align the library with the University’s strategic directions. New priorities are emerging across campus and we needed to position ourselves to participate and partner more fully. And yes, I’m aware that’s admin-speak.

One theme we focused on was research. Previously we had two areas that shared this same word:

Research and Instruction Services
Research and Informatics

We decided to define our concept of research around activities such as data curation, scholarly communication, publishing services, repositories, and technology development. This is very different from the traditional library definition of research based around reference and instruction activities. Julie Speer shapes our research program.

New Role
My new role has a more central focus. It can actually be boiled down to just one word: learning


We assembled the Learning Division from components of four other departments. The intention is to offer a more streamlined experience for our users and more cohesive interactions between our employees.

While there is a ton of material published on organizational change, there are two books that greatly influenced my thinking during this process:

The Lego story is amazing. The gist: the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. While they had tried many innovative pursuits, they ended up moving too far away from the core.  (Jim Collins stuff) The company knew it had problems but they didn’t have the appropriate metrics, workflows, or accountability in place to fully understand and address their situation.

High level: they lost strategic focus by trying to be everything to everyone. This was evident through action figure products like Galidor. Or through the fact that the number of unique brick elements they manufactured annually rose from 6,000 pieces in 1997 to 14,200 pieces by 2004. This put incredible stress on production and plundered the bottom line. Many of those pieces were one-offs that didn’t add value but instead, cost a lot of time and effort. I think this is transferable to libraries and all organizations. What are those extra things we do that prevent us from addressing core needs? Short version: a small amount adjacency is good, but too much can be disastrous. This can lead to burnout and the feeling of “too-much-on-plate” — so we are taking time to carefully examine our inventory and intentionality

The book outlines the sense of urgency at Lego and how they were able to turn it around. This vision chart impressed me– so I adapted it for our needs.



Right now my division is in the early stages of unification. Like most libraries, we have our hands involved in a lot of things. This is our opportunity to re-discover our core and to consider what our priorities should be. Defining and clarifying our needs, roles, metrics, and expectations are the critical next steps.


The Lego book was especially helpful because it contextualized a lot of organizational change theory. It provided a powerful case study about the danger of undisciplined innovation and offered guidelines for focus and intentionality.

The other book that influenced me was Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging.  Frank Shushok recommended it. It is filled with so many great ideas and passages:

  • The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole. We begin by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community.
  • Each piece is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together does not make a community. Our communities are separated into silos; they are a collection of institutions [departments] and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because it is this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future— especially in a culture that is much more interested in individuality and independence than in interdependence. The work is to overcome this fragmentation.
  • Community is built by focusing on people’s gifts rather than their deficiencies.
  • The shift in conversation is from one of problems, fear, and retribution to one of possibility, generosity, and restoration.
  • People best create that which they own, and co-creation is the bedrock of accountability.
  • Rebellion is most often not a call for transformation or a new context, but simply a complaint that others are in control and not us. There is safety in building an identity on what we do not want. The extremists on both sides of any issue are more wedded to their positions than to creating a new possibility. That is why they make unfulfillable demands. The problem with rebellion is that it is such fun. It avoids taking responsibility, operates on the high ground, is fueled by righteousness, gives legitimacy to blame, and is a delightful escape from the unbearable burden of being accountable.

The key concept for me was fragmentation. We have this vast physical and virtual landscape with units moving in different directions aimed at different goals. Unity is pivotal. Rather than a division or department, we are actually seeking to build a community. I know that is cliché, but we are aspiring to embed learning theory and learning constructs into everything we do, while wrapping a learning community identity around the team.

These are our two big assumptions: (thanks to Lauren & Rebecca)

1. There is a shift in the educational community away from instruction toward learning and learning outcomes.
2. Everyone who uses the library is trying to learn something.

We are also building an unofficial motto of “start with the learner” to drive our perception-building and decision-making. The words, images, services, furniture — everything that we do is being re-focused around learning outcomes. We still have a long way to go but we’ve started down the path.

In my chart I outlined “build transparency” which is another cliché. My intention is twofold:

  1. Share our division’s budget openly so that everyone can see the  amount we have to work with and how it is allocated.
  2. Share everyone’s position descriptions and priorities so we can clearly understand roles and expectations, as well as form a basis for accountability.

There will other elements that we will work on next, like decision-making. Right now the initial focus is on clarifying intentionality, determining impact, and building formal and informal communication channels. Basically: what does success look like and how do we know if we are close?

10% Time
This isn’t quite like Google’s 20% time, but it is in that vein. For the employees in our environments group we added this piece to their position descriptions:

10%    Contribute to and assist with the development of the Libraries’ Learning Environments program. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Collaborating within the division, libraries, and university on learning related activities.
  • Proactively identifying improvements the libraries can make and proposing solutions.
  • Seeking out new ideas related to learning, hospitality, and customer service for the libraries to consider.
  • Utilizing ethnographic approaches to learn about the libraries’ users.

Lauren (who leads this unit) is big into lean principles. We both feel that transformation is everyone’s job. So we made that everyone’s responsibility — find ways to help us improve what we do. This is something we’ll be developing over the fall semester. And of course I will be infusing it with some lean startup practices.

I have much more to share, but we are still in the very early days. We have a lot of work ahead and a whole lot more to learn. I’m sure there will be some pivots. But just FYI. If you find yourself contemplating a reorg, organizational change, or the need for strategic alignment, Brick by Brick and Community are highly recommended. They might seem like an odd pairing but together they beautifully blend organizational intentionality with mindfulness and empathy.

I’m grateful to have Lauren Pressley and Rebecca Miller on this journey with me. They embrace a lot of my crazy ideas with a sense of radical optimism. They also surprise and challenge me. I appreciate my Dean for trusting me with this new direction and for his strategic disruptions.

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